Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria, and then his call at the United Nations for a global “anti-Hitler coalition” to fight ISIS there, can certainly look, from the American perspective, like a power grab. Putin’s boldness seems like a sign that President Obama’s passivity has allowed the Russian leader to run roughshod over US interests in the Middle East — particularly to hawks already frustrated that the US has refused to do more in Syria.
But don’t be taken in by Putin’s carefully cultivated image of strength and decisiveness. His intervention in Syria is most likely driven not by boldness but by reactiveness and, most of all, by fear. Fear of anarchy, fear of populist uprisings, fear of Western meddling, fear of any weakening of strong government rule, and fear that he himself could succumb to these forces.
(Putin’s Syria strategy is also unlikely to be very effective: Propping up Assad and partnering with Shia Hezbollah and Iran seems likely to worsen the sectarianism and anti-Assad sentiment that is driving much of the war. And Russian airstrikes aren’t likely to rally Syrians around Assad.)
To understand how Putin sees Syria, and why he’s getting himself into this mess, you have to understand how he looks at Libya, the lessons he drew from its collapse, how it led him to misunderstand the West — and why both Libya and Syria are the sum of many of his worst foreign policy fears.