The destruction of a Russian Airbus A321 over Egypt creates acute problems for both state leaders.
The early weeks of Russia's air-campaign in Syria have proved as popular at home as much as they have caused consternation in Washington and western European capitals. On the ground, Moscow's direct military involvement has also helped the Syrian army’s current specific task of protecting the north-western districts supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime from Islamist intervention.
The air-assaults have been very modest compared with the many thousands of United States and coalition airstrikes. Moreover, the use of sea-launched cruise-missiles from warships in the Caspian sea is not new: the US started firing similar missiles in the early days of the first Iraq war in 1991, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
But Russia's military endeavours, if fairly low-level, have also been designed for maximum symbolic effect. Within the region they have established Russia as being essential in any Syrian settlement, and in the wider world they have reinforced the message that Russia is aspiring to regain superpower status. All this even though Moscow's rebuilding of its conventional forces is still in its early stages, and the current economic downturn is exacerbated by low energy prices and the effects of sanctions.
Where Vladimir Putin has succeeded, at least until now, is in discomforting western leaders by carefully calibrated initiatives. An interesting example is the decision to deploy one of its biggest strategic-missile submarines, the Typhoon-class Dmitry Donskoy, to the eastern Mediterranean, even though its usual patrol area would be in the north Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean (see Alexey Malashenko, “Putin’s Syrian Bet”, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2015).
The Typhoon-class is the world’s largest submarine, carrying twenty multi-warhead long-range Bulava nuclear missiles –inappropriate for supporting ground operations off the coast of Syria, but utterly appropriate for providing a demonstration of Russian military prowess.
The Syrian initiative is thus primarily about asserting Russian power. It is important then that in the days since the airliner crashed, the Kremlin has shown reluctance even to hint it might be a paramilitary attack. Nothing should suggest any connection between the loss of 224 lives and the Russian expedition in Syria.
A similar predicament affects Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In the past two years his regime has cracked down, often viciously, on Islamist groups both extreme and mainstream. Thousands have been killed and tens of thousands detained, many of the latter now under sentence of death.
The regime is hugely sensitive to any claim that the repression is linked to the rise in violence from within extreme Islamist paramilitary groups, especially those that have become progressively more effective in operations against the Egyptian army and police in northern Sinai.
It has thus been left to the UK government to do what neither Syria nor Russia have been prepared to, and recognise Islamist involvement in the destruction of the Airbus A321 on 31 October 2015. Cameron’s inner cabinet was likely reluctant to take the decision, especially on the eve of Sisi’s visit to London. But the UK is second only to Russia in the numbers of tourists in Sinai, and the prime minister could not afford to hold back if there was a serious risk of another attack, this time on a British tourist jet.
For Egypt, the UK government travel advice of 4 November is a disastrous development, as southern Sinai was the one part of the country where tourism was holding up. The loss of revenues will lead to further unemployment and anger on the margins – just what ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups want to help them engage in recruitment to the causes.
It is a problem for Sisi but an even larger problem for Putin, whose efforts to contain the fallout via media control will prove difficult. More likely is the risk that the evident blowback from the Syrian intervention will see a waning of Russian public opinion for the campaign (and by extension Putin's macho behaviour). This could hardly come at a worse time for the president, and he will not take kindly to the Cameron government's public stance.
If the Airbus A321 was indeed destroyed by a bomb placed on board, then Putin’s whole policy in Syria may begin to look flawed. Moreover, western analysts commonly forget that the disastrous defeat in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s is a more recent experience for Russians than Vietnam is for Americans (see "Russia in Syria, and a flawed strategy", 1 October 2015).
The immediate reaction to the crash is rightly one of horror as well as sympathy for the bereaved. But as that slowly passes, more of the domestic focus may move towards a thoroughgoing interrogation of Russian policy in Syria and the wider region. The early signs are that Putin may face serious criticism to an extent that will come as a shock. A search for diversion from this unwelcome political predicament might lead him to unexpected and forceful moves in Syria or even Iraq.