Putin’s Syria proposal is actually part of a broader strategy to strengthen Barack Obama against the increasingly vocal Russia skeptics in the U.S.
Moscow wants a stronger Obama. Photo: U.S. White House / flicr
The Russia skeptics believe that Vladimir Putin’s proposal for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons is nothing less than an attempt to undermine the United States.
At the same time as they doubt Russia’s ability to live up to its side of the agreement, they seek to expose what they see as Putin’s Trojan horse strategy to humiliate U.S. President Barack Obama by engaging him in a protracted conflict in the Middle East. They argue that the likely benefits for Russia of such a strategy would include a weaker position for the United States and additional revenue from high oil prices.
The discussion of Putin’s motives takes us back to the time of Obama’s re-election when Russia skeptics saw Putin’s support for Obama as a sign of the U.S. president’s weakness. The logic was that nothing good could be expected of the former KGB spy and, if he likes us, there must be trouble waiting to happen somewhere down the line.
However, exploiting Obama’s weaknesses was hardly Putin’s intention. Without a partnership with the United States, Russia cannot solve important international issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, or instability in the Middle East. Russia’s president actually wanted to strengthen Obama against those sabotaging the U.S.-Russia relationship. Back in 2012, Putin supported Obama because his political opponent Mitt Romney was hawkish on Russia, calling the country America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Putin’s Syria proposal reflects a similar desire to weaken Obama’s hawkish opponents, not Obama himself. While Putin has a long list of complaints about the U.S., he understands very well that Obama is still his best partner when compared to his critics in Washington. By formulating the proposal, Putin sought to strengthen his ties with Obama and start fresh after a series of crises in the two countries' relations. Such crises included the passage of the Magnitsky Act by the U.S. Congress, granting asylum to Edward Snowden by Russia, and Obama’s decision to cancel (some say postpone) his bilateral summit with Putin in Moscow.
Putin’s proposal helped to get Obama out of his “red line” dilemma. Despite his reluctance to go to war, the U.S. president felt obligated to go to war because of his own verbally expressed commitment.
In a similar fashion, Putin’s recent op-ed in The New York Times served the purpose of strengthening the anti-war mood in the United States, and weakening the position of the pro-war hawks. While criticizing the decision to go to war with Syria, Putin characterized his relations with Obama as “growing trust.”
Putin understood that he was not likely to win over Russia critics and his intended audience did not include those who, like the Republican House Speaker John Boehner felt “insulted” by Russian president’s criticism of U.S. militarism or Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, who “almost wanted to vomit” after he read the article.
Instead, the article appealed directly to the anti-war public and, judging by the overwhelmingly supportive comments by the readers of the op-ed, the message was effective. The article returned around 4,500 comments. The most popular one was by a Texan who wrote, “Say what you will about the Russians and Mr. Putin in particular. This reaching out is unprecedented. … Put aside mistrust and bad feeling for the moment, and try find and do something positive for the world.”
The recent agreement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the phased elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons was another step in Putin’s attempt to make his relationship with Obama work.
Critics, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, immediately condemned the agreement as “meaningless” and “toothless” because it removed the threat of using force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Again, McCain and Graham were not those whom the Kremlin sought to please. Instead, Putin wanted to weaken their hand, thereby strengthening Obama’s.
It remains to be seen whether Putin’s strategy to strengthen his relations with Obama at the expense of Obama’s opponents will work. Its success in part depends on Obama’s willingness to stand up against numerous Russia skeptics at home. The U.S. president was not always forthcoming in the past. For example, he passed up the opportunity to veto the Magnitsky Bill that was voted on by the U.S. Congress.
In the meantime, Putin should ignore those in Russia who view Obama as an advocate of American imperialism and recommend against cooperating with the United States. Following their advice will only strengthen the position of the Russia skeptics in America.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.