Vladimir Putin

Wily Putin makes himself indispensable over Syria

The Russian president has managed to hand a lifeline to his ally, outfox his old foe, and ensure his voice is still heard on the Security Council

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 September, 2013, 3:09am

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been many things to US President Barack Obama: a partner, an irritant, host of the elusive Edward Snowden and "the bored kid in the back of the classroom" who offered so little on the administration's foreign policy goals that Obama cancelled plans to hold a summit meeting in Moscow last week.

Yet suddenly, Putin has eclipsed Obama as the world leader driving the agenda on Syria. He is offering a potential, if still uncertain, alternative to what he has vocally criticised as America's militarism and reasserted Russian interests in a region where it had been marginalised since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Although circumstances could shift yet again, Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington's expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally Bashar al-Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Obama from going around the UN Security Council - where Russia holds a veto - to assert US priorities unilaterally.

More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region.

He has boxed Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are accurate.

"Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday," said Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, "and I suspect he's enjoying himself right now."

Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday, and I suspect he's enjoying himself right now
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group

In The New York Times this week, Putin laid down a strong challenge to Obama's vision of how to address the turmoil, arguing that a military strike risked "spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders" and would violate international law, undermining post-war stability.

"It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States," Putin wrote. "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it."

Putin's hostility to what he views as the supersized influence of the US around the world explains much of the anti-American sentiment that he and his supporters have stoked since he returned as president last year after serving four years as prime minister under his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev. It was under Medvedev that Russia abstained in a Security Council vote to authorise the Nato intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Putin has made it clear he would not repeat what most consider a mistake that unleashed a wave of extremism across the region.

For now, Putin succeeded in forcing the international debate over Syria back to the Security Council, where Russia's veto gives it a voice in any international response. With Russia's relations with Europe increasingly strained over economic pressure and political issues, the Security Council gives Russia a chance to shape geopolitics. At the same time, Putin carries the risk of Russia again having to veto any security resolution that would back up the international control over Syria's weapons with the threat of force, as France proposed.

Given the Kremlin's control over most media, Putin's gambit was widely applauded. "The Russian president has become a hero in the world these days," the newscast of NTV began on Wednesday night before going on to note that Putin should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize if he averted the American strike.

There was also satisfaction that Putin gave an American president he clearly distrusts a way out of a political and diplomatic crisis of his own making. Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the lower house of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that Obama should grab Russia's proposal with "both hands".

"It gives him a chance not to start another war, not to lose in the Congress and not to become the second Bush," Pushkov said.