Why does Russia have such a close relationship with the Assad regime? The answer lies in its geopolitics. Russia is severely limited in its abilities to trade with Europe year-round, as its ports in Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg freeze over in the winter and do not allow for easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia therefore has an economic incentive to look for places in which to establish warmer ports, in the Black Sea or directly on the Mediterranean coastline.
Russia is one of Europe’s largest trading partners, with the Netherlands alone making up 11.9 percent of its imports. In addition to trade, Russia wants to establish a port in the Black Sea to project its influence over the region. The history of these efforts is centuries-old. From the late 17th century to the late 19th century, Russia fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire as it attempted to establish a warm-water port in Ottoman-controlled territory. When the Soviet Union broke up in the late 20th century, Russia negotiated an agreement with Ukraine in order to allow its Black Sea fleet to remain in Crimea. However, the agreement prohibited Russia from adding ships to the aging fleet. Russia bypassed the agreement altogether by annexing Crimea, unilaterally terminating the agreement. Still, while Russia now has full control over its base in the Black Sea, it cannot guarantee complete access to the Mediterranean. The only points of access to the Mediterranean are through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus straits, both of which are controlled by Turkey, a NATO member, hence Russia has incentive to establish a base directly on the Mediterranean.
In order to easily conduct trade with Europe and project its influence in the Middle East, Russia’s ultimate goal was and has been to gain unrestricted access to the Mediterranean. In 1971, with the blessings of the Assad dynasty, Russia (then the Soviet Union) established a naval base in Tartus, Syria. The base has been used as a logistics hub for Russia’s air campaign in Syria. Russia’s intervention in support of Assad exacerbated the pre-existing war between Assad and the rebels, providing few opportunities for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
However, there may be hope for a truce through Russia’s relationship with Assad. Before the Russian Air Force intervened in support of the Syrian government, Assad had been losing ground to the rebels, but since has steadily regained its lost territory. Russia therefore has leverage if an agreement were to be made. NATO allies have incentive to work more closely with the Putin administration, as Russia can pressure the Assad regime to join the negotiation table, as it did in February 2014 with the Geneva II conference on Peace in Syria. But Assad is unpredictable, and only time will tell if Russia really has the power to determine the fate of the Assad regime.