Russia is strutting on the world stage again. With his initiative to eliminate Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin has inserted Russia into the Middle East as a key player for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union a generation ago. The US media, which for several months have been bashing Putin for enabling the carnage in Syria and stifling civil society at home, are now struggling to reconcile that image with his role as a potential peacemaker. Of course, a lot could go wrong and trip Putin’s tactical gain, but for the moment, the Russian leader seems to be on a roll with Obama on his back foot.
To counter widespread views that it’s in disarray and being upstaged by the Russians, the US administration is leaking information to suggest that it played a major role in shaping Putin's proposal going back over 18 months ago. But the United States let Putin take public credit, putting the onus on him to follow through. Be that as it may, it is also true that Russia was disinclined to do much on the chemical weapons beyond talk until now, when changed circumstances, in both Washington and Syria, created an opening for maximal advance of Russia's interest. Putin's timing was impeccable.
Putin's initiative, of course, is not assured a success. The United States, along with Great Britain and France, remains at odds with Russia over the substance of a UN Security Council resolution endorsing the agreement on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry hammered out last week. Russia rejects any mention of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, with the implied threat of force should Syria balk; the Western powers insist the threat of force is essential to ensuring Syria complies. Even without technically violating the agreement, Syria could procrastinate and obstruct in ways that underscore the limits of Moscow's influence. Moreover, we remain months if not years away from the final elimination of the chemical weapons, while the slaughter continues unabated. Much could go wrong, but for the moment, Putin has advanced Russia's interests not only in Syria, but more broadly.
For years, Putin has railed against what he sees as America's hegemonic designs, its flouting of international law, trampling of state sovereignty and abuse of the principle of humanitarian intervention to overthrow regimes it opposes. He has repeatedly tried to stand up to the United States, without much success and with meagre international support. This time he outmanoeuvred Obama at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. In face of Putin's resistance, Obama managed to persuade only half the leaders to support a feeble call for "a strong international response" to Syria's use of chemical weapons without explicitly endorsing his planned military strike to "punish" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Shortly thereafter, Putin’s initiative saved Obama from a humiliating defeat in Congress, where resistance to Obama's military option was mounting by the hour, reflecting both Obama's weakness and widespread doubts in the West about the wisdom of US policy.
What's more, Putin postponed, perhaps indefinitely, America's use of force against Assad, undoubtedly to the great relief of his own generals. In recent years, the United States may have grossly mismanaged the politics of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, but the US military remains without peer in the application of conventional force. Putin did not need another graphic display of how far the Russian military lags behind or a reminder to the rest of the world of the price one could pay for crossing the United States.
Keeping US military power at bay is central to Putin's effort to reassert Russian influence, particularly in the Middle East. The leading Arab states may want Assad's ouster, unlike Putin, but they do respect power, as do Iran and Israel. Putin's decisiveness, coupled with Obama's evident ambivalence about the use of force and deeper involvement in Middle East affairs, will lead all the regional powers to reassess their strategies in ways that focus more attention to Russia.
At the same time, Putin advanced Russia's two top priorities in Syria: preventing the US-led regime change and countering the rise of radical Islam – the staunchest opponents of Assad.
Eliminating Syria's chemical weapons will require Assad's active support, not his mere acquiescence. Only his regime knows the full extent of Syria's chemical weapons program; only his forces can provide the necessary security for international teams charged with dismantling the program and destroying the weapons. Having called for Assad's ouster, Obama will now find that he needs him as a partner for some time, perhaps long enough for him to crush the moderate opposition. The opposition understands that: General Salim Idris, the leader of the moderate Free Syrian Army, came close to publicly accusing Obama of betrayal.
To soothe their consciences, Western powers, including the United States, may now be stepping up the delivery of lethal equipment to the moderate opposition to maintain pressure on Assad, but hardly enough to change the situation on the ground. The moderate forces remain seriously outgunned, and the radical militias are gaining strength as the most effective opposition fighting forces. With the West, particularly the United States, already squeamish about the radicals' growing prominence, Putin's hope is that they will finally establish themselves as the face of Assad's opposition, thereby undercutting the West's anti-Assad policies and focusing attention on the terrorist threat.
Finally, agreement on a detailed plan to eliminate chemical weapons, now under discussion at the UN, and the first stages of its implementation, will strengthen Russia's hand at a possible international conference to resolve the Syrian crisis, the so-called Geneva-2, to which Russia and the United States remain committed. The stated goal of such a conference is to establish a transitional government that includes all legitimate political forces as a way of ending the civil war. The West had assumed that would entail Assad's departure. But Russia is now better positioned to ensure a large role for Assad's regime, if not Assad himself, in any transition and to shift the focus of international concern to the radical Islamic threat, thereby further advancing its key interests in Syria.
Given these developments, it’s not surprising that Putin took something of a victory lap with the publication of his op-ed in the New York Times on September 11. He surely relished instructing Americans on the virtues of international law and the UN Security Council and the limits of US power. He must have taken special glee in challenging the assumptions of American exceptionalism.
Whether he comes to regret this essay remains to be seen. For the moment, Putin is on a roll. But his success is to a great extent the consequence of indecision and disarray in Washington and a president who could not offer a cogent argument for the course he had reluctantly chosen or articulate a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the broader region. What Putin should fear now is that his diplomatic success becomes a wakeup call for Washington. He knows that the United States could quickly push Russia to the periphery of diplomacy in Syria and the Middle East. It has far greater resources to influence developments than Russia. What is missing is the will, and Putin has that.
Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff, 2004-2007. Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. YaleGlobal Online
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