Shadow Government

Putin’s Realpolitik, For The Win

Did the Russian president just checkmate Obama?


The last two weeks of September 2015 mark a watershed for the presidency of Barack Obama. The events that unfolded in the Middle East are so damaging to the administration’s statecraft that his foreign policy legacy cannot recover no matter what he does. If he does nothing to counter Vladimir Putin, he will be confirmed as the loser in what is effectively a new Cold War, or at least a “coldish” war. If he accepts Putin’s invitation to join his alliance, he’s embracing a most unsavory collection of states. And if Obama decides to challenge Putin with force, he very likely will be the first president in a generation to risk, if not outright provoke, a hot war with Russia. 

What is the current state of affairs?

It is worth noting exactly what the world looks like as we near the end of Obama’s term in office. In Eastern Europe, Russia has taken Crimea and has troops in eastern Ukraine supporting separatists. Putin wants it to be a neutered buffer state and he’s succeeding. Russia is also harassing the Baltics and it has flown provocatively around NATO members’ territories and assets.

In the Middle East, Putin has built up sea, land, and air forces in Syria and is making good on his determination to fight the Islamic State and to do so in alliance with Syria’s Bashar al Assad. At the U.N. last week, Obama and Putin discussed Syria and how to defeat the Islamic State. In that meeting, Putin gave Obama no warning that he was going to launch airstrikes; that warning came one hour before they were launched in a surprise and unusually terse demarche delivered in Baghdad. Then Putin launched those strikes but not against the Islamic State; rather, he is attacking the secular moderate Syrian forces opposing Assad that the United States has been training.

Russia is back on the ground in the Middle East and in alliance with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah; the Iraqi government is a de facto member of that alliance. Lest we forget, one of the great achievements of U.S. foreign policy 40 years ago was to engineer the ouster of the Soviet Union from Egypt. So it is one of the greatest failures of Obama’s foreign policy that Russia is back in the Middle East with troops on the ground and engaged in an active shooting war with moderate forces attempting to overthrow Assad and replace him with a pro-Western regime. How rich is it that Putin called from the dais of the General Assembly last week for a resolution codifying his actions in Syria?

How did we get here?

We got here because Obama’s big foreign policy idea is that, in the new era, diplomacy alone will bring about peace. But more than that, his idea is that U.S. goals can be achieved by the withdrawal of the United States from leadership. He refuses to contemplate that other powers with different goals will meet his faculty lounge musings with raw power. They’ll even use international organizations for their own interests. The faculty lounge reference is not just sarcasm; when the president and the secretaries of defense and state repeatedly respond to Putin’s actions with incredulity and rebuke him for being “unprofessional” and misperceiving where the arc of history is headed, there is no other way to characterize them. They think and talk like professors who can never quite grasp reality because they are so wedded to their idealistic theories of how the world should work.

Putin took charge easily enough; he read Obama like a book early on. Once Putin learned Obama’s view of the world and what role he wanted the United States to play in it, the Russian leader’s strategy was set and it has been rewarded handsomely. It is an old trope but an accurate one: Russians play chess, not checkers, and they play to win, not for participation trophies. It’s costing Putin something in troop deployments and sanctions but the return on the investment makes the cost worthwhile. In year seven of the Obama administration, Putin has consistently been in the driver’s seat and all Obama can do is react — and he might not even be willing to do that.

Imagine being able to see the world through Vladimir Putin’s eyes as he observes Obama in action over the years. As Putin made clear long ago, his number one priority is the return of Russia to global power status — that is both the highest domestic policy goal and foreign policy goal because they are essentially the same thing for an authoritarian trying to stay in power.

Here is what Putin must have observed:

  • Most of Obama’s staff appointments and certainly his liberal internationalist rhetoric signaled a determination to reduce the U.S. footprint in the world and abandon leadership of it. Putin counted up his opportunities to reassert Russia’s influence. And what a boon it was for Putin that a live microphone caught Obama in conversation with then President Dmitry Medvedev saying that Putin just needed to give Obama time to get re-elected and then he’d show more flexibility regarding Putin’s wishes in international affairs.
  • Obama’s determination to withdraw from Iraq spoke volumes to Putin about American commitment to stabilize the Middle East, prevent Iranian expansion and intimidate terrorist groups. Any junior military or foreign service officer could have told Obama that he was risking a power vacuum in the most dangerous part of the world that would be filled with our greatest enemies. Hearing Obama call the Islamic State a “jayvee team” must have both astounded and amused Putin.
  • Putin watched as Obama caved on his Syria red lines and then asked Russia to help strip the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons. In effect, he saw Obama utter an ultimatum he had no intention of enforcing against a Russian ally, only to then ask Russia to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. He saw a U.S. president with no strategy or foresight, and feckless enough to try to blame his own Congress for his failings.
  • Putin has paid a price for what he is doing in the Crimea and east Ukraine, but not a price high enough to make him quit the project. And he still holds the energy cards as the United States has done nothing to counter his advantage there.
  • Putin has heard the president and Secretary Kerry double and triple down on their assertion that climate change is the number one American national security issue.
  • Putin has watched as Obama allowed China to claim and militarize the South China Sea while at the same time hacking into some of the United States’ most sensitive government computer systems. And the only punishment for these deeds is that the Chinese leader had to sit through a 21-gun salute and a state dinner.
  • The Iran nuclear deal speaks for itself: the administration caved on every U.S. demand — demands codified in U.N. resolutions no less — and all because the president was unwilling to truly challenge the Iranian regime.
  • Russia’s longtime thorn in the American side, the Castro regime, got a sweetheart deal of its own. Once again, the U.S. demanded nothing and acceded to everything it could within the executive’s authority — all while the Putin and Castro plan to reopen the SIGINT base in Lourdes.

What is likely to happen over the next 15 months?

In his press conferences last week, the president appears to have already decided how to respond: he will keep denying reality and scolding Putin for acting out of “weakness” and being clueless as to how the world works now that we have left the past behind with all its power politics ugliness.

But it is the president who appears clueless: little has changed about how the world works since Thucydides first taught us our lessons. Thanks to Immanuel Kant, Hedley Bull, and a whole lot of globalization, there is a bit more community and a little less anarchy. But only a little more and only a little less. At the end of the day, power still arbitrates if a single capable aggressor or change agent is willing to act.

Furthermore, the president misses the point of what Putin both wants and needs. Putin wants to fulfill Russia’s destiny and that means he must counter U.S. influence in the regions that matter most. And Putin doesn’t need to establish peace so avoiding a quagmire is not his concern. Being on the ground in the Middle East leading an alliance of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah is perfect for his strategy of countering the United States and establishing Russian leadership. Unless he is challenged, Putin can exercise significant and growing influence over every country in the Middle East by either actually leading some of them in allied efforts, or wooing others into partnership or acquiescence. The worst-case scenario for Putin is that he simply remains present, disrupting any threat to his interests. Russia is back; just note how many pilgrimages to Moscow have been made and will be made by regional leaders.

It did not have to be this way, but the current state of affairs was inevitable with a leader like Obama. Past presidents have demonstrated more understanding of how the world works and had the resolve to follow through. Truman, Ike, Kennedy, and of course Reagan, come to mind. With no illusions as to what the Russians intended or what their interests were, they strategized accordingly. Most importantly, they knew that diplomacy would achieve little unless it was backed by force and facts on the ground.

Putin knows that, too.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.