Is Vladimir Putin working for Barack Obama? Despite its provocative tone, the question is not fanciful. When faced with a tough foreign policy decision, Obama tends to try and wiggle his way out of it.
That tendency has three reasons.
The first is that, despite his African, Asian and American background, Obama has little understanding of how international politics works. The second reason is that Obama built his career around an isolationist theme by portraying the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq under President George W. Bush as a political version of the original sin. Finally, Obama’s aversion to foreign “adventures” reflects the mood in the United States. Polls show that a majority of Americans are fed up with the outside world and do not wish to be sucked into other people’s quarrels—quarrels they often don’t understand.
The problem Obama faces, however, is that the US remains a superpower with vital and/or important interests across the globe; it cannot simply crawl back into its isolationist carapace. So, how could he appear to be maintaining America’s position of global leadership without doing anything even remotely risky?
Enter Putin to furnish an answer.
Obama fixes “red lines” and talks a good talk on this or that issue, but ends up doing nothing because of Putin’s veto—or, better still, Putin’s threat of veto.
Both men benefit from this pas-de-deux. Obama can project himself as a principled leader, ready to use the United States’ might in support of just causes but, sadly, thwarted by Russia’s abuse of its position in the UN Security Council.
For his part, Putin can pose as the leader who has restored part of the prestige that Russia enjoyed in its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union.
Putin is obsessed with a craving for parity of prestige between the US and Russia. He knows that he cannot do that in terms of tangible power. Russia’s GDP of USD 2.2 trillion cannot compare with that of the US’s 16 trillion. In terms of GDP per capita, Russia stands 77th in the world, while the US is 14th. In military terms, Russia has little to compete with the United States’ global reach, thanks to a massive blue-water navy and a network of bases in more than 60 countries across the world. Worse still, Russia is caught in a downward demographic trend while the US has one of the healthiest in the world.
Putin uses rhetoric to bridge part of that gap. In a recent talk with one of the satellite television channels he controls through the Kremlin, Putin offered a glimpse of his deep hatred for the United States. He talked of the US as the product of ethnic cleansing carried out against America’s native “Indian” tribes and recalled “the ravages of slavery” before grudgingly admitting that the Americans “had to create a sort of democracy” because “settlers from Europe” had to find a way of living together. Putin then made an even more astonishing claim. Stalin, he said, would not have used the nuclear bomb against Germany as the US did against Japan in the penultimate phase of the Second World War. In other words, Stalin was more touched by human feelings than President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the atomic attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Part of Putin’s anti-Americanism may be due to relative powerlessness. However, it is also possible that he believes that Russia can regain its international standing only by assuming the leadership of an anti-American bloc.
Adopting a macho posture, Putin can hide the fact that, today, Russia has virtually no influence in the Middle East—not even in Syria. Putin is trying to use what strategists call “denial capacity”: denying an advantage to your real or imagined adversary even though you get nothing out of it. Thus, even if Assad were to win and survive in Syria, Russia will reap hardly any benefit. However, the fact that Assad’s victory and survival could be a setback for the US and its allies is enough to satisfy a Kremlin that is doing anything for glory.
Knowingly or not, Obama and Putin complement each other. This is why they agreed on a cynical project: a Geneva conference on Syria.
The absurdity of that project is self-evident. Why should two powers who cannot agree on the mildest of resolutions at the Security Council—where they hold the initiative—do any better in the uncertain atmosphere of a Geneva conference, where they will be two players among scores of others?
But what happens if Obama is forced to “do something,” something that part of the US establishment is clamoring for today?
My guess is that Putin will put up with a bellicose pirouette from Obama as long as that does not lead to regime change in Damascus. If Obama lobs a few cruise missiles against meaningless targets—as Bill Clinton did against Sudan and Afghanistan—Putin will make little noise. For him, the best scenario would be for Obama to use a bit of saber-rattling, supported by declamatory outbursts of the kind that John Kerry indulged himself in this week, but ultimately do nothing that could tip the balance in favor of the Syrian rebels.
There is, of course, a possibility that Obama and Putin—partners in this danse macabre—may use the threat of American “military action” to persuade the Syrian rebels to attend Geneva II at the same time that the big talking shop of the United Nations opens its new season next month.
And then, in Geneva and New York, people will talk and talk and talk—while in Syria, people die and die and die.