Demonstrators hold a placard and wave Syrian opposition flags as they protest against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015. 
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

When it comes to foreign policy, U.S. President Obama’s critics have long accused him of being weak, indecisive, and naive. “Restoring resolve” to the Oval Office was a Republican theme in 2012, and it remains one among the 2016 GOP contenders. This narrative has now spread beyond Obama’s partisan opponents: many accuse Washington of responding with insufficient strength to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria, which seeks to support Russia’s longtime ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leaves the United States looking flatfooted. To some, it also highlights Washington’s waning power.

In short, Obama’s apparent restraint appears irresolute, whereas Putin comes across as a strong, decisive master strategist who exploits Obama’s weakness and keeps Washington off balance. The Economist declares that “Putin dares, Obama dithers,” and wishes that “Mr. Obama had a bit more of Mr. Putin’s taste for daring.” The former U.S. State Department official Jeffrey A. Stacey writes in Foreign Affairs that “when Putin stared down the West and the West blinked, the West lost its credibility and, with it, its ability to deter further Russian bad behavior.” The Telegraph columnist Matt K. Lewis notes, “Today, it looks like [Obama’s] allowing Russia to push America around, and dictate the terms of our being pushed around.”

These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

THE PSEUDO-STRENGTH OF WEAK TIES

Putin faces a difficult international environment. Moscow lacks a broad international network of reliable partners and allies. And despite a decade of military reforms, Russia’s ability to project force abroad remains hampered by a lack of overseas bases. Its agreements with major base hosts—Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria—are insufficient to help Russia demonstrate military might. Without substantial military power and few international allies, Russia barely qualifies as a global power.

Indeed, Putin’s actions in Syria mark the first major use of Russian forces outside of its near abroad—unless one counts the mad rush to Pristina, Kosovo, in 1999 during the end of the Kosovo war—since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 sought to check Western influence in its regional sphere of privileged interest and punish the staunchly pro-Western regime of then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. However, despite an intensive diplomatic push, Moscow largely failed to secure international recognitions for the independence of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It garnered the lasting support of only Nauru, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.  The August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, of course, demonstrated Moscow’s ability to overwhelm a tiny country on its border. But, in general, Russia’s efforts to influence and leverage even its neighbors routinely fall short. As Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness write in Foreign Affairs, Moscow’s “bark is worse than its bite.”

A demonstrator holds a sign as he protests against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015
A demonstrator holds a sign as he protests against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Russia’s alliance portfolio both underscores and contributes to its problems. Moscow relies on cultivating and supporting strongman clients. It pursues this policy within its own territory, such as in Chechnya and the North Caucasus; across the “frozen” separatist entities it backs in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; and in post-Soviet states such as Belarus and several Central Asian countries. Russia uses incentives—including subsidized energy, military assistance, and pledges of financial support—in exchange for continuing fealty to Moscow and support of Russian-backed foreign policy initiatives such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet, as the world saw with the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s political clients are often deeply kleptocratic and enjoy fragile domestic legitimacy. It should surprise no one, then, that in a post–Arab Spring, post-Maidan environment, Central Asian autocrats have followed Moscow’s lead and cracked down on the political activities of nongovernmental organizations and other forms of “foreign influence.”

Even worse, many of Russia’s clients are flight risks; they enjoy access to multiple international patrons and could leave Moscow’s sphere of influence relatively easily. For example, China offers an emerging alternative to Russian dominance in Central Asia. The European Union pulls at Russian clients in western Eurasia. This provides ways for many of Russia’s clients to enhance their autonomy from Moscow.

At the same time, Moscow continues to back counterweight organizations, such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but these remain largely aspirational entities rather than effective problem-solving international bodies. Despite public calls for a Russian pivot to China, numerous cooperative arrangements between Beijing and Moscow, such as the Power of Siberia gas agreement, appear to be developing on Beijing’s terms. And China has proven unable to provide a source of financing for Russian firms that have been hit hard by Western financial sanctions and need to roll over and restructure debt. At the most basic level, Russia and China remain frenemies with often divergent—if not conflictual—strategic and economic interests.

Russian intervention complicates an already dicey U.S. policy in the country.
In contrast, the United States sits at the center of a vast network of alliances, strategic partnerships, bases, and access agreements. Washington’s close allies include many of the world’s wealthiest nations—France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. It is a driving force in NATO, maintains close security cooperation with the Gulf states, enjoys deeply institutionalized alliances with every major Pacific power other than China, and has recently seen many other Asian countries tilt in its direction. Most of its linchpin regional allies, especially in Europe and Asia, are democratic regimes. In France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, the question of security cooperation with the United States concerns not whether, but how much.

Of course, critics often accuse Washington of hypocrisy. In addition to working with stable, democratic governments, the United States cooperates with a number of autocratic regimes that do not embody liberal principles. When conducting counterterrorism operations in Africa and Asia, or when establishing basing rights in Central Asia for the war in Afghanistan, Washington has cut its own fair share of deals with dictators in graft-ridden countries. But it has also paid the price in countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where it has been entangled in domestic power struggles and corruption schemes. Accusations of Washington’s double standards resonate precisely because the United States maintains such a broad range of security relationships, many of which are undergirded by liberal norms and values that are widely shared by its partners.

Demonstrators wave Syrian opposition flags as they protest against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015.
Demonstrators wave Syrian opposition flags as they protest against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Beyond accusations of hypocrisy, Washington’s relations with its heterogeneous collection of allies and partners often force caution, deliberation, and legal nuance when undertaking important security decisions. When Washington refuses to provide weapons to Ukraine out of fear of regional escalation, it must still take steps to reaffirm its Article V commitments to NATO members—such as the Baltic States and Poland—by increasing its rotational presence instead. Even within NATO, the United States must lead an alliance composed of relative hawks and doves—and, in the case of Hungary, perhaps even admirers—when it comes to Russia. For those obsessed with flashy displays of boldness and resolve, it is no wonder that such prudent management of American power appears weak and indecisive.

The complications of being an alliance-rich global power extend well beyond Europe. When Washington makes a nuclear deal with Iran, it faces pressure to reassure Israel, the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia that its alliances are every bit as strong as they were before. It must tread delicately when it comes to the various fault lines in the Middle East: Turkey and the Kurds; the tensions among Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiites in Iraq and throughout the Middle East; and the Israel-Palestine conflict and how that plays among other U.S. allies in the region. The United States inevitably faces cross-pressures, blowback, and diplomatic gymnastics because its own policies directly impact a much larger number of relationships and global commitments than Russia’s.

Obama’s apparent restraint appears irresolute, whereas Putin comes across as a strong, decisive master strategist who exploits Obama’s weakness and keeps Washington off balance. These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however.
Russia can ignore these same sites of conflict, even if doing so would be unwise. In the Middle East, Russia must decide between losing the Syrian regime and its basing regional foothold, or enter into a conflict where it will aim to shore up its political client and reinvigorate its relationship with Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal. In Ukraine and eastern Europe, Moscow is willing to alienate Sweden and Finland to the point where NATO membership becomes a live political option. And why not? Russia’s economic and military power is already dwarfed by that of the Western alliance. In Asia, where Russia barely has a presence, Moscow’s access to Cam Ranh Bay is complicated by the fact that it mostly serves Vietnam as a hedge in the context of growing Vietnamese-U.S. cooperation and escalating Vietnam-China tensions over the South China Sea. Russia’s attempt to support the regime in Cuba—for which it granted debt relief—now appears overtaken by the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. And attempts to draw closer to countries such as Egypt—by offering cooperative ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union—are more about symbolism and status than actual legal economic integration.

DESPERATE TIMES, DESPERATE MEASURES

Moscow’s weak hand makes Russian officials scramble for the least bad option. But this weakness should also caution the West against the risk of Putin envy. Obama’s recent comments about how Putin’s adventures abroad signal weakness at home hit upon an essential truth: Moscow’s recent moves are desperate attempts to stave off the loss of clients and influence, rather than a changing of the geopolitical guard.

Russia’s Ukraine policy is more failure than success: Putin’s pressure on Yanukovych brought a pro-Western regime to power and forced Moscow to turn to military instruments to salvage its position at tremendous cost to its international standing and economy. Outside of Crimea—which in itself is likely to be an expensive albatross—Russian forces and their allies hold very little Ukrainian territory. As of now, it looks as though Russia will have to settle for a few frozen conflicts instead of a land corridor to Crimea and the collapse of a hostile Ukrainian regime. Even if Moscow’s fortunes shift, the whole stream of events showcases Russia’s weakness: the fragility of its clients, the limited efficacy of Moscow’s power-political instruments, and the large costs incurred from having to resort to force in order to maintain its small pool of allies and partners.  

The same basic dynamics likely hold in Syria. Of course, Russian intervention complicates an already dicey U.S. policy in the country, where Washington’s arming of rebels now places U.S. weapons at the firing end of Russian and pro-Assad forces. Indeed, Moscow’s intervention in Syria demonstrates that the Russia of 2015 is much more capable than the Russia of 2000. But Moscow’s actions amount to a risky attempt to prop up its only reliable Middle Eastern ally, secure practically its only overseas military base, and break from relative isolation.

Russia’s geostrategic position is overwhelmingly inferior. Combined with profound status insecurity and a regime that remains nervous about domestic stability, this constitutes a potent mix. Ironically, it leaves Moscow comparatively unfettered to engage in opportunistic and risky actions. With no extensive global alliance system to conserve, it need not worry about cross-pressures, hypocrisy costs, and other luxuries of geopolitical success. This may enable it to chip away at weak links in the American order and even to take “bold” actions to enhance its strategic outlook. But in international affairs, fortune—as Washington learned in Iraq and Libya—does not always favor the bold.

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and a Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.

  • DAN NEXON is an Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.
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