Commentary Magazine

How Putin Bested Obama

Three weeks after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad killed more than 1,400 of his own people with chemical weapons, the Obama administration announced the framework of an agreement directing Assad to give up his chemical arsenal—an agreement brokered by Russia, Syria’s ally and arms dealer. The deal has reshaped geopolitics in dramatic ways, most notably by casting Russian President Vladimir Putin in the unlikely role of peacemaker—not to mention the political savior who threw a lifeline to an American president desperately seeking an escape from the military action he had declared would be in the offing. What Putin and Obama enacted was a trade-off in which both leaders seemed to have gotten what they wanted. Obama was looking for a way of addressing the Syria crisis without an American strike. Putin was looking to raise his mythic profile and to assert Russia’s power on the world stage.

The interests of both parties speak to the core differences in their leadership styles, and have in fact made for an odd complementarity. In Obama’s own words, he was elected to “end wars and not start them.” Putin, on the other hand, is playing out an epic Russian adventure. He insists on the “great moral right” of Russia to have the respect of all states. For him, this means aggressively pursuing Russia’s interests when conflicts arise among her client states, such as Syria. When Washington effectively handed over the Syria file to Moscow, both leaders satisfied their aims.

The problem is that Obama’s aims were puny and Putin’s grand. The president of the United States, the world’s sole superpower, got a news-cycle-length political reprieve from a complex standoff with Congress. In return, the authoritarian president of an unstable and economically imperiled Russia—a true second-rate power—got a treasure trove of gifts that have increased his coercive strength at home and abroad.

Under Putin, the Kremlin perceives relations with the U.S. as a zero-sum game in which a diminishing America automatically equals a rising Russia. From this perspective, Putin’s lifeline to Obama begins to look more like a noose. An agreement supposedly struck to remove the Syrian government’s chemical weapons will likely not do so. It will, however, facilitate Putin’s continued effort to thwart American influence and assist America’s antagonists. The deal may leave an indelible mark of defeat on the Obama presidency and inflict great damage to America’s national interest.

After the framework was announced, America’s United Nations envoy, Samantha Power, tweeted: “Three days ago there seemed no diplomatic way to hold Assad accountable. Threat of U.S. action finally brought Russia to the table.” But a review of the timeline says otherwise. On August 30, a week after learning of the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry made an urgent case for the use of force against Assad. The next day Obama announced he had the power and authority to strike Syria to punish it for its use of chemical weapons, but then declared he would hold off until he received Congressional approval—which would take at least a week. Three days later, Kerry put preemptive limits on American actions, promising the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there would be no American “boots on the ground” in Syria.

Then, on September 9, Kerry made two unscripted remarks in London that would all but erase the administration’s initial threat. First, he described the potential operation in Syria as an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” He also said that Assad could avoid an attack if he were to “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

Putin pounced. By the close of the day, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had gotten an informal agreement from Assad supposedly to give up his chemical weapons. When Obama addressed the American people the next night, he offered contradictory messages, crying out for action to stop the horror of Assad while making an appeal to explore the diplomatic solution the Russians were offering by calling on Congress to postpone a vote on action (the very vote he had demanded a week earlier). The deal was struck and the announcement was made four days later.

American toughness did not bring the Russians to the table. American vacillation gave the Russians an opening.

They needed an opening because of a provocation earlier in the summer. In August, Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who leaked U.S. intelligence, sought asylum in Moscow. Obama personally pleaded with Putin to return Snowden to the United States to face trial. But for more than a month, Snowden lingered in the Moscow airport while Putin broadcast a tactical ambivalence about his fate. When Putin ultimately snubbed American entreaties by granting temporary asylum to Snowden, Obama cancelled an upcoming summit meeting in Moscow. This was a profound and public reversal of the administration’s Russian “reset” policy, according to which Washington tried to restore good relations following the Bush administration’s harsh reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. One administration official described Putin’s decision as “the most provocative Cold War manner of the choices that they had available to them.” After five years of the Kremlin’s rebuffing Washington’s patient and deferential attempts at engagement, Obama had decided that Snowden’s asylum was the last straw. Putin had viewed the reset as a unilateral mechanism that freed him to pursue his ambitions at home and abroad without fear of U.S. retaliation. With American permissiveness giving way to American disapproval, an important avenue of manipulation had been closed to Moscow—until the Syria crisis put Putin back in business.

The dangers posed by Moscow’s plan to rid Assad of his chemical weapons are numerous. There is, of course, the broad issue of the United States having signalled a lack of concern and commitment regarding its interests abroad; Russia could use the coming months and years to exploit the fissures among America’s allies such as France and Turkey, both of which feel let down by Washington’s decision. But beyond that, the deal has already furnished Putin with a set of options for leveraging his new importance in support of his malign adventurism.

First, it should be understood that if the plan to rid Assad of his weapons is indeed impossible—as it is widely believed to be—Putin will benefit. Securing chemical arms in a war zone is an incredibly difficult task requiring a vast number of inspectors and troops to guard, transfer, and destroy them. With the battles of the Syrian civil war still raging, the Russian and the Syrian governments can always blame their enemies, the rebels, for delays or mishaps in obtaining or moving the weapons. When such complications arise, moreover, the Kremlin might let Washington know that a few concessions to Moscow could make the inspectors and handlers more vigilant. Putin could request, for example, that the United States cancel the remnants of the antiballistic missile sites that it offered East Europeans. When the administration was in official reset mode, in 2009 and 2010, it scrapped the more ambitious missile-defense plan owing to Putin’s concerns. Why not get rid of the whole thing to save its Syria policy? This would, of course, tremendously weaken NATO by denying the Eastern European states the hard security guarantees that only the U.S. can provide within the alliance. Additionally, Moscow could demand that offensive American measures such as those envisioned by the Magnitsky Act (which imposes sanctions against Russian human-rights violations) be watered down or suspended. It may pressure Washington and the Europeans on plans to extend EU benefits or even membership to Ukraine, a country that Russia wants in its tight sphere of economic control.

There is good reason to believe that the deal has been constructed with just such an extortion strategy in mind. It characterizes the effort to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons as “ambitious,” thereby building an escape clause for delays. It also carefully and repeatedly employs the word should instead of will. When it comes to non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons “by anyone in Syria,” the UN Security Council “should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.” No language makes it clear that it will or must do so. Moreover, details “should be based,” “should address,” “should provide,” “should oblige,” “should refer,” and so on. Non-compliance requires merely bringing issues to the attention of the UN General Assembly and Security Council. Russia is quite willing to take credit for avoiding military conflict, but definitely not prepared to take responsibility for the failure of the agreement. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for instance, has been extremely careful to emphasize that though Russia is willing to participate in the transportation and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, it would do so only as part of an international coalition.

But if one gives the proposed herculean process in Syria the benefit of the doubt and deems it workable, Putin still comes out ahead. As his client and ally, Assad is to some degree a reflection on the Russian leader. Ridding Assad of his WMD could save Putin from international condemnation and embarrassment. Putin, for the record, does not admit to Assad’s culpability in the attack. But, from his standpoint, removing the weapons would prevent his client from humiliating him in the future. Also, by keeping Assad’s chemical-weapons stock from falling into rebel hands, Russia can ensure that they don’t find their way to antigovernment terrorist groups inside Russia.

Whether or not it is possible to carry out what the U.S.-approved agreement outlines, certain benefits will come Putin’s way merely as a result of the circumstances it creates. With the international focus in Syria shifted from the civil war to the removal of chemical weapons, Moscow will feel unfettered in supporting the Syrian government against the rebels. Indeed Israel’s Channel 2 TV  has reported that Russia has stepped up supplies of conventional weapons to Syria as part of the deal for the Assad government’s placing its WMD stockpiles under international supervision. With over 120,000 killed in the current conflict, about 99 percent have died due to the use of conventional weapons. In a sense, then, the almost exclusive focus on chemical weapons may be viewed as Obama’s one-percent solution. It is no wonder that Qassim Saadeddine, a supreme military commander in northern Syria, declared: “Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell.”

In the greater Middle East, the prospect of destroying Assad’s chemical arsenal also allows Putin to curry favor with several countries, especially Iran, at the expense of Israel. At the recent Valdai Conference, he called on the Jewish state to dismantle its alleged nuclear weapons (for its own good, naturally), premising the request on the coming destruction of Assad’s WMD, which he claimed were but a response to Israel’s nukes.

Europe, too, is due to suffer. Given Russia’s increased control over Syria, Moscow can ramp up its “pipeline diplomacy,” the process by which it holds its energy clients hostage to bad deals and bullying. It can, as it sees fit, prevent the flow of natural gas from the Persian Gulf Arab States via Syria to the Mediterranean. And by using the progress, or lack of progress, of the Syrian disarming process as a bargaining chip, Putin can keep Western European countries from seeking alternate supplies to the Russian natural gas on which they depend.

With the well-honed instincts of a predator, Putin has clearly sensed the weakness of the American president and moved to take advantage. After having enjoyed the carte blanche of the reset policy, Putin will never see Obama as a Hamlet whose indecision and angst eventually give way to action. In Obama’s wavering on Syria, the Russian president saw only fecklessness and opportunity. Putin will not hesitate to make an enemy of the United States as he has concluded that the risks of doing so are minimal and the gains considerable.

Perhaps what is most disturbing in all this is the nature of the government that has not only bested the United States, but done so with extreme contempt. Russia is but a vestigial remnant of a superpower with a nominal GDP no larger than Italy’s (minus the latter’s sophistication, flexibility, and competitiveness). With a one-dimensional economy, Russia depends on exports consisting almost exclusively of energy and arms. And despite high oil prices the Russian economy, according to the World Bank, is doing poorly. Its global economic ranking is stagnant; in early 2013, the country’s industrial output declined, and its GDP growth for the year might be barely two percent. Growth for 2014 is expected to be lower than that of Brazil, South Korea, and Turkey. Investment outflows often exceed inflows.

Such unimpressive numbers shame a country teeming with brilliant scientists, creative artists, and virtually unlimited natural resources. Putin, inspired in part by the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, seems to work under the belief that he could be a modernizer without having to be a democrat. His means is theft and corruption. The glitter of Moscow and the dazzling wealth of Russia’s oligarchs are all the more striking when contrasted with a population that has been left for the most part in developing-state-like poverty. Russia is no economic competitor to the United States.

Russia’s foreign-policy ambitions do not add up to a master plan or even a cohesive strategy, but rather a weltanschauung. Putin’s international ambitions are born of an unrealistic attempt to restore superpower status to a country that suffers from a chronically shrinking population, grave ethnic tensions, and economic corrosion. Yet even as he attempts and fails to achieve his aim, he can do great damage.

Perhaps the Obama administration will rationalize its twice-offered hand to a much-diminished Russia as a form of political realism. By this reckoning, an increasingly dictatorial Putin is just another leader with whom one must find common ground. This, however, misreads the volatility in Russia and speaks to the risks of depending on Moscow—even if it were offering a genuine way forward in Syria. Putin’s malice goes beyond jailed opposition leaders, shuttered NGOs, fraudulent elections, media clampdowns, and draconian anti-gay laws. There is an air of unreality in the country that borders on the fantastic. Putin engages in bizarre adventures that surpass the normal personality cult. Kremlin propaganda stunts feature the Russian president not only as a macho, bare-chested warrior riding horses or demonstrating his martial-arts skills. They show him finding pre-positioned buried treasures undersea, catching gigantic pikes on choreographed fishing expeditions, and flying a motorized hang glider to guide rare cranes to their habitat. Here, in the name of nationalism, the repressive meets the ridiculous. Putin, who likes to pride himself on pragmatism, has created a political version of magical realism, combining occasional elements of the rational with the fantastic. This may make for fine books, but in Russia it means a stark avoidance of fundamental problems.

Putinism may be kept aloft on toxic fantasies, and the United States has just handed him a substantial real-world accomplishment in Syria. This will invite a doubly dangerous state of affairs by sustaining Putin’s myth at home and extending his disruptive power abroad. The Russian leader wants to be seen as the decisive head of a superpower, even if an ersatz one. Confronting the United States increases his national standing, and nationalism is his last source of legitimacy. To be sure, Russia sees the Syrian deal as a great victory. As an article in Pravda crowed: “Luckily for President Obama, President Putin was astute enough to provide him with a ladder to start climbing down after a pathetic display of saber rattling more befitting of a ten-year-old squeaking threats from a tree top at his neighbor before running inside snivelling to mommy upon being stung by a wasp.” The question may now be asked: Who, exactly, has extended a lifeline to whom?

About the Author

Aurel Braun is a visiting professor of government at Harvard and professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is NATO–Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century.

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