During the Soviet era, the U.S.S.R. often evacuated its citizens from danger zones, regardless of the consequences. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, for example, the Soviets evacuated their citizens from Egypt. This ended up being a key factor in finally convincing the Israelis that Egypt was indeed going to launch a surprise attack.
But the world should not expect the same of Putin. Putin’s commitment to Syria, and his appalling human rights record, suggests that he values Assad’s survival more than the lives of Russian citizens in Syria.
If Putin truly cared for his people, he would not be imprisoning and murdering them for exercising such basic rights as the freedom to assemble and petition the government. If Putin truly cared for his people, he would not let them be tortured and murdered in government prisons. And if he truly cared for his people, he would not allow them to be abducted abroad, brought back to Russia, and imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
Putin has also shown indifference to mass murder; in fact, he has actively supported it by arming the Syrian regime. He also continues to support Iran and other despotic countries that fund acts of terror around the world. As Ariel Ben Solomon recently put it, Putin continues to support and fund terrorists abroad, while fighting them at home in Chechnya.
If Putin does not order an evacuation and Russians die as a result, he might face some backlash at home. But he would undoubtedly place the blame on his go-to boogeyman: the United States. He’d blame America for funding and fueling the Syrian rebels (despite the fact that America has undermined them), just as he does whenever anything goes wrong in Russia.
Putin wants Assad to survive, and it’s hard to imagine he would put the lives of a few thousand Russians over his political ambitions. Therefore, the Russians in Syria, like the Russians in Russia, will likely be forced to pay the price for Premier Putin.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.