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?
The missiles and the lack of a Western response to this provocation will confirm Assad in his opinion that he has nothing to lose by continuing to ruthlessly exterminate his domestic opposition. He has rightly discerned that Russian weapons as well as the material support from his allies in Iran and their Lebanese Hezbollah auxiliaries means more than all the crocodile tears being shed for the Syrian people in Washington and Western European capitals. International opprobrium is no match for a determined and bloodthirsty ruler with the backing of allies such as these.
But the consequences of Putin’s virtual guarantee of Assad’s survival are more serious than the prospect of the continuance of his family’s decades-long reign of terror. By re-planting its flag in the Middle East in this fashion, Russia is sending a message that it is willing to brutally thwart Western interests and sensibilities. This should also sober up those expecting Putin to put his weight behind Western efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With a third round of negotiations of the P5+1 group with Iran set to resume this week in Moscow, there is little doubt that the Russians (along with the Chinese) will not allow the Iranians to be backed into a corner. Though they have good reason to fear an Iranian nuke, Russia’s foreign policy imperative is always to sabotage America’s interests.
After the comical failures of appeasement of Russia that have been the hallmark of the Obama administration’s approach to Europe, it seems as if Romney is far more realistic about the Putin regime than either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton. Though Democrats assume that they have the advantage on foreign policy against the Republicans, Putin’s provocations are a reminder that an alternative to the current approach to his regime is needed.