Pavel K Baev
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
There is more to this neat and well-researched book than what the title promises, but there is also less. The author insists that misunderstanding of the significance and impact of Russian military intervention in Syria prevalent in many US policy analyses amounts to a failure of imagination. In order to correct it, she embarks on a sweeping examination of Russian policies in the Middle East, starting from the tsarist exploits, and seeks to show how the Second Chechen War paved the way for Russia’s forceful return to this trouble-rich region. The context of the Syrian case is further expanded by appraisals of Russia’s relations with key regional actors – Iran, Israel and Turkey. This broadening of the focus perhaps adds value, and the analysis of domestic responses to the open-ended but low-cost overseas engagement certainly does, but the investigations of various parameters of the complex interplay of overlapping crises inevitably become abbreviated and even superficial. What aggravates the issue of forking paths of the analysis is the author’s strong assertion that the opportunity for Russia to project power into Syria was created by the US’ insufficient attention to and disengagement from the Middle East – but the intricacies of US policy-making are entirely outside the scope of this research. The proposition that ‘the Middle East is a critical arena of great-power competition with both Russia and China, not a distraction from it’ (p. 175) is left unsubstantiated. In the light of escalation of Russia-NATO conflict centred on Ukraine, this seemingly solid argument becomes rather dubious, as is the expectation – unmistakably inspiring this book – for a coherent and pro-active US strategy for the Middle East.