Outfoxed by the Russian Bear

As Russian military jets continue to defy the United States and pound anti-Assad fighters inside Syria, many are speculating as to what precisely Vladimir Putin is up to. While it is difficult, if now downright impossible, to read the mind of the former KGB agent who is now the absolute ruler of Russia, the most logical assumption is that he is engaged in a high-profile chess game with Washington — and Putin is winning.

While a White House spokesperson tried to minimize the power play by claiming that the game Putin was playing was analogous to checkers rather than chess, and President Obama has insinuated that the Russian military offensive was somehow a sign of “weakness,” it seems that few international observers would agree with that assessment.

After successfully getting away with swallowing up Crimea and sending troops and military aid to the anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine, Putin is continuing to work towards realizing his dream of a Russia that is a feared, international power. While its military might has been far diminished from its Soviet heyday, Moscow has repeatedly outmaneuvered the United States on the world stage.

With the American foreign policy in regard to Syria in shambles — the Pentagon quite literally spent a half a billion of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to train 50 fighters, only to see most of them get killed or desert — Putin saw a perfect opportunity to flex some muscles and grab a seat at the table.

When he met with President Obama last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Putin asked for high-ranking talks on Syria. When he was turned down, the Russian leader quickly made it public — and harshly criticized the United States for lacking an agenda in Syria.

Unfortunately, on that he is right on the mark.

The most persuasive argument that the Obama administration has been able to offer as a reply to the mounting criticism of the disastrous American foreign policy in Syria has been that the critics haven’t been able to come up with a better alternative. That is hardly a convincing approach. One of the few privileges of being in the opposition is not getting blamed for a colossal failure of leadership.

With Russian warplanes freely dropping bombs from the skies over Syria, the Pentagon had no choice but to start military-to-military talks with Russia on avoiding skirmishes in the air.

As Washington and Moscow establish guidelines that will hopefully prevent clashes between the two forces, Putin has already achieved what very possibly was one of his primary objectives — legitimacy on the world stage. After Russia scored a PR victory when it helped Syria reach a deal with the United States over its chemical arsenal, it has now established itself as a bona fide military power — a force to be reckoned with.

Putin is keeping up the ante in the war of words as well. Rejecting U.S. criticism for targeting moderate anti-Assad groups instead of the notorious ISIS — which is its declared primary target — the Kremlin insists that Washington is to blame because it refused to share information on IS targets in Syria.

Putin also claimed that when Moscow asked what targets it shouldn’t strike, Washington also refused to divulge them.

While the Pentagon can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share military intelligence with Moscow, at the end of the day, while America struggles to come up with a coherent strategy, Putin’s military forces are operating freely in Syria.

While the Obama administration insists that there can be no political solution to the Syrian crisis as long as Assad is in power, other than releasing statements, it has done virtually nothing to get him to leave. Nor is it certain that getting rid of Assad will really pave the way for an end to the quagmire that has seen hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed.

With the anti-Assad forces including both offshoots of al-Qaida and ISIS, one cannot assume that whoever replaces Assad — presuming he is eventually toppled — will be any better than the vicious despot being propped up by Moscow.

As is true with many of the hotspots in the Middle East, there are no clear-cut solutions. However, it is vital for the West, and Washington in particular, to come up with a cohesive, comprehensive plan — one that has at least a reasonable chance to succeed. More and more it seems that unless there is a dramatic shift on the chessboard of international relations, any such plan will have to include Russia. So far America has been repeatedly outfoxed by Putin, and unless it rapidly shifts course, the world’s sole remaining superpower will see its authority further diminished and the leadership qualities it seeks to portray severely tarnished.