Russia, back in the picture

For this week at least Vladimir Putin must be feeling quite smug.

After getting some serious snubbing from Barack Obama, including the first cancellation of a bilateral summit between US and Russian leaders in 50 years, US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva trying to bridge the gap between himself and his Russian counterpart on a UN resolution over Syria. Seems like the Cold War all over.

Which is what much of what Putin does is about. Namely, trying to transfer some of the glory of the Soviet Union’s global profile to the much diminished Russia.

It must also be satisfying to see Obama, who had effectively concluded it was impossible to do business with Russia, come out and praise Putin and Russia’s proposal. Even if the latter itself was based on an off-the-cuff comment by Kerry, in answer to a question of what Syria have to do to avoid being attacked. (Answer: give up its chemical weapons arsenal.)

The unspoken part of all this, of course, was that Putin actually saved Obama from humiliation. By all accounts, the US president lacked the votes to get congressional authorisation for an attack. No surprise that he grabbed the Russian proposal. At least it gave Obama some time.

But it is not clear if Putin will get the last laugh. Much of what is being said right now, including Putin’s paid oped in the New York Times, is posturing. But it is also about trying to shape the global debate and policy environment in which the next act of the Syrian crisis plays out.

[One response to Putin’s oped:]

This is why this shaping matters. If the two governments fail to agree on the language of a UN resolution on Syria, then a blame game will emerge as to who led to the breakdown. Putin will try to argue the West was too fixated on maintaining the right to attack Syria. The US will say that giving up the military option would have meant losing the only incentive for Assad to give up his lethal cocktails in the first place.

If, by some miracle, the resolution is agreed to, then the issue will switch to whether Damascus was just bluffing about weapons surrender. I suspect it was the latter. The chemical weapons are Syria’s ultimate deterrent against nuclear-tipped Israel. Giving them up would seriously undermine Assad’s domestic standing.

Putin will continue to have the odd burst when he outshines the US or puts an opposing country in a half-nelson.

But too much of this is based on vestiges of the Soviet Union’s capacities. the basis of Russia’s wealth — natural gas — is heading for a price wasteland as shale gas oozes out of the US and Canada and then overseas. Most of the drivers of future economic growth are missing or in decline in Russia: demography, productivity, market forces and so on. Russia will continue to struggle to stay relevant on the basis of its economy is that of a Persian Gulf potentate.

It doesn’t help that Putin is facing his first serious domestic opposition in years. Sadly, Putin had the popularity and sobriety to have transformed his country during his reign. His early speeches, warning that Russians face extinction, indicated an understanding of the problem. But eventually he succumbed to being just another short-sighted, avaricious authoritarian leader. Bearding the American lion in its tent is the easy way out.

Made easier, I should add, by the utter lack of any coherent thinking on grand strategy by the Obama administration — notice how much of the US policy on Syria has been ex tempore.

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