These are happy days in the Kremlin; one can only assume the vodka and caviar are being consumed with gusto. And it is not hard to see why. After decades of humiliation — including the cold war’s conclusion on terms sought by the west; the demise of the Soviet Union; and Germany’s unification within Nato followed by the alliance’s enlargement in eastern Europe — Russia is back.
Indeed, President Vladimir Putin ran something of a victory lap on the opinion pages of The New York Times on Thursday. His column reads in part as a summary of the Russian case against external (ie American) armed intervention in Syria. Mr Putin argues, without a shred of evidence, that it was the Syrian opposition and not the government that used chemical weapons. More seriously, he maintains that those fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are dominated by anti-democracy extremists, who are the real threat; and that any military strike against the Syrian government would contravene international law.
Mr Putin does not leave it there, though. It is not just that his criticism of the use of military force around the world conveniently omits Georgia. He cannot resist patronising US President Barack Obama and lecturing Americans on what he sees as their attachment to the undeserved notion of American exceptionalism. What comes through is his resentment of both American primacy and Russia’s relegation to the periphery of global politics. Clearly, he is relishing both the image and the reality of the Obama administration coming to him to salvage what remains of its Syrian policy.
All this, of course, is taking place against the backdrop of US-Russian diplomatic exchanges to flesh out the proposal to use diplomacy to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The question naturally arises: is it possible that Russia could be a partner, even rescuing Mr Obama from the predicament he created for himself by first declaring and then backtracking from his own “red line”?
The bottom line is that US-Russian partnership on Syria is possible – but it is at most a long shot. The two governments are still working at cross purposes, with Russian arms bolstering the Assad regime and US-supplied arms finally reaching elements of the opposition. And implementation of any plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons inventory promises to be extraordinarily difficult, given that there is no accessible accounting of what exists; the reportedly large number of munitions and amount of chemical agents; and, more than anything else, the reality that any disarmament programme would have to be carried out amid an intense civil war.
Making things even less likely to succeed is the fact that Russia will refuse to agree to support any use of military force against Syria if it refuses to comply fully and expeditiously with any arms control undertaking. Mr Obama would have been wiser to ask Congress to give him the authority to determine whether Syria was complying fully; and, if he determined not, to carry out limited strikes. The problem is not just that Congress would likely have refused to grant Mr Obama such powers at this point, but also that Syria (with Russian prodding) might do just enough in the way of compliance to keep alive the hope diplomacy will work, thereby undermining what support existed for even limited military action.
Does all this mean that we are back to a new cold war? The answer is no. The two countries have some common interests, including opposition to terrorism. But co-operation there and on other matters will be uneven and intermittent, as Mr Putin depends in large part on anti-Americanism for his political base. In addition, he has little incentive to reduce Russia’s nuclear weapons inventory, one of the country’s last claims to major power status. The likely future is one in which Russia will often be a spoiler from the US perspective, selling arms to Syria and Iran or blocking the US in the UN Security Council.
But Mr Putin will not want the competition to get out of hand, as Russia is not a great power capable of competing with the US on a global scale. It has a mostly one-dimensional economy, heavily reliant on oil and gas. Little in the way of a broad, modern economy exists. The population is only 143m and until recently was in decline. The military cannot compete on a modern battlefield. The politics, like the economics, are top heavy; Mr Putin is vulnerable to unrest at home and offers no vision abroad.
All of which to say is that, while Mr Putin can fairly claim to have won this round of diplomacy, through his own cleverness and Mr Obama’s multiple missteps, he cannot assume it is the harbinger of a trend, much less an era of global politics. Tactical triumphs cannot obscure or do away with the larger strategic reality of Russian limitations and weaknesses, and America’s underlying power and reach. Ironically, it would take a very different Russia, one incompatible with Mr Putin’s authoritarianism, to be a 21st century power to be reckoned with.
The author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and, most recently, the author of ‘Foreign Policy Begins at Home’