Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.
This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.
While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.
At today’s meeting in Mexico between President Obama and his Russian counterpart, the U.S. leader sought to persuade Vladimir Putin that America had no desire to come between Moscow and its loyal client state Syria. Counting on his personal charm and instinctive belief that a demonstration of his good will toward those who are hostile to the United States will solve most problems, Obama thought he could convince Putin to back off on his support for the murderous Assad regime and join the West in pushing for an end to the slaughter in Syria. But the grim look on the faces of both Obama and Putin after they endured two hours of each other’s company indicates just how badly the American failed.
Obama’s attempt to sweet talk the former KGB agent went about as well as some of his previous efforts to apologize his way into foreign popularity. It’s not just that Putin doesn’t trust Obama — though he obviously doesn’t — but that after three and a half years in power and one failed “reset” later, the U.S. president still doesn’t understand the basic dynamic of Russian attitudes toward the United States. The meeting, the first between the two men, was clearly a dialogue of the deaf. The net result is another humiliation for Obama who not only has failed to do anything about the massacres in Syria but also will now be seen to have tried and failed to get Assad’s patron to abandon him. For his part, Putin has looked Obama in the eye and saw a man determined to kowtow to Moscow, a sign of weakness that Putin could not mistake and will not fail to exploit in the future.
Mitt Romney was roundly mocked in March by the mainstream media and many so-called foreign policy wise men for saying Russia was America’s top “geopolitical foe.” He was accused of attempting to revive the Cold War and an derided for his lack of understanding of international nuance by those who preferred President Obama’s much cooler approach to the regime of Vladimir Putin which has included a failed “reset” and a hot microphone promise by the president that he would be able to be more “flexible” in his second term in dealing with Russia’s demands. But three months later, with Russia sending missile defense systems to Syria, it would appear that Romney’s evaluation was right on target.
The announcement on Friday that Russia would be sending advanced missiles to the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad was a body blow to those who have been trying to convince the world that Putin was prepared to play ball with the West. The missiles are intended to help Assad fend off any Western intervention in Syria as the dictator continues to repress dissent and slaughter his people. The move is troubling in of itself as it will embolden Assad to stand his ground against international pressure and make any intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis there much more difficult. But it also reveals what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to Moscow’s foreign policy ambitions in the last decade. Putin’s goal is to reconstitute as far as possible the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. As far as he is concerned, the discussion about human rights in Syria is irrelevant. Syria is his client state, and like his Soviet predecessors, he is determined to preserve it at any cost, something that will also have serious implications for the West’s attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program. If that isn’t a geopolitical foe for the United States, then what exactly would one look like?
Late last week, outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech in which he praised the Obama administration’s effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship, commenting that “these have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” His statement was made at the same conference in which Obama promised to sell out Poland (at least that’s how the Poles interpreted the president’s gaffe) just as soon as he won reelection. That the White House has not seen fit to trumpet Medvedev’s warm words perhaps indicates a heretofore undetected modicum of self-awareness.
The Russians are pleased. Of course they are.