Putin’s Foreign Policy

The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place

Bad old days: during an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, August 1991. Dima Tanin / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In February, Moscow and Washington issued a joint statement announcing the terms of a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria—a truce agreed to by major world powers, regional players, and most of the participants in the Syrian civil war. Given the fierce mutual recriminations that have become typical of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years, the tone of the statement suggested a surprising degree of common cause. “The United States of America and the Russian Federation . . . [are] seeking to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis with full respect for the fundamental role of the United Nations,” the statement began. It went on to declare that the two countries are “fully determined to provide their strongest support to end the Syrian conflict.”

What is even more surprising is that the truce has mostly held, according to the UN, even though many experts predicted its rapid failure. Indeed, when Russia declared in March that it would begin to pull out most of the forces it had deployed to Syria since last fall, the Kremlin intended to signal its belief that the truce will hold even without a significant Russian military presence.

The cease-fire represents the second time that the Russians and the Americans have unexpectedly and successfully cooperated in Syria, where the civil war has pitted Moscow (which acts as the primary protector and patron of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) against Washington (which has called for an end to Assad’s rule). In 2013, Russia and the United States agreed on a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, with the Assad regime’s assent. Few believed that arrangement would work either, but it did.

These moments of cooperation highlight the fact that, although the world order has changed beyond recognition during the past 25 years and is no longer defined by a rivalry between two competing superpowers, it remains the case that when an acute international crisis breaks out, Russia and the United States are often the only actors able to

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