Putin's Potemkin Intervention

The Weakness of Moscow's Syrian Adventure

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

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