The last few weeks have not been kind to U.S. President Barack Obama. When it became clear that chemical weapons had indeed been used in Syria, the White House promptly declared Obama's ‘red line' crossed and military intervention inevitable. In the following days, however, anti-war voices from around the world expressed their opposition to this new intervention. Even in the United States, it seemed that few on the political Left or Right supported Obama's proposed ‘targeted strikes,' whether from general war-weariness or fears that the effort would backfire.
Putin, on the other hand, clearly came out of the affair with the upper hand. Despite Russia's unyielding military support for Assad's regime, Putin managed to sell himself as an internationalist, anti-war figure, with his carefully sculpted New York Times op-ed urging the United States not to intervene in Syria without the UN's blessing. Perhaps even more crucially, though, is that Putin managed to appear as a strong and credible leader; one that is able to command his country and deliver on his promises. Obama, in contrast, suffered significant blows to his international credibility, as his threats to punish Assad for crossing his ‘red line' looked increasingly empty.
Despite the often-antagonistic relationship between Putin and Americans of all political stripes, the Russian president has undoubtedly gained some new admirers in the West. Several prominent conservative voices have praised Putin for upholding ‘Christian values' while other liberal anti-war voices have agreed wholeheartedly with his apparent anti-war sentiment. Universally, commentators recognized Putin's diplomatic skill as he outmaneuvered the White House.
On another front, however, a different diplomatic battle is raging in Europe's backyard that has largely passed unnoticed, the outcome of which will possibly have an even greater impact on the future of the East-West relations.
The Other War
The new battleground is Ukraine, a country of roughly 45 million that has spent the greater part of its modern history under Russian domination. This November, however, Ukraine is set to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, signaling Kiev's increasingly warm feelings for Brussels. Russia, on the other hand, is desperately seeking control of Ukraine's gas pipelines, through which 70 percent of all Russian gas to the EU passes, and has put together its own rag-tag customs union bringing together itself and a handful of autocratic cronies in the small former-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia.
The choice between Association status with the EU and joining Russia's customs union is a zero-sum game; the respective accords oblige Ukraine to join only one. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has so far made it clear that his country has chosen Europe, and is thus facing increasing pressure from Putin to join Moscow's customs union, pressure that has escalated into an intense trade war. Alluding to more measures to come, Putin's advisor Sergei Glazyev warned that Russia is "preparing to tighten customs procedures if Ukraine makes the suicidal step to sign the association agreement with the EU."
While Putin skillfully practiced restraint in his diplomatic dealings with the U.S .and its allies on Syria, his aggressiveness with Ukraine has utterly backfired. A year ago, Ukraine's signing of the Association Agreement was far from a sure thing. Germany staunchly opposed the agreement until Ukraine's leadership made a series of concessions, notably the release of ex-Vice President Yulia Tymoshenko, currently in prison for alleged corruption and abuse of office.
Now, though, Russia's threats and new trade sanctions have only further alienated Ukraine. Far from intimidating the Ukrainian leadership into bowing out of the EU integration process, Putin's actions have pushed its smaller neighbor closer to Europe than ever before. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian opposition leader, even joked that Putin "deserved a medal" for bringing his country to this historic point.
The Association Agreement will be discussed during the Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius this November. Thus far, it looks as if Putin has lost this round, but many observers the world over are wondering what else the Russian president has up his sleeve.