Russia Re-emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East

By Walter Russell Mead


September 12, 2016

For the leader of an ex-global power whose economy is in disarray, Vladimir Putin is having a pretty good 2016. His ships sail the South China Sea, supporting China's defiance of international law. The Japanese Prime Minister brushes Washington's protests aside to meet with him. Putin's Russia digs itself more thoroughly into Crimea each week, a Permanent Member of the Security Council in open and glaring violation of the UN Charter and its own pledged word. He's watching the European Union grow weaker and less cohesive each day. And in Syria he forced the Obama administration to grovel for a ceasefire deal that leaves him, Putin, more in control than ever, and tacitly accepts his long term presence as a major player in the Middle East. Watching the State Department pursue its Syria negotiation with Russia was surreal: as if Robert E. Lee had to chase Ulysses Grant around Northern Virginia, waving a surrender document in his hands and begging Grant to sign it.  

Putin may not have an economy, and his power projection capability may be held together with chicken wire and spit, but the delusions of his opponents have always been his chief tools. European and American leadership since the end of the Cold War has been operating on the false belief that geopolitics had come to an end; they have doubled down on that delusion as geopolitics came roaring back in the Obama years. In the past, Europe was able to take “holidays from history” because the United States was keeping an eye on the big picture. But that hasn’t been true in the Obama administration, and the juddering shocks of a destabilizing world order are the consequence of a foreign policy that isn’t grounded in the hard facts of power.

Take the recently concluded Syria negotiations. As thousands died, and millions fled, as hatreds festered, jihadi groups metastasized and populations radicalized, the United States and Russia edged toward an agreement that would lead to a cease fire. After fevered speculation that the long sought agreement would be signed at the G-20 meeting in China ended in disappointment, John Kerry flew to Geneva and came back with… something.

Ironically, what the Obama-Putin deal is closest to is Donald Trump’s plan for the Middle East. The United States is putting aside its worries about Russian complicity in Syrian war crimes, ignoring the destabilizing potential of an ascendant Iran and its impact on the Sunni world and acquiescing in Russia’s return to the Middle East in order to cooperate with Russia (and Assad and Iran) against Sunni jihadi groups. Secretary Kerry, after much hard work, has gotten Putin to accept an temporary alliance with the United States on Russia’s terms. Assad is already stronger as a result of this agreement; America’s alliance network in the Middle East is already weaker. It’s likely that Putin will push the envelope of the agreement to inflict further humiliations on the Obama administration and inflict further damage on America’s international position. One hopes that at least the people of Aleppo will gain some kind of reprieve from all this, but unless the next administration changes course, the restoration of an Assad-run Syria is looking more likely than before Kerry flew to Geneva.

President Obama came into office with a set of ideas that dominate the thinking of liberal Democrats today. On the one hand, he was a Wilsonian, believing that the spread of democracy, the promotion of multilateral institutions, and a serious commitment to human rights and the rule of law are the only means to advance U.S. interests and prevent destructive new wars. And he has some of the most ambitious, world-order-building goals that any President has ever sought: the end of global warming, the end of nuclear weapons, winning over adversaries like Russia, China, Iran and “moderate Islamists” to the U.S.-world-order agenda. And he wants war criminals like Assad removed from office and tried in the Hague. Yet he was also a non-interventionist, someone who believed that American interventions abroad—in Vietnam, in Laos (as he reminded us last week), in Iraq and elsewhere—were bad for the United States and worse for the world. More, he believes that America can best lead the world by “nation-building at home”: rather than spending money on military build ups and foreign wars, we should spend more money dealing with injustice and poverty in our own country.

Over the course of his first term, Obama gradually shifted toward the non-interventionist position. A series of disasters in the Middle East—the chaotic aftermath of the war in Libya, the debacle that followed the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the generally disappointing results of the Arab Spring—seem to have convinced the President that his “humanitarian hawk” advisors couldn’t be trusted with the keys to the car. But this didn’t kill his humanitarian and idealistic impulses, nor did it diminish the strength in the Democratic Party of those who believe that the promotion of democracy, morality and the rule of law should be the foundation of American foreign policy.

As Syria imploded and the worst humanitarian disaster since World War Two gradually took form in the heart of the Middle East, President Obama and his team faced nothing but bad choices. Intervention became increasingly chancy and risky as all sides in the war turned uglier; on the other hand, abstention meant that Iran, Russia and the Sunni world would turn Syria into a free fire zone. The rise of ISIS (and the impact of its atrocities on American public opinion) forced the Administration to assemble the elements of an anti-ISIS coalition, and ultimately to put a limited American military presence into the war. Nobody was happy with the resulting policy or the situation in Syria, and it kept getting worse. The Assad government, supported by Russia and Iran, intensified a murderous campaign that targeted civilians. Heartrending stories filled the press; the throng of refugees threatened the stability of countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and created a major political crisis inside the European Union. The Saudis and their allies were furious at American lack of cooperation against what they saw as a Shi’a sectarian war of aggression; the Turks were furious both at the ongoing conflict and at the U.S. policy of supporting the Syrian Kurds as an anti-ISIS ally. Besides the countless atrocities and horrors the war inflicted on Syrians, the conflict and the American reaction to it were stressing key American alliances and allies from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Germany and Greece.

From the Oval Office point of view, bad as the results of the current policy were, there were no better alternatives. But the pressure to “do something” was continuous. Both within and beyond the administration, the criticism was devastating, and the consciences of many administration officials were increasingly burdened by the lack of American response. Given the immovable object of the President’s refusal to escalate, and the irresistible force of criticism, the administration sought to ease the pressure through two approaches. First, it would try to buy off humanitarian critics by making statements of disapproval about the Assad government’s tactics. Second, it would seek to work with Russia for a cease fire that would stop, or at least significantly slow, the bloodshed, while creating a framework for a political negotiation leading to a stable Syria in the future.

This plan represents the sweet spot in the internal politics of the administration. It balances the Oval Office’s determination to avoid a military clash in the final months of the President’s term with the humanitarian instincts that are still strong at Foggy Bottom, in Congress and among many administration officials. Cynics would say it is a way to look like you are doing something without doing anything much; the President’s supporters would say it’s a balanced and nuanced response that offers the best hope of progress for the kind of solution Syria needs without giving up on America’s (verbal) support of its ideals.

But there was one player that the White House doesn’t seem to have fully taken into account: Vladimir Putin. It’s doubtful that at this point President Obama retains many of the optimistic illusions that marked the early stages of his Russia policy: the naive hopes that Medvedev might offer a serious alternative to Putin, the belief that Putin was angry only because of errors on our part, the belief that he is a geopolitical bumbler whose serial errors would soon trip him up. Those mists and fogs have (finally, after many lost months and years) burned away, but the White House may not yet understand the degree to which humiliating President Obama and making him look weak has become a principal driver of Russian policy.

To hear the Obama Administration explain it, Russia and the United States have common interests in Syria, difficult though it may be to reach an agreement based on them. We both want a stable Syria. Neither one of us wants the jihadi radicals to end up in charge of the country. We both want religious and ethnic minorities protected. We both want the killing to stop.

And there’s more. Russia has, the White House believes, more reasons for ending the conflict. Militarily, it’s a war neither Russia nor Assad can win. The only option is to keep throwing good money after bad, to prop up an Assad government that cannot restore security in the country. Worse, as Assad’s forces weaken, Russia will have to throw more of its combat strength into the mix, leading to more casualties and unrest at home. Some of that unrest will be among the Russian Muslim population, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and who are not pleased at Russian participation in a sectarian war on the Shi’a side. Supporting Assad and Iran also weakens Russia’s hopes for outreach to the Sunni Arabs, whose help Russia will need to jack the oil price back up. Given all that, negotiating with Russia over Syria looks like a smart play, and this is where, over and over, the Obama Administration comes out when it debates Syria policy.

All of this explains why Charlie Brown thinks Lucy will help him kick the football, but fails to explain why Lucy likes to pull it away.

The truth seems to be a simple one: Lucy likes watching Charlie Brown humiliate himself by falling flat on his back more than she enjoys watching the football fly down the field. That is, the Obama Administration’s Syria calculus has underestimated how great Putin’s interest is in making the United States look and sound weak and unsuccessful. He doesn’t just enjoy it when John Kerry slips and falls on a banana peel that Lavrov has artfully positioned behind him; Putin is willing to run risks and even to take on significant costs simply in order to make the United States look bad.

Beating Barack Obama like a brass drum doesn’t just help Putin at home. It helps him re-establish Russia’s prestige in the Middle East. It shakes the confidence of our NATO allies. It unnerves Japan and Taiwan. It endears Putin to Beijing. Because the United States is the global superpower, emerging as the power that has the capacity to make President Obama look like a loser is a huge gain for Russia. It strengthens the narrative being propounded by the Kremlin disinformation machine; it strengthens anti-Americanism everywhere. It helps drive a wedge between the U.S. and our allies in Europe. It helps persuade rulers all over the world that the U.S. is a weak and ineffective power, encouraging them to look to rising powers like China, Iran and, of course, Russia as better partners for the future. It undermines the liberal order that the United States and its allies have been working on since World War Two, and hastens the day when it will be replaced by something less liberal and less orderly.

This means, among other things, that the more urgently the United States wants to negotiate for something like a cease fire in Syria, the more the Russians enjoy withholding it for weeks and months and even years. Our very eagerness to negotiate incentivizes the Kremlin to tease, to stall, to hold the glittering prize just beyond reach, making us beg for it. Dance, Kerry, dance!

After milking the situation for all it is worth, and negotiating the over-eager Americans into a set of damaging concessions, the Russians gave the Obama Administration the deal it so obviously and desperately wants. But will they keep it? Having tortured, teased and humiliated the Americans for months over the framing of the deal, will they now shift to a strategy of torturing, teasing and humiliating the Americans over its implementation?

The answer is that they probably will. What both Obama and the Russians know is that Obama doesn’t have an alternative. If the Russians break the deal, will Obama unleash massive American support for an anti-Assad offensive? No. Will the White House assemble a coalition of regional allies to bring the war criminals to justice? Nyet. Will the U.S. force Russia to pay some dire price on some other issue in world politics? Almost certainly not.

Kicking sand in this administration’s face is a one way bet for the Russians. The Americans will sulk and pout and make inspiring speeches about the arc of history, but the weaker they look the less anyone cares about all that. There are no consequences to embarrassing Obama, hanging Kerry out to dry, or to walking away from a deal the Americans spent months begging you to accept. Under this President, they will just come back for another round of negotiations from a weaker bargaining position.

For President Obama, this is leadership. It is embracing negotiation. It is looking beyond the atmospherics, reaching out to one’s opponents, finding common interests. It is overcoming the inherited taboos of the Cold War era, transcending the shibboleths of geopolitical competition, dispensing with the superstitious faith that ‘credibility matters’, laying the foundations of a true, and truly liberal, international order. The President does not see that occupied Crimea, embattled Ukraine, slaughtered Syria represent the negation of everything he hopes to build. He doesn’t understand that from Pyongyang to Caracas hard men with cold eyes and dead hearts are weighing his words and placing their bets. He doesn’t see the connection between his concessions to Putin and the crisis of his China policy. He doesn’t really understand why, despite his best efforts, the world is less peaceful now than it was when George Bush left office.

For Obama, closing down some of Guantanamo, signing an unenforceable climate agreement in Paris, flirting with the notion of a ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine, apologizing to Laos and exchanging ambassadors with the Castro brothers are what history is made of.

Putin disagrees, but hopes Obama goes on thinking as he does.

We live in interesting times.