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Russia’s Middle-East End Game, at the Hands of the Post-Soviet Grandmaster

Why Putin believes U.S. policies in the Middle East since the Arab Spring have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous

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President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
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Vladimir Putin, now in power for over 13 years, has a history with the United States, his one-time opponent on the global chessboard. He began by mending ties with NATO, broken during the Kosovo conflict, and then actually applying for membership in the alliance that once faced off against the Red Army. In the wake of Sept. 11, Putin not only called George W. Bush, but also gave practical and substantive support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan—and tolerated a large U.S. military presence in former Soviet Central Asia. Putin also chose not to react strongly to the Bush Administration’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty that Moscow had for decades called a key pillar of strategic stability, and managed to live with Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the enlargement of NATO—to include, among others, the three Baltic states. The early picture of Putin’s relations with the United States was therefore one of relative harmony.

What changed Putin’s largely positive attitude toward the United States were the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, which he saw as U.S. actions to displace Russia from its “zones of interests,” at best, or, at worst, as a dress rehearsal for a regime change in Russia itself. Putin then changed tack and left the West’s political orbit to reassert Russia’s role as an independent great power, helped by a decade of high and ever-rising oil prices. He fulminated against U.S. global hegemony in a speech in Munich, but to little avail, as Washington’s support for Ukrainian and Georgian bids to join NATO helped destabilize the situation in Eastern Europe. The whole thing ended in a brief war between Russia and Georgia, which Putin saw as a U.S. client state. Had the crisis also spread to Ukraine, or at least to Crimea, a direct U.S.-Russian collision would have been hard to avoid.

The global crisis and the change of presidents at the White House—Putin himself always stayed in control, even when he let his protégé Dmitri Medvedev formally run Russia—allowed for a new beginning in U.S.-Russian relations. Putin took Barack Obama’s “reset” in relations with Moscow as a correction of the flawed policies of the previous administration. He had one substantive face-to-face meeting with Obama when the latter was visiting Russia, and he permitted Medvedev’s closer engagement with the U.S. president. But the results of that engagement, in Putin’s view, were mixed. Obama showed no interest in the post-Soviet space, which was good; he scaled down U.S. missile defense plans, which was good; and he bombed Libya into a regime change, which was plainly bad.

By the time Putin formally returned to the Kremlin, he had become incensed over what he believed was blatant U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic politics. He accused the U.S. State Department of actually paying for and running the Russian protest movement that challenged his rule in a series of unprecedented demonstrations. Once in office, Putin lost no time in turning against those whom he described as foreign agents. Official anti-Americanism, heretofore a situational reaction to occasional U.S. military operations or human-rights campaigns, had become a key feature of the brand of Russian nationalism that Putin set about constructing in his new term. In foreign policy, Moscow stopped merely grumbling over U.S. actions it did not like, as in Kosovo, Iraq, or Libya; it started actively opposing U.S. policies, particularly in Syria.

It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin is a very conservative politician and statesman, and he is deeply cynical about domestic politics and international relations. He defends the status quo: domestically, because it suits him best; and internationally, because it is often the lesser evil. In his more than a dozen years in power, he has lost his early admiration for the United States and his once-strong empathy for Europe.

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From Vladimir Putin’s perspective, U.S. policies in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Awakening have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous, and its record of prognostication and intervention has been abysmal. Obama had made veiled calls for change during his first visit to Cairo, but when the change in Egypt suddenly became a reality, he agonized before making a decision. Eventually, he pushed out one of America’s staunchest allies, Hosni Mubarak, and tried his luck astride the “wave of history.” Obama mistook that wave for democracy; in truth, its real name was Islamism. While publicly exhorting Egyptians’ readiness to embrace democracy, the United States was essentially trying to protect its geopolitical interests, including Egypt’s peace with Israel and the shipping along the Suez Canal. Using its leverage with the Egyptian military, the United States gambled on bringing Islamists to power, in the hope of domesticating them through the chores and challenges of governance. When they turned out to be incompetent and headstrong, the United States let the first democratically elected president of Egypt be ousted by means of a managed crisis; staged popular riots; and eventually a military coup. The U.S. government refused to see the coup for what it actually was, so that it could, hypocritically, circumvent a U.S. legal norm mandating cessation of U.S. military aid, a key U.S. instrument of influence. The new government in Egypt contains a number of U.S. friends, but its future is uncertain.

Putin himself has been rather skeptical on Egypt. After some persuasion, he did agree to ease the ban on dealing with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and even invited President Morsi to his court in Sochi in the spring of 2013. Putin may privately enjoy watching the Egyptians stop burning Russian flags over Syria and putting up instead his own portrait alongside that of Nasser. Yet, even then Putin sees little cause for short-term optimism when he looks at Egypt. The country is on the brink of a civil war, he commented on Morsi’s ouster in June 2013.

In Libya, Putin watched the U.S. president in 2011 decide on a military intervention in a foreign country against the advice of his own military, in order to be on the safe side in the forthcoming elections at home and to placate his allies in Europe and the Arab world. What was originally billed as a humanitarian operation to save lives in Benghazi was soon expanded to bring about a regime change in Tripoli, the U.N. Security Council resolution that Russia had allowed to pass notwithstanding. As a result, Putin commented, Libya ceased to be a functioning state; it broke apart into petty fiefdoms, turning Libyans into paupers. Even worse, the chaos that followed the toppling of Qaddafi released huge arsenals of arms and munitions, as well as thousands of trained radical fighters, into the neighborhood, from North Africa to the Middle East.

It is Syria, however, that, for Putin, lays bare the failures of U.S. policy toward the Arab Spring. After Washington had tried, and failed, to sever the ties between Damascus and Tehran, it started looking to bring about regime change in Syria. The U.S. goal was not a Syrian democracy, but robbing Iran of its most important ally in the region; democracy was simply an instrument to achieve that goal. In order to help bring “democracy” to Syria, the United States formed an alliance with some of the most authoritarian countries in the world: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For those two, Syria was also a Sunni-majority state ruled by an Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Iran. For Ryadh and Doha, this had to change. Majority-rule per se was not the issue: When the Shiite-majority state, Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni dynasty, found itself in trouble, Saudi Arabia intervened in force to shore it up, with full understanding from the United States, which had its Fifth Fleet headquarters located in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.

Washington’s calculus was evidently wrong: The regime, despite Obama’s several proclamations, has not been toppled in the 30-month-long civil war. For Putin, Syria was above all about the principles of national sovereignty and noninterference. He instructed the Russian diplomats at the United Nations to give no quarter to those preparing for another humanitarian crusade. “Remember Libya,” he could be heard warning.

Putin hardly counts Bashar al-Assad among his personal friends. “He was more often in Paris and London than in Moscow,” Putin quipped once at a press conference in France. However, Putin saw some of Assad’s enemies as his own. Putin said 600 Europeans were in the ranks of the opposition forces; the head of Russian foreign intelligence quoted the figure of 200 Russian citizens fighting alongside Arab radicals and extremists.

For Putin, the armed opposition inside Syria—unlike the powerless political wing—is dominated by al-Qaida and its extremist friends, like al-Nusra. It is complete travesty of foreign policy, in his view, to help those forces take over a key Arab country and turn it into a base for terrorist operations in the region and beyond. The U.S. and European allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad forces is a red herring, designed to serve as a pretext for intervention or at least military aid to the rebels. It is supreme naiveté, in Putin’s eyes, to believe that the Syrian extremists can be tamed or sent away once the mission of toppling an unloved secular leader is accomplished. In Mali, Putin observed, Western forces are fighting against precisely the same groups whom they aid in Syria.

Last May, Putin appeared ready to deal with the United States on bringing the war in Syria to a close. For the Russian leader, however, it was never acceptable to be simply a U.S. accomplice in easing Assad out of power. His own terms of possible engagement were clear: Moscow and Washington act jointly and as equals; they bring the Syrian government and the opposition groups to the peace conference and keep them there; they let the Syrians decide the future of their country and the composition of its transitional government; they ratify the agreement reached and oversee its implementation. The United States looked at Putin’s terms and did not much like them. Putin, for his part, was not buying what the United States had to offer. Not surprisingly, Geneva 2 is not going to happen, at least not soon.

Syria is highly illustrative of the present state of U.S.-Russia relations. The case of Edward Snowden adds some color to that picture. The plan of channeling the former CIA contractor to a safe haven in Latin America having gone awry this summer, Putin stood firm: no extradition of the fugitive to the United States. At the same time, characteristically, he made granting Snowden permission to stay in Russia contingent on the American stopping his public revelations, “damaging to our U.S. partners.” Putin certainly did not want to undermine President Obama’s scheduled visit to Russia, but he was absolutely not prepared to pay any price just for having Obama in Moscow. The Kremlin immediately remembered Russians serving U.S. prison terms on contested convictions and former Chechen militants accused by Russia of complicity in acts of terrorism granted political asylum in the United States.

Putin sees the United States as having lost its way, and the European Union as not having found one. He now views America and Russia as culturally opposite to each other and Russia as more European in terms of its core values than present-day E.U.-land. Surprisingly, he still seems to harbor respect, howwver, for Israel and the Jewish people generally—even when he disagrees with their leaders, as on the actual danger posed by Iran, or thinks they are running too high risks, as in Syria.

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Compared to most of his fellow heads of state, particularly in the democratic countries, Putin, with his czar-like power inside Russia and vast experience in world affairs, looks an awesome character. Consequently, he is sometimes credited with the things that today’s Western leaders, almost to a single one of them, do not possess: strategic thinking; a sense of history; and purposefulness. Thus, Putin is occasionally depicted as a chess grand master towering over lesser players, even those who have much better figures on the chessboard.

The truth is, Putin enormously benefits from comparison: Contemporary Western leadership, whether in America or Europe, is often less than mediocre. Judged on his own merit, or against the record of past Russian leaders, communist and czarist, he cuts a more realistic figure. Putin has held Russia in one piece and so far defeated all his rivals; he was prudent with the oil money and thought he found a formula for ruling Russia: authoritarianism with the consent of the governed; finally, he ended Russia’s post-1991 dependency on the West.

Yet the challenges Putin faces are mounting, domestically and internationally. To confront them, he opted for conservatism, even traditionalism: This may not be a safe bet in a fast-changing world. To break off from the United States orbit as the oil money was pouring in was one thing; to manage China’s growing might is another. By the same token, turning away from Europe was much easier than rebuilding a politico-economic-military bloc in former Soviet Eurasia. Putin once quipped that, since the passing of Gandhi, there was no one worth talking to in the world. Each joke is only partly a joke. Czar Vladimir believes in his God-given mission and no longer walks with mere mortals. Imagining Putin himself in the company of the Tehran or Yalta summiteers, however, is hard. Even in Russia, true leadership sucks these days.

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Russia’s Middle-East End Game, at the Hands of the Post-Soviet Grandmaster

Why Putin believes U.S. policies in the Middle East since the Arab Spring have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous