As Washington’s foreign policy makers turn their attention to China, Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin India rejects calls for a net zero carbon emissions target. achieved a strategic victory in Syria.
Not only did Moscow bolster its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it also secure base in the strategic eastern Mediterranean for at least the next 49 years. Moscow uses this position as a springboard to project its might onto NATO’s southern flank and across the Middle East, boost arms sales and cultivate a regional perception of a great power that stands alongside its allies. . Regional adversaries and allies see Russia as a key interlocutor who can speak to all parties. Put simply, Russia is a reality they have to face whether they like it or not.
In the United States, on the other hand, three successive administrations to date have little evidence of their involvement. Assad, one of the worst dictators of our time, remains in power and the region is gradually approaching the acceptance of this reality. President Barack Obama fired the Russian intervention in Syria as an adventure which will put Russia “in a quagmire”, an adventure which “will not work”. This prediction has not aged well.
Republicans and Democrats, policymakers and experts alike, consistently misjudge Putin. For years, many have consoled themselves that Putin is only a short-term opportunist and tactician, but his grim achievements also suggest a commitment to a long-term, zero-sum anti-American vision.
The case of Syria is instructive. For Putin, the intervention was never fundamentally about Syria: it was about reaffirming Russian glory after the ignominious Soviet defeat during the Cold War and, in doing so, dealing a blow to Western liberalism that he despise.
By supporting another dictator, Putin strengthened his own position in power. He forced the West to dialogue on its terms and simultaneously dissuaded this by establishing a strategic position in a crucial part of the world which the Russian leaders have always understood that it matters to the competition of the great powers. Freed from communist ideology, Putin’s emphasis on flexibility and pragmatism was greater in the Eastern Mediterranean, and more broadly in the Middle East, than in the Soviet Union, at the expense of the United States.
For years, Western commentators and policymakers underestimated their opponent and waited for what one analyst rightly called the Godot of Russian decline, while Putin was asserting his interests. Putin, who believes the West is weak, exploits the global perception that the United States’ external engagement is at best in decline, or at worst a force for instability. It pursues a strategy of limited resources – it is careful not to overextend its resources, especially not in the Middle East.
No, we are no longer fighting the cold war. But by instigating and manipulating small-scale wars and so-called “frozen conflictsHe intensified an arc of instability surrounding Russia as a buffer against the West, from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova to the west, to the south of the Caucasus, which helps to perpetuate the traditional myth of Russia as a “besieged fortress”.
Syria, which is the southernmost edge of this arc, is heading towards a similar frozen conflict scenario. Meanwhile, Putin seeks Western compromise and recognition as a great power with a “privileged” sphere of influence.
It’s time to stop short-selling Putin. Over the years, he has continuously crushed national opposition, with increasing brutality. Russia’s economy is plagued by corruption and other problems, but it remains resilient like its Soviet predecessor never was. Having deployed his forces openly and covertly abroad, his minions are firmly entrenched, while the latest round of Russian military reforms shows real improvements.
No matter how much U.S. policymakers want Russia to take a back seat so they can focus on China first, it’s just not in the cards. The United States must focus on both simultaneously. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first-rate superpower is its ability to deal with two global threats at the same time, while retaining the ability to function. It means developing a long-term strategy towards Russia, historically “low high powerWhich focused on geopolitics above all else, even as the United States turned to the fight against terrorism after September 11, 2001.
A former KGB officer, Putin is skilled in the art of deception and bad leadership, so he’s neither as weak nor as strong as he would like us to believe. But Putin’s catalog of accomplishments demands that policymakers in Washington recognize and respond to the intransigent and pragmatic realism that drives him to undermine American influence. He won’t be leaving the stage anytime soon.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the next book, “Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence. ”