President Vladimir Putin has been many things to President Obama: a partner at times, an irritant more often, the 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 canceled plans to hold a summit meeting in Moscow last week.
Yet suddenly Putin has eclipsed Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis.
He is offering a potential, if highly uncertain, alternative to what he has vocally criticized as America’s militarism and reasserted Russian interests in a region where it had been marginalized since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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Although circumstances could shift again, Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at U.S. expense.
He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally Syrian President Bashar Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who Obama twice said must step down.
Putin has stopped Obama from going around the U.N. Security Council — where Russia holds a veto — to assert American priorities unilaterally.
More generally, Russia has for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest in the region — even as far as Russia’s restive Muslim areas — if it is mismanaged.
He has boxed Obama into treating Russia 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,” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, said in a conference call Wednesday, “and I suspect he’s enjoying himself right now.”
In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times released Wednesday, 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 postwar 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.”
Beyond halting the rush to punish the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons, the development cast Russia and Putin as a global peacemaker and — experts say this is not to be overlooked — embarrassed an American administration.
Marcel de Haas, a Russia expert at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, said the importance of this week’s diplomatic coup will last beyond the Syrian crisis.
“The Russians were on the sidelines,” he said. “Why did Putin push so hard for matters to be determined in the United Nations Security Council? Because there alone, two decades after the collapse of his Soviet Union, was he still a superpower.”
When Putin returned to the presidency a year ago, he moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices.
He shored up his position at home but, as his government promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed anti-gay legislation, kept providing arms to the Syrian government and ultimately gave refuge to Snowden, Putin was increasingly seen in the West as a calloused, out-of-touch modern-day czar.
Now he appears to be relishing a role as a statesman.
His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said in an interview that the Russian president was not seeking “ownership of the initiative,” but only wanted to promote a political solution to head off a wider military conflict in the Middle East.
“It’s only the beginning of the road,” Peskov said, “but it’s a very important beginning.”
From the start of the war 2½ years ago, Russia has been Syria’s strongest backer, using its veto repeatedly to block any meaningful action at the U.N. Security Council.
Putin’s primary goal is not preserving Assad’s government — despite arms sales that account for billions of dollars — as much as thwarting what he considers to be unbridled American power to topple governments it opposes.
Putin’s defense of Syria — including continuing assertions that the rebels, not government forces, had used chemical weapons — has at times made him seem intent on opposing the United States regardless of any contrary facts or evidence.
Russia has long had the support of China at the Security Council, but Putin had won support for his position by exploiting the divisions that appeared between the United States and its allies.
That was especially true after Britain’s Parliament refused to endorse military action, a step Putin described as mature.
He also slyly voiced encouragement when leaders of Russia’s parliament suggested they go to the United States to lobby Congress to vote against the authorization Obama sought, something he would deride as unacceptable interference if the table were reversed.
“Until now, (Putin has) been cast in the role of the villain, and he’s tired of playing the villain,” noted University of Richmond Russia expert Stephen Long.
Long noted that Obama has now stated both what seemed to be an absolutist moral case against the Syrian regime and a willingness to negotiate with that regime.
Haas of the Netherlands said: “Russia looks like a peacemaker, but Assad will certainly continue his civil war. It’s just that he will butcher his people conventionally, and the world won’t care.”
Putin’s hostility to what he views as the supersized influence of the United States worldwide 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 authorize the NATO intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled that country’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Putin has made it clear he would not repeat what most in Russia consider a mistake that unleashed a wave of extremism that has spread 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 voice in shaping 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.
Not surprisingly, given the Kremlin’s control over most Russian media, Putin’s 11th-hour gamble was widely applauded.
“The Russian president has become a hero in the world these days,” the newscast of NTV began 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 it was Putin who gave an American president whom he clearly distrusts a way out of a political and diplomatic crisis of his own making.
Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the lower house of parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, wrote on Twitter that Obama should gratefully 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.