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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4 reader comments

  1. A Donohoe says:

    How can this writer say that Russia doesn’t have a strategic interest in Syria, I find this an astoundingly misjudged statement.

  2. Mickel says:

    It’s amazing how Putin is trying to play the mother Theresa of the year. When it’s clear that he is to blame as much as any of the people involved in the fighting in Syria . Well for a start may be if he would Stop selling assad wepons, that could be a good place to start. Putin can not be taken serious as he is contributing to continuation of the war . He needs to make up his mind on the message he wants to promote

    1. Marco Borg says:

      What Americans think, whether the population at large or the government, is irrelevant in the Middle East. What the Middle Easterners think is what is relevant. And it is quite amazing what they think. If I were an American I would keep away. Even their new found friends in Syria, the cannibals, the people who drag their enemies (Christians? Alawites? Shiites? Atheists?) bind them and then shoot them in front of adoring Sunni crowds and the ones from Al Qaida who enter Christian villages, desecrate their churches and force them to recite islamic belief statements at the point of a gun.

      By the way, we get to know about these daily events, not from CNN, Time, Newsweek, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post or whatever, but from videos which these people have shot themselves.

  3. Philip says:

    Yes – he’s played his diplomatic cars well. But he’s still arming the Syrian government & effectively encouraging them to continue to attack their own people. And does anyone seriously believe that the Syrians would have put their chemical weapons under international control if there hadn’t been a real threat of US intervention? One could equally argue that Obama has done quite well, given the evident war-weariness of many of his natural allies and the implacable opposition to anything he does (even when they agree with it) from a substantial number of Republican congressmen & senators. His threat to use force, but following the route of getting congressional approval, bought time for a potential diplomatic solution. I don’t get the impression Obama wants to use force unless he has to. Good for him! I’d certainly argue that the approach he has adopted is more decent & reasonable than that adopted by Bush. Let the media spin it against him & in favour of Putin. But one of these men is a decent human being trying to do his best, the other is Putin. It would help not to build up amoral politicians like Putin, I think.

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