Russia’s ability to leverage its intervention in Syria into any sort of ongoing advantage on the world stage may be starting to wane with the current cease-fire deal still in shambles.
Cracks in Moscow’s strategy, some U.S. officials suggested, began showing Wednesday during a high-level meeting of the United Nations Security Council, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blasted Russia for repeatedly changing its explanation about an attack on an aid convoy that killed 20 people.
“This is not a joke,” Kerry said at the U.N. meeting, calling for “the acceptance of responsibility.”
Russian officials, who previously suggested the aid convoy spontaneously combusted, said later the convoy may have been targeted by a U.S. Predator drone, a charge the Pentagon strongly denied.
U.S. officials said watching how Moscow “struggled with the truth” only underscored the deeper problems facing Russia’s Syrian strategy.
“They are in a situation where they are backing a regime that has no prospect of military success,” a U.S. official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.
The official added that even Russia’s announcement that it was sending its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Syrian coast seemed to be aimed at wringing out whatever gain, financial or otherwise, that can still be had from the conflict.
“They are using Syria, literally, as a showroom,” the official said.
Others described the Kuznetsov announcement as nothing more than symbolic.
“It plays nicely to their image as a force projection power,” said Stratfor Senior Military Analyst Omar Lamrani. “It adds a little bit of firepower, but technically it’s not something they couldn’t have done without sending an aircraft carrier.”
But more importantly, Lamrani said, the move might be another indication of how events on the ground in Syria seem to be “running away” from Russia, forcing it to react to developments when it would rather project an image of strength at the U.N.
“They lose more than they gain,” he said. “It is just proving much more difficult to leave the conflict [in Syria] than to enter it."
There are also some in the U.S. intelligence community who are convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out of Syria, not wanting to squander his gains, both for the Syrian regime and for Russia on the world stage.
“Putin clearly, in my view, seeks to make sure the world understands there’s very little you can do nowadays without that Russian role," said CIA Deputy Assistant Director Peter Clement.
“The intervention in Syria is exactly about that,” Clement told an audience in Washington Tuesday during a conference on intelligence. “He forced the U.S. to come to the table and acknowledge him essentially as kind of not just an actor but an equal.”
But a messy ending in Syria without a cease-fire could jeopardize that and more.
Specifically, it could cripple Russia’s ability to leverage Syria to its advantage one last time and ease or even end hard-hitting economic sanctions stemming from its intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
“How do you get the Europeans off the sanctions train? One possible way, you intervene in Syria. You find some way to end that war,” Clement said. “Then you take credit for helping to stem the tide of all those migrants going into Europe and then you tell the Europeans, ‘look what we’ve done for you.’”