On Sept. 30, the autumn session of Russia’s upper house of parliament was set to open with a grim docket. Next year’s budget had to be slashed and investments frozen if the Russian economy was to survive a sharp drop in global oil prices and the corrosive effect of Western sanctions. No doubt it would have been a dreary day if President Vladimir Putin had not sent his chief of staff to put a new item on the agenda. Closing the hall to reporters, Sergei Ivanov asked the lawmakers to allow Russian warplanes to start bombing Syria. They obliged with a quick and unanimous vote in favor, and air strikes began a few hours later. No one had much interest in discussing the economy after that.
For world leaders once again tasked with trying to decode a Putin swerve–this time plunging into a bloody and intractable civil war in the Middle East–there were a few theories. He needed to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, his faltering ally in Damascus, and protect Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast, its only connection to the Mediterranean. But the Kremlinology in Western capitals underplayed the less obvious domestic pressures that shaped Putin’s decision to embark on Russia’s most complex military intervention since the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan more than 35 years ago. Rather than just acting as a global spoiler by unleashing his military in Syria, Putin was trying to end Russia’s economically crippling isolation from the West.
This is how the Kremlin sees it: In Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group known as ISIS has conquered vast tracts of territory since 2013. Millions of refugees have fled the carnage, and their mass migration into Europe this summer has forced desperate Western leaders to search for a way to end the conflict at the source of the Syrian exodus. Putin saw an opportunity in offering one. During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28–the first time he’d appeared at the annual meeting in a decade–he proposed the creation of an international coalition that would help the forces of the Syrian regime defeat ISIS. “Then, dear friends, there would be no need for setting up more refugee camps,” Putin said.
Later that day, he made his pitch in person to a skeptical President Barack Obama. It was their first formal meeting since Russia had angered the West by annexing the region of Crimea from Ukraine in the spring of last year, and it ended with no sign of the grand coalition Putin hoped for on Syria. Obama continued to insist that Assad must relinquish power before any solution to the Syrian conflict could be found. Putin’s initial gambit had failed.
“That was our Plan A,” says Leonid Kalashnikov, first deputy chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma. Putin has said that his aim was to create a broad alliance against ISIS, one that would combine Russian and American airpower with the ground forces of the Syrian army. The deeper calculation was simple: The U.S. could hardly keep up its sanctions against Russia if the two were part of a military alliance, says Kalashnikov. But with Obama’s refusing to bend on Assad’s role in Syria, “Plan A has fallen apart,” he tells TIME.
That left a risky Plan B. With the West uncooperative, Putin’s air force began bombing the patchwork of rebel forces directly opposed to the Syrian regime–including those that have the support of the U.S. and its allies. Saving Assad was a key objective for Moscow, but Russian officials insist they had a bigger aim in mind. “We are not so concerned with this citizen by the name of Assad,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in Russia’s upper house. He says one of the key aims of the campaign in Syria is to convince the West that it cannot defeat ISIS without Russia’s help. “Unfortunately, these sanctions that the West introduced against Russia are getting in the way,” says Klimov. “As long as they don’t back away from this, [the West] will have a very hard time pacifying the storm of international terrorism.”
So far, Russia has seemed content to let the storm gain force. While its bombs rained down on the more moderate rebel groups in early October, ISIS made some of its most dramatic gains in months, pushing deeper into the suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. In the short term, Russia’s objective is to weaken or destroy the rebel groups opposed to Assad, reducing the conflict on the ground into a duel between the Syrian army and ISIS, says Michael McFaul, the Obama Administration’s former ambassador in Moscow. “If that goal is accomplished,” he says, “then the Russians will have made Assad the lesser of two evils, who all other countries should support. The U.S. and its coalition partners have no interest in seeing that outcome occur.”
But this appears to be Putin’s endgame–leaving the West with no potential allies against ISIS other than Russia and Assad. Which helps explain why, even as it bombed U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, Russia continued to ask for the West’s cooperation with an almost nagging insistence. During a meeting with his Defense Minister on Oct. 7, Putin instructed the armed forces to pursue all lines of contact with the U.S. and its allies in Syria. “Because without their participation,” he said, “it is of course doubtful that we will be able to properly organize this work.”
The statement, which was published on the Kremlin website, lacked the craftiness that has been so widely ascribed to Putin in recent weeks. But it seemed typical of the Russian President’s approach to foreign policy. For as much as he is seen by some in the West as a master strategist, Putin is prone to impulsive opportunism, grabbing at chances to project strength as a means of masking failure. “Our system does not plan,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a top adviser to the Kremlin from 2000 to 2011. “It stands atop a wave, and it begins to improvise. If the wave is lucky, our system catches it and surfs it for a while.”
The latest wave took the form of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe this summer. But Putin’s surfing was also evident last year in Russia’s move against Ukraine. The decision to occupy and annex Crimea, for instance, was not part of some grand design, Pavlovsky says. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the popular uprising in Kiev that winter, which had cost Moscow its most important ally in the former Soviet Union. “No one could have planned that,” Pavlovsky says.
If it was an almost emotional lashing out at Ukraine and its Western allies, Putin’s deployment of troops in Crimea last spring seemed diabolically clever. It sent his approval ratings to new highs of over 80% as the nation relished its first taste of imperial expansion in more than half a century. But the patriotic fever eventually broke as economic hardship set in, draining the federal budget. By late summer, it was clear that Putin had ridden the wave of the Ukrainian crisis as far as he could. His approval ratings started to dip in September as the economic recession–intensified by low oil prices–showed no sign of easing.
So Putin began to pursue an exit strategy in Ukraine. In September, Moscow gave the separatist militias it was supporting in that conflict strict orders to hold their fire, and on Sept. 30–the same day Russia began bombing Syria–Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine announced that they were withdrawing their weapons. Moscow was shifting focus and cutting its losses.
But Putin–who depends above all else on projecting an image of strength–needed to ensure that his retreat did not appear to be the result of Western sanctions. To save face, he had to approach the West as an equal partner rather than as a supplicant. Syria gave him that chance. His alliance with the Assad regime offered the West what it lacked in its war against ISIS: a professional army that could handle missions on the ground, complementing the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State. In an interview televised the day before the Russian bombing campaign began, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that by working with Moscow and its Syrian allies, the U.S. could “make sure that whatever air strikes they contemplate against terrorist targets on the ground could be coordinated with the efforts of the ground forces” that are backing Assad.
Many experts in the U.S. and Europe believe that the West has no choice but to team up with Russia if it wishes to end the war in Syria. But such an alliance was always a nonstarter for Obama, who has repeatedly criticized Assad’s brutality against his own people and called for the Syrian President’s ouster. So at a briefing on Oct. 7, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said contact with the Russians in Syria would be limited to “technical discussions,” code for avoiding an accidental clash of warplanes in the crowded Syrian skies. Obama has been even more blunt. At a news conference on Oct. 2, the President said Russia’s air force did not seem to distinguish between moderate rebel forces and the extremists of ISIS. “From their perspective, they’re all terrorists,” Obama said. “And that’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s one that I reject.”
Still, Putin pressed on. In remarks aired on state TV on Oct. 12, he said that if the U.S. does not approve of Russian targets in Syria, it should provide a list of different ones. “Give us the targets and we’ll work them over,” Putin said. During a speech in Moscow the following day, he even proposed sending Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to Washington at the head of a delegation to coordinate efforts in Syria.
Further down the diplomatic hierarchy, the Russian tone has seemed even more pleading. “I understand that nuclear superpowers always look at each other through the scope of a rifle,” says Sergei Ordzhonikidze, a Russian diplomat and the former head of the U.N. office in Geneva. “But let’s learn from the past and think about how we can join forces,” he tells TIME. “This will not only advance the fight against terrorism. It would normalize the relations between the U.S. and Russia.”
But far from growing closer, those relations have only worsened as a result of Putin’s latest military gambit. The U.S. and Russia now find themselves entangled in a dangerous proxy war, with Washington providing increased support to moderate rebels in Syria while Moscow aids the dictator they are trying to unseat.
This is a movie no one wanted to watch again. At the height of the Cold War, armed conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, among others, all saw the two superpowers take opposing sides, fueling those wars with the deployment of troops, advisers and military aid. Likewise in Syria, the cycle of escalation creates a “real risk” of Russian and U.S. forces’ clashing, says Konstantin Sivkov, a former strategist for the Russian general staff. “The Americans have to understand that they need us, that we need to cooperate at least on an operational level to avoid such mistakes.”
European leaders have begun to come around to this argument, with some even acting as mediators between Moscow and Washington. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a news conference on Oct. 9 that the “current priority” in Syria is to make the U.S. and Russia work together for a solution. “We will not manage to launch a political process [in Syria] while the two great world powers are in disagreement,” he said.
That leaves Obama with no good options. Over the past two years, he has spent much of his diplomatic capital isolating Moscow from the Western world, and he has no intention of accepting Russia’s terms for a Syrian coalition. But the alternative is no more attractive. Until the U.S. agrees to cooperate, Russia will likely continue to bomb the rebel forces that the U.S. has tried to support. The result will be more chaos and bloodshed in Syria that will further dim the prospects of ending a war that has killed over 200,000 people. But that is a price Putin seems willing to pay for the sake of regaining his seat at the table with Western leaders.
–With reporting by MASSIMO CALABRESI/WASHINGTON
This appears in the October 26, 2015 issue of TIME.