Direct Russian intervention in the Syrian war on 30 September 2015 marked Russia’s “first large-scale military operation” far beyond its borders following its operation in Crimea in 2014 and since the fall of the Soviet Union. The intervention came as a shock to observers, analysts and politicians who believed that Russia and the United States, despite their profound differences, would continue pursuing a consensus between them on the political settlement of the Syrian issue. Besides military contracts and political support, Russia provided only minimal aid to the Syrian regime in the period preceding the direct intervention. Moreover, until its direct intervention, Russia had several political options at its disposal, such as working with the United States bilaterally or within the framework of the United Nations Security Council to broker a peaceful settlement between the regime and opposition.
Why did Russia shift its scope from lending political and diplomatic support to the Syrian regime, opposing Western sanctions, and exerting pressure on Damascus to accept political settlement projects, to directly intervening to save the regime? What does the timing of the intervention no earlier than September 2015 tell us? What motives and factors lie behind the decision to intervene? Is there one independent variable that can explain the intervention?
Most studies have elaborated on specific interests that led Russia to intervene: the geopolitical importance of Russia’s return to the Middle East via the Syrian gateway, the strategic importance for the Russian Navy, i.e. the Tartus Naval Base, and Russian commercial and military trade, as well as energy, interests. While some analysts have made reference to Russia’s historical nostalgia, manifested in its desire to return to warm seas, few have devoted space to the direct security concerns, which have mostly received no more than a casual mention. Nor do they pay due attention to the role of Vladimir Putin’s philosophical and instrumental beliefs, particularly his
security operational code. However, this paper argues that the abovementioned interests do not fully explain the intervention and were merely influential rather than causal factors.
The paper argues that it is rather Russia's direct national security concerns, specifically the priority of Putin’s internal security concerns over any other, that explain the intervention and, thus, represent the independent explanatory variable. Russia's acquisition or promotion of other interests has actually been the result of the intervention – that is, a consequence of the dependent variable; meaning these interests may in fact be the results, rather than the underlying causes of the intervention.