In one day, with one simply stated proposal, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned a losing position into a winning one.
The Russians had been throwing everything they had into the arguments against military intervention in Syria. They questioned the lack of concrete evidence, and the United States and its allies countered that logic alone made the case. The Russians noted their investigation into a March chemical weapons case had laid responsibility on the rebels, and the United States pushed past without so much as a glance. Putin’s people emphasized the importance of the United Nations and the Security Council, and President Barack Obama’s administration dismissed their need.
And then on Monday,
Secretary of State John Kerry, in what most interpreted at the time as an almost flippant response, answered a reporter’s question by saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad could avoid a military attack by handing his chemical stockpiles over to the United Nations for destruction. Hours later, the Russians said they had made that proposal to Syria, and by Tuesday morning the Russian proposal appeared to have headed off a U.S.-led military strike.
Beyond halting the rush to punish the Syrian government for the alleged use of chemical weapons, the development cast Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as a global peacemaker and — experts say this is not to be overlooked — embarrassed an American administration.
Marcel de Haas, a Russia expert at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, said the importance of this week’s diplomatic coup will last beyond the Syrian crisis.
“The Russians were on the sidelines,” he said. “The Kerry statement didn’t just get them back in the game, it brought them back in a position of strength. Why did Putin push so hard for matters to be determined in the United Nations Security Council? Because there alone, two decades after the collapse of his Soviet Union, was he still a superpower.”
New York Times columnist Bill Keller noted the irony this week. Through the chemical weapons proposal Putin “has recast Russia — whose military helped the Assad dynasty create its chemical weapons program in the first place — as the global peacemaker.”
It’s a moment Putin has been waiting on for a while. The former head of the Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB, Putin in 2005 famously declared that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Those who study him believe he has been looking for a way to re-establish his country’s former level of influence and power ever since. He stood in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. He’s openly opposed NATO expansion. Old Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, have accused him of attempting to topple their Western-friendly governments. He has punished Europe through the years by briefly cutting natural gas supplies, even during cold snaps.
Through it all, as oil and gas prices have flowed upward, Putin’s Russia has become much wealthier than the broken shell of an empire left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“Until now, he’s been cast in the role of the villain, and he’s tired of playing the villain,” noted University of Richmond Russia expert Stephen Long. “Russia was Syria’s biggest ally and an international obstructionist. And now they’re not.”