A Bloomberg article from Monday commendably recognizes that Russia’s goals in Syria are “far broader” than the official goal of fighting Salafi terrorists. The authors fall short of “getting” what the Russian involvement there is about, but they’re on the right track.
The problem is that they, like almost everyone else, are still framing the situation in the terms of a U.S.-style expeditionary intervention. This leads the authors to say something like this:
President Vladimir Putin is willing to run the risk of falling into the kind of quagmire that helped sink the Soviet Union a generation ago for the chance to roll back U.S. influence and demonstrate he can dictate terms to Washington. If the strategy is successful, Russia’s largest military drive in decades outside the former Soviet Union would force the U.S. and its allies to choose between Assad, whom they oppose for his human-rights abuses, and the brutal extremists of Islamic State.
No. For one thing, Russia would never put so much on the line to force the U.S. coalition to choose between Assad and ISIS. There is no history, anywhere, of anyone deploying military force for such a fanciful goal. Russia is too careful and watchful an expeditionary power to take a risky, expensive flyer on that kind of vague proposition, for which there are few if any measures of success.
But to get to the main point: the short version of why Russia can’t fall into a quagmire in Syria, at all, is that Russia never wants to leave Syria.