The Russian actions in Syria took place in a period of the transformation of the international system. It is a period of post-unipolarism in which the U.S. no longer sufficient power to shape the politics and economy of the entire world. And even when it has the level of power to make the change, the only global superpower of the world does not have willingness to do so. In the absence of any direct challenger to its hegemony in global politics we have started to see the rise of more geographically delimited challengers to its dominance. For instance, China started to challenge the regional system that was present in the South China Sea by constructing air bases on disputed islands there and it began to turn some of the islands in the East China Sea recognized as belonging to Japan into a new disputed territory. In both instances the Chinese government has not shied away from displaying its strengthening military as an option by increasing the visibility of its navy and air force.
Another challenger to the international system is Russia. It tries to express its dissatisfaction of the state of world politics through words and actions in every possible circumstance. President Vladimir Putin's criticism of the "unipolar world" became a common feature of his speeches and assessments of political developments in the world. In part, because of this, he called the collapse of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the world. What makes Putin's challenge more ominous to the existing system is its challenge through actions. In different circumstances in a few years' time Putin used Russia's military power to challenge international norms and the change the calculations of other major powers about geopolitical crises. Russia intervened militarily in a state first in Georgia in 2008 in the crisis in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in part in reaction to the debates about Georgia's membership in NATO. Later in 2014 Russia intervened militarily in the debates about the possibility of Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union by annexing Crimea.
In both instances of Russia and China, what made the challenge possible was not only the declining power of the United States in the evolving international system. What was more important was the challenge in both instances was taking place against the U.S.'s unwillingness to involve itself in conflicts due to war and involvement fatigue that emerged after the Iraq war. As U.S. administrations start to consider non-involvement as the least risky and least costly possible course of action in different instances of regional and geopolitical crises the real challenge began to come from this venue. Despite their earlier opposition to the military interventions around the world, both Russia and China demonstrated signs of change on these positions. Especially for Russia, which was fiercely against military intervention in Kosovo, these forms of military intervention became the way to challenge increasingly risk-averse U.S. administrations. Putin each time tested the waters through rhetorical and political actions, and when he realized that the risk-averse international system even not willing to use deterrence as a possible course of actions, he adopted different levels to compel during regional crises. Yes, just like in the Ukrainian crises, the collective action of Western powers, economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, hurt the Russian economy and politics to a great extent, but at the end of the day for Putin, all of these damaging actions could not change the advantage that Russia received by taking the risk of military intervention.
In fact, for challengers of the international system, the real chess game is in terms of risk management. Considering the increasing risk averseness of the international system and Western powers, which is producing different degrees of non-involvement, the challengers are trying to demonstrate that they can get a significant advantage in regional and geopolitical crises when they take risks and engage in actions. The no boots on the ground approach of major powers are challenged by taking risk and putting some military assertiveness and boots on the ground in crises areas. As they see no change in the risk averseness of the international system, the risk-takers may continue to increase their degree of challenges in the coming years. Maybe Russian involvement in Syria should be read through this new form of challenge.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.