12 Sep 2013

Putin’s Russian bear scents US blood

President Vladimir Putin has a number of guises – ace fisherman, saver of endangered cranes, chopper pilot. His photo opportunities reflect his ambitions for Russia  – muscular, strong, respected and feared by all. This week has bolstered that self image.

First he came up with an initiative that made the US president stop in his tracks; now a New York Times OpEd written in his name is being parsed by every foreign policy wonk on the planet. He is shaping the international response to President Bashar al-Assad‘s alleged use of chemical weapons, and by extension the direction of the war in Syria.

How can this be? Russia’s power is in many ways virtual. Its nuclear arsenal and inheritance of the Soviet Union’s seat on the UN Security Council provide residual influence, but it’s not a military power to rival the US. Formidable oil and gas reserves have kept the economy afloat but Russia doesn’t have the size and economic potential of China.

Putin’s brilliance has been to seize the moment. Post Iraq, post Afghanistan, post Libya the world is suspicious of intervention so he has set himself up as the non-interventionist – all the while arming and funding Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. It’s not that Russia has important strategic interests in Syria, more that Putin wants Russia to be the essential nation, without which no solution can be found.


The Russian bear has scented blood – the US under President Obama is a like a wounded beast, unable to outrun or fight other predators.  But – as it did after Jimmy Carter allowed US hostages to be seized in Iran in 1979 – the US will reassert itself. One day China, quietly watching from the wings, building its economic and military strength, will want to play a more active role. Russia may yet find that it’s an also-ran in the greater game.

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