They’re back! Russia is seeking to reclaim its erstwhile position in the center ring of the foreign policy circus. Russia’s defense spending is up, its military – including strategic nuclear forces – is modernizing, international sales of advanced military systems is growing and Russian ships and planes are again conducting operations in the Red Army’s old stomping grounds such as the Eastern Mediterranean and Sea of Japan. Equally significant, over the past few days the Obama Administration has managed to refurbish Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international reputation seemingly irreparably tarnished by ugly domestic behavior.
In case it escaped anyone’s notice, the Kremlin has totally undermined the Administration’s credibility on unilateral action against any violator of international norms, not just Syria. Every Administration figure, including the President on Tuesday, basically called out Russia (and to a slight extent, China) for blocking action by the UN Security Council and making U.S. strikes necessary. Now it seems that Russia isn’t being obstructionist and that Moscow and Washington were in discussions on securing Syria’s chemical weapons even before the G-20 meeting. This makes the U.S., not Russia, look like the problem. Good luck trying to make the case for action against Iran not sanctioned by the UN, meaning that country’s close ally Russia.
Similarly, the Kremlin successfully sandbagged the White House on Syria. Putin called Secretary of State Kerry a liar last week. Now Kerry is in negotiation with his accusers over the details of their proposal. In his letter to the New York Times the Russian president again contested the Obama Administration’s case against the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons on August 21. More broadly, the Russian proposal rehabilitates the Syrian regime and gives Assad a seat at the negotiating table. Who sits at the same table with someone they characterized as a modern day Adolph Hitler? But Russia will require this as part of its agreement to take control of Assad’s chemical stockpiles.
Moscow now looks like a credible counterweight to the US in regional crises and hence a more valuable ally to a host of countries, and not just traditional allies such as Syria. Russia will have 11 warships in the Eastern Mediterranean by mid-September, twice the number the U.S. Navy has there. This is very significant in view of the pressure on DoD to reduce force structure and rebalance deployments to the Asia-Pacific.
I disagree with those who criticize the Obama Administration for not having a coherent strategy on Syria. The strategy is to lead from behind . . . Vladimir Putin.
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