“When is the West going to act?” is the question most frequently asked grudgingly by young and old Ukrainians in Kiev. For almost two years, Ukrainians have borne witness to an aggressive Russia occupying and annexing Crimea, arming separatist rebels in the east, and even attempting to take more Ukrainian territory in so-called Novorossyia. While the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been disappointing thus far, Russia’s new military adventure in Syria and deepening economic recession have opened a new window of opportunity for the United States and her NATO partners to help arm and train Ukrainian forces with sophisticated defensive weapons. It is time to take advantage of Russia’s diversion of political, military, and dwindling economic resources to Syria, and arm the legitimate government of Ukraine while President Vladimir Putin struggles to keep an autocrat and an ally in power in Damascus. For years, Mr. Putin rode high in opinion polls as he ‘restored Russian pride’ and paid for his adventures generously with abundant oil revenues. Those days are long gone. As Stanford’s Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia between 2012-2014, correctly points out, Mr. Putin’s Russia is at a much weaker position today than it was just five years ago. Dropping energy prices has slashed Russia’s revenues significantly from sales of crude oil and gas. Russia is now entering its second recession in the past six years and the country’s economy has shrunk by a whopping 800 billion dollars in just one year. To make matters worse for Russia’s ailing economy, the United States and the European Union have imposed crippling economic sanctions in response to Mr. Putin’s land grab in Crimea and for violating Ukrainian territorial integrity in the east. Mr. Putin’s budgetary constrains have resulted in significant cuts in social spending and economic development. It was no surprise to see a much lower increase in Russia’s military budget this year despite a much anticipated twenty percent spending hike promised earlier by the Kremlin. Add to that Russia’s decision this fall to intervene in Syria—a move not planned or budgeted for in the 2015 defense appropriations bill sent to the Russian Duma. Russia’s costly, and gradually expanding air campaign in Syria will only further drain the Russian economy as it is clear that Mr. Assad has neither the intention nor the ability to pay his Russian allies for services rendered. While Mr. Putin currently enjoys high approval ratings at home, the worsening economic situation, coupled with Russia’s increasing isolation by the international community, will alienate much of his support base who will begin to question Russia’s increasing and costly involvement in Syria, Ukraine, the Arctic, and now the Kuril Islands off the coast of Japan while their pensions can barely cover the basic necessities as the rubble loses more of its value each day. Critics point out that arming the Ukrainian military would only embolden Mr. Putin as he would justify his more aggressive military operations in Ukraine. Mr. Putin, critics say, would argue that he is defending vital Russian interests against direct Western (read American) military intervention. Such critics may be correct as Mr. Putin’s behavior has proven his tendency to further escalate tensions by resorting to brute military force and without paying much attention to how that would burden the Russian economy and military. But they seem to ignore the fact that Mr. Putin has already escalated tensions by sending over 12,000 soldiers and advisers to eastern Ukraine. His only other option will be an all out war. One that Mr. Putin is neither interested in nor could afford. Burdened with a new, costly, and open-ended military engagement in Syria, cooler heads may prevail in the Kremlin to prevent an all out war in Ukraine. Mr. Putin is aware that separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine do not make for reliable allies as they have defied him in the past. He is also aware that his less than modern military lacks the capacity to engage in multiple military conflicts—not to mention the ailing Russian economy’s inability to sustain such adventures. Russia sees no clear exit strategy in Syria and that will be the single most effective barrier to further Russian aggression in Ukraine. Mr. Assad’s forces may be able to retake some lost territory from the rebels, but will fail to re-establish his complete rule over Syria. Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces will not resolve Mr. Assad’s manpower problems either. To secure its objective and to keep Mr. Assad in power in Damascus, Russia has to remain in Syria, and perhaps commit more manpower and strategic assets to prop up Mr. Assad. And despite the current popularity of Russian intervention in Syria, the public opinion is bound to shift in the opposite direction once young Russian servicemen return home in flag wrapped body bags; an inescapable outcome of open ended military commitments of such sort. This opinion piece was written by Arash Aramesh, a National Security Analyst who just returned from Ukraine and Moldova. He has previously published in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Asharq al-Awsat, The Huffington Post, The Majalla, Stanford Lawyer Magazine, and The Diplomatic Courier, among others. He appears frequently on BBC World Service, BBC Persian, various BBC radio services, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America, and Sky News. He can be found on Twitter at @ArameshArash
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.