In recent weeks I've written about U.S. President Barack Obama's bluff on Syria and the tightrope he is now walking on military intervention. There is another bluff going on that has to be understood, this one from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin is bluffing that Russia has emerged as a major world power. In reality, Russia is merely a regional power, but mainly because its periphery is in shambles. He has tried to project a strength that he doesn't have, and he has done it well. For him, Syria poses a problem because the United States is about to call his bluff, and he is not holding strong cards. To understand his game we need to start with the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Putin and Obama held a 20-minute meeting there that appeared to be cold and inconclusive. The United States seems to be committed to some undefined military action in Syria, and the Russians are vehemently opposed. The tensions showcased at the G-20 between Washington and Moscow rekindled memories of the Cold War, a time when Russia was a global power. And that is precisely the mood Putin wanted to create. That's where Putin's bluff begins.
A Humbled Global Power
The United States and Russia have had tense relations for quite a while. Early in the Obama administration, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up in Moscow carrying a box with a red button, calling it the reset button. She said that it was meant to symbolize the desire for restarting U.S.-Russian relations. The gesture had little impact, and relations have deteriorated since then. With China focused on its domestic issues and with Europe in disarray, the United States and Russia are the two major -- if not comparable -- global players, and the deterioration in relations can be significant. We need to understand what is going on here before we think about Syria.
Twenty years ago, the United States had little interest in relations with Russia, and certainly not with resetting them. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Russian Federation was in ruins and it was not taken seriously by the United States -- or anywhere else for that matter. The Russians recall this period with bitterness. In their view, under the guise of teaching the Russians how to create a constitutional democracy and fostering human rights, the United States and Europe had engaged in exploitative business practices and supported non-governmental organizations that wanted to destabilize Russia.
The breaking point came during the Kosovo crisis. Slobodan Milosevic, leader of what was left of Yugoslavia, was a Russian ally. Russia had a historic relationship with Serbia, and it did not want to see Serbia dismembered, with Kosovo made independent.
There were three reasons for this. First, the Russians denied that there was a massacre of Albanians in Kosovo. There had been a massacre by Serbians in Bosnia; the evidence of a massacre in Kosovo was not clear and is still far from clear. Second, the Russians did not want European borders to change. There had been a general agreement that forced changes in borders should not happen in Europe, given its history, and the Russians were concerned that restive parts of the Russian Federation, from Chechnya to Karelia to Pacific Russia, might use the forced separation of Serbia and Kosovo as a precedent for dismembering Russia. In fact, they suspected that was the point of Kosovo. Third, and most important, they felt that an attack without U.N. approval and without Russian support should not be undertaken both under international law and out of respect for Russia.
President Bill Clinton and some NATO allies went to war nevertheless. After two months of airstrikes that achieved little, they reached out to the Russians to help settle the conflict. The Russian emissary reached an agreement that accepted the informal separation of Kosovo from Serbia but would deploy Russian peacekeepers along with the U.S. and European ones, their mission being to protect the Serbians in Kosovo. The cease-fire was called, but the part about Russian peacekeepers was never fully implemented.
Russia felt it deserved more deference on Kosovo, but it couldn't have expected much more given its weak geopolitical position at the time. However, the incident served as a catalyst for Russia's leadership to try to halt the country's decline and regain its respect. Kosovo was one of the many reasons that Vladimir Putin became president, and with him, the full power of the intelligence services he rose from were restored to their former pre-eminence.
The United States has supported, financially and otherwise, the proliferation of human rights groups in the former Soviet Union. When many former Soviet countries experienced revolutions in the 1990s that created governments that were somewhat more democratic but certainly more pro-Western and pro-American, Russia saw the West closing in. The turning point came in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution generated what seemed to Putin a pro-Western government in 2004. Ukraine was the one country that, if it joined NATO, would make Russia indefensible and would control many of its pipelines to Europe.
In Putin's view, the non-governmental organizations helped engineer this, and he claimed that U.S. and British intelligence services funded those organizations. To Putin, the actions in Ukraine indicated that the United States in particular was committed to extending the collapse of the Soviet Union to a collapse of the Russian Federation. Kosovo was an insult from his point of view. The Orange Revolution was an attack on basic Russian interests.
Putin began a process of suppressing all dissent in Russia, both from foreign-supported non-governmental organizations and from purely domestic groups. He saw Russia as under attack, and he saw these groups as subversive organizations. There was an argument to be made for this. But the truth was that Russia was returning to its historical roots as an authoritarian government, with the state controlling the direction of the economy and where dissent is treated as if it were meant to destroy the state. Even though much of this reaction could be understood given the failures and disasters since 1991, it created a conflict with the United States. The United States kept pressing on the human rights issue, and the Russians became more repressive in response.
Then came the second act of Kosovo. In 2008, the Europeans decided to make Kosovo fully independent. The Russians asked that this not happen and said that the change had little practical meaning anyway. From the Russian point of view, there was no reason to taunt Russia with this action. The Europeans were indifferent.
The Russians found an opportunity to respond to the slight later that year in Georgia. Precisely how the Russo-Georgian war began is another story, but it resulted in Russian tanks entering a U.S. client state, defeating its army and remaining there until they were ready to leave. With the Americans bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, no intervention was possible. The Russians took this as an opportunity to deliver two messages to Kiev and other former Soviet states. First, Russia, conventional wisdom aside, could and would use military power when it chose. Second, he invited Ukraine and other countries to consider what an American guarantee meant.
U.S.-Russian relations never really recovered. From the U.S. point of view, the Russo-Georgia war was naked aggression. From the Russian point of view, it was simply the Russian version of Kosovo, in fact gentler in that it left Georgia proper intact. The United States became more cautious in funding non-governmental organizations. The Russians became more repressive by the year in their treatment of dissident groups.
Since 2008, Putin has attempted to create a sense that Russia has returned to its former historic power. It maintains global relations with left-wing powers such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba. Of course, technically Russia is not left wing, and if it is, it is a weird leftism given its numerous oligarchs who still prosper. And in fact there is little that Russia can do for any of those countries, beyond promising energy investments and weapon transfers that only occasionally materialize. Still, it gives Russia a sense of global power.
In fact, Russia remains a shadow of what the Soviet Union was. Its economy is heavily focused on energy exports and depends on high prices it cannot control. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains hard and life expectancy short. Militarily, it cannot possibly match the United States. But at this moment in history, with the United States withdrawing from deep involvement in the Muslim world, and with the Europeans in institutional disarray, it exerts a level of power in excess of its real capacity. The Russians have been playing their own bluff, and this bluff helps domestically by creating a sense that, despite its problems, Russia has returned to greatness.
In this game, taking on and besting the United States at something, regardless of its importance, is critical. The Snowden matter was perfect for the Russians. Whether they were involved in the Snowden affair from the beginning or entered later is unimportant. It has created two important impressions. The first is that Russia is still capable of wounding the United States -- a view held among those who believe the Russians set the affair in motion, and a view quietly and informally encouraged by those who saw this as a Russian intelligence coup even though they publicly and heartily denied it.
The second impression was that the United States was being hypocritical. The United States had often accused the Russians of violating human rights, but with Snowden, the Russians were in a position where they protected the man who had revealed what many saw as a massive violation of human rights. It humiliated the Americans in terms of their own lax security and furthermore weakened the ability of the United States to reproach Russia for human rights violations.
Obama was furious with Russia's involvement in the Snowden case and canceled a summit with Putin. But now that the United States is considering a strike on the Syrian regime following its suspected use of chemical weapons, Washington may be in a position to deal a setback to a Russia client state, and by extension, Moscow itself.
The Syria Question
The al Assad regime's relations with Russia go back to 1970, when Hafez al Assad, current President Bashar al Assad's father, staged a coup and aligned Syria with the Soviet Union. In the illusion of global power that Putin needs to create, the fall of al Assad would undermine his strategy tremendously unless the United States was drawn into yet another prolonged and expensive conflict in the Middle East. In the past, the U.S. distraction with Iraq and Afghanistan served Russia's interests. But the United States is not very likely to get as deeply involved in Syria as it did in those countries. Obama might bring down the regime and create a Sunni government of unknown beliefs, or he may opt for a casual cruise missile attack. But this will not turn into Iraq unless Obama loses control completely.
This could cause Russia to suffer a humiliation similar to the one it dealt the United States in 2008 with Georgia. The United States will demonstrate that Russia's concerns are of no account and that Russia has no counters if and when the United States decides to act.
The impact inside Russia will be interesting. There is some evidence of weakness in Putin's position. His greatest strength has been to create the illusion of Russia as an emerging global power. This will deal that a blow, and how it resonates through the Russian system is unclear. But in any event, it could change the view of Russia being on the offensive and the United States being on the defensive.
Putin made this a core issue for him. I don't think he expected the Europeans to take the position that al Assad had used chemical weapons. He thought he had more pull than that. He didn't. The Europeans may not fly missions but they are not in a position to morally condemn those who do. That means that Putin's bluff is in danger.
History will not turn on this event, and Putin's future, let alone Russia's, does not depend on his ability to protect Russia's Syrian ally. Syria just isn't that important. There are many reasons that the United States might not wish to engage in Syria. But if we are to understand the U.S.-Russian crisis over Syria, it makes sense to consider the crisis within in the arc of recent history from Kosovo in 1999 to Georgia in 2008 to where we are today