Guest Editorial: Obama vs. Putin, final rounds
“This is not a contest between me and Putin.”
—President Barack Obama, Feb. 16, 2016, referring to the Syrian civil war.
Think Russian President Vladimir Putin would agree with President Obama’s assessment? We don’t.
Case in point: After flummoxing Obama by sending warplanes and troops into Syria last September, Putin caught his American counterpart flat-footed — again — last week when he sprang a surprise withdrawal of Russian troops. In essence he declared victory, and it’s hard to challenge that notion. Putin restored Russia’s mojo as a global power. He shored up his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, all but crippling the Syrian rebels. He helped sponsor a shaky truce that set the stage for renewed peace talks. Putin the Peacemaker?
And that Syrian “quagmire” that Obama famously predicted would trap the Russians in an unwinnable war?
Not that the five-year Syrian war is over, or that the cease-fire will hold, or that a Russia-and-Iran-backed Assad has defeated the rebels or Islamic State forces. But that misses the overarching geopolitical point: Putin dictates the terms. He takes the risks and reaps the rewards. He seeks to show that Moscow is a more reliable ally in the region than an ambivalent Obama’s Washington is.
In conflicts around the world, Obama and Putin spar for advantage. Putin has a big one: Time. Obama plays not to lose any more diplomatic or military ground to an aggressive adversary bent on reasserting a Soviet-style sphere of influence.
Heading into the final months of his last term, a cautious Obama picks his battles — and his adversaries — carefully. He embellishes his legacy by bragging about backing down from that Syrian red line against chemical weapons he set in 2013. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. “The fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
Every leader likes to view history through the self-selected prism that vindicates him or her. But Obama’s retreat from his own threat opened the door for Putin’s successful advance into Syria. Did anyone else hear a hint of wishful thinking in Obama’s “quagmire” predictions? Anyone else wearing a WWVDN lapel pin: What will Vlad do next?
Putin delights in confounding conventional wisdom. He sent warplanes to turn the Syrian war. He annexed Crimea to the outraged squeaks of the international community. Remember Ukraine?
There, a wobbly cease-fire holds while politicians squabble about how much autonomy to grant pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of the country. Putin glowers in the background, the threat of another Russian military thrust focusing minds in Kiev.
Obama — who felt Putin’s sharp elbows in his 2014 Crimea grab and his later Ukraine incursion — plans a major buildup of arms to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Message: Don’t get any more big ideas, Vlad. “This is not a response to something that happened last Tuesday,” a senior administration official told The New York Times. “This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.”
Putin The Difficult, though, is placid. Those EU sanctions against Russia for its Crimea adventure, the ones that pinched hard? Some European leaders hint that they could be lifted by summer. Putin said recently that he is certain that relations between Russia and the EU “will be normalized.”
“It will happen sooner or later,” he said, smiling inwardly, we imagine.
Meanwhile, refugees continue to pour into Europe. The EU is still struggling to curb the flow and manage it better. Get ready for Chaos, The Sequel. That means more opportunities for Putin to exploit Europe’s distraction: boatloads of refugees washing ashore.
Putin’s ambitions could be braked by crashing global oil prices and economic trouble at home. But don’t count on it.
Putin has 10 months to throw more elbows Obama’s way, calculating that he probably won’t get elbows thrown back. We hope he’s wrong.