Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russian arms sales

Putin Shows Obama Who’s the Boss

In case you were among those gullible souls who have bought the administration’s claims that its acceptance of Russia’s offer of a plan to take charge of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was a reflection of American strength, the Putin regime isn’t interested in letting you hold onto your illusions for long. Rather than allow President Obama a decent interval after his retreat from a call to arms on the threat of Syrian atrocities in order to save face, Moscow seems intent on immediately showing the White House who’s the boss. That became apparent with the announcement that Vladimir Putin has decided to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and to build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant. Moreover, during a debate in the Russian parliament on the sales held today, Putin ally Alexander Pushkov, the chief of the body’s foreign-affairs committee, said that if Washington dares to back away from the deal offered by Moscow on Syria to President Obama, the Kremlin will consider expanding arm sales to Assad-ally Iran and to make it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

These moves remove the thin veil of bluster that was enabling the president to justify his backing away from a strike on Syria. Far from the Russian diplomatic gambit being the result of American toughness, its acceptance by the president is seen in Moscow as more than just an obvious sign of weakness. It is being interpreted as having handed Putin carte blanche in the Middle East and allowing Russia to grant impunity to Iran as the West was supposedly gearing up to pressure it to surrender its nuclear ambition.

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In case you were among those gullible souls who have bought the administration’s claims that its acceptance of Russia’s offer of a plan to take charge of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was a reflection of American strength, the Putin regime isn’t interested in letting you hold onto your illusions for long. Rather than allow President Obama a decent interval after his retreat from a call to arms on the threat of Syrian atrocities in order to save face, Moscow seems intent on immediately showing the White House who’s the boss. That became apparent with the announcement that Vladimir Putin has decided to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and to build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant. Moreover, during a debate in the Russian parliament on the sales held today, Putin ally Alexander Pushkov, the chief of the body’s foreign-affairs committee, said that if Washington dares to back away from the deal offered by Moscow on Syria to President Obama, the Kremlin will consider expanding arm sales to Assad-ally Iran and to make it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

These moves remove the thin veil of bluster that was enabling the president to justify his backing away from a strike on Syria. Far from the Russian diplomatic gambit being the result of American toughness, its acceptance by the president is seen in Moscow as more than just an obvious sign of weakness. It is being interpreted as having handed Putin carte blanche in the Middle East and allowing Russia to grant impunity to Iran as the West was supposedly gearing up to pressure it to surrender its nuclear ambition.

The Russians don’t have much to worry about when it comes to the administration’s willingness to go down the garden path with them on Syria’s chemical weapons. President Obama lacked the will to strike Syria on his own and the small chance that Congress might authorize the use of force evaporated when he put off indefinitely the notion of the “incredibly small” attack (in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry) on the Assad regime by accepting the Russian lifeline. Though they are talking tough now, the chances that Washington will abandon the faux-diplomatic solution offered by Russia no matter how fraudulent it might be are minimal.

But rather than, as some have hoped, the president’s reticence on Syria being a prelude to aggressive action on the even more dangerous Iranian threat, Russia’s assertiveness shows that their joint interest with Tehran in protecting Bashar Assad means they will use the Syria issue to restrain the U.S. on Iran.

It’s not just that the missiles Russia is selling Iran will complicate any future attack on nuclear targets by either the U.S. or Israel. Their victory in Syria is feeding Putin’s ambition to reconstitute not only the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East but a rough balance of power that would serve to deter the West from muscling the ayatollahs. Though Washington has always spoken of Russia having just as much to lose from a nuclear Iran as America, by getting into bed with Putin on Syria, Obama is about to discover that Moscow’s main interest in the region is to weaken U.S. influence more than eliminating a nuclear threat.

When President Obama said last night that Syria’s use of chemical weapons constituted a threat to the security of the West, he was right. But he failed to understand that Russia’s offer that allowed him to weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad might present even more of a danger to U.S. interests than anything Syria might do. The last few weeks have exposed President Obama as a weak leader. What follows from that weakness will increase the power of Vladimir Putin and his unsavory Middle East allies.  

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Russia Makes a Fool of Kerry (Again)

The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

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The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Kerry came into office determined to flex his muscles as a diplomat with an ambitious Middle East agenda both in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. That his hopes were based in hubris rather than a reasonable assessment of reality almost goes without saying since there is no reason to believe the time is ripe for a diplomatic solution on either front.

But whereas his predecessor Hillary Clinton was known for racking up frequent flyer miles, she rarely put herself in a position to be embarrassed in such a degrading manner as Kerry has done. Just as the Turks stiffed him when he was there in the last month asking them to be helpful with the Palestinians, so, too, the Russians saw no reason to treat the secretary of state with any deference.

There will be those who will argue that Russia’s determination to save its client is one more sign that should warn Americans to avoid further entanglement in the Syrian mess. Doing so would be a mistake, since backing away from Syria in this manner would constitute a crucial victory for Iran. Nor should the United States view the prospect of the Russians being emboldened to continue to make more mischief in the Middle East with equanimity.

With Assad in possession of new missiles that would make it much harder for the West to enforce a no-fly zone or to resupply the rebels the way the Russians and the Iranians are backing up the regime, the immediate prospects for change in Syria are indeed dim. But it is also hard to escape the conclusion that one of the main hindrances to America’s efforts to influence the situation is a secretary of state who is hopelessly out of touch with reality and viewed with contempt by our adversaries. Though Clinton was something of a cipher during her four years at State, it must be admitted that she never flopped as badly as Kerry has done. That may not ruffle Kerry’s seemingly indomitable belief in his own ability, but the consequences of his incompetence for the Syrian people may be considerable.

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