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 meager international support. This time he outmaneuvered 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.