Putin Is Playing Obama Like a Fiddle
Recent Russian efforts to magnify its Middle East influence have been accompanied by a seeming surge in Kremlin “reasonableness.” In fact, Russian calls for new Syrian elections and sharing intelligence with Western powers are nothing more than exercises in “maskirovka,” Russia’s classic technique for disguising its real objectives.
Gullible Westerners, following a long-established pattern, are falling for the ruse.
And a ruse it is. Russia’s goals haven’t changed, only its propaganda.
For example, by offering to attack ISIS targets if Washington and the Free Syrian Army share intelligence regarding those targets, Moscow is trying to blunt criticism that its strikes so far have targeted the FSA itself.
Russia needs no help finding ISIS, and knows full well America won’t help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even indirectly. Instead, Putin’s aim is to envelop the United States in a web of cooperation that further legitimizes Russia’s dramatically enhanced Middle East presence.
Russia’s support for new Syrian elections is the brashest ploy of all. Drawing the FSA (let alone ISIS, which will presumably sneer at the idea) into protracted negotiations over election rules can only lessen the opposition’s will. In the highly unlikely event elections were actually held, who doubts that Assad’s henchmen would deliver his votes with even more predictability and efficiency than America’s urban political machines?
Putin’s offers of “cooperation” are aimed at weakening Western resistance to Russia’s rising influence in the region and more broadly. Russia’s increasing confidence is also reflected in its worldwide interest in critical undersea communications cables, implicitly threatening their destruction in time of war.
Europe’s continuing Middle East refugee crisis is agitating governments to stop the nearly endless tide inundating them. Although purportedly from Syria, displaced by four years of grinding civil conflict, many of the refugees come from elsewhere, as far away as Afghanistan or as close as Kosovo. Verifying the refugees’ citizenship has overwhelmed Europe’s capacities — and they’re still coming. Most are young men; if they’re allowed to remain, their families will follow in due course.
Solving the refugee problem is the carrot Russia has soothingly offered through its Syrian intervention. But Moscow has more in mind, namely getting relief from the sanctions imposed because of its adventurism in Ukraine.
Recent (and very convenient) media reports that Russian special-operations forces currently deployed in Ukraine are being sent to Syria does two things. First, it announces that Russia has no immediate intention to increase tensions in Ukraine, providing another argument to reduce or eliminate sanctions. Second, it shows Russian commitment to “resolve” the Syria question.
Putin is also signaling to Arab leaders, especially Saudi Arabia, that Russia is a dependable ally, perhaps not so strong as the United States militarily, but at least more constant. By assembling a Shiite coalition including Assad, Iran, its puppet regime in Baghdad and Hezbollah, the Kremlin is showing that, while America dithers, it can act with firmness and resolve.
Plus, regional chaos has already helped provoke a dramatic spike in violence by Palestinians against Israel. And like Winnie the Pooh drawn to honey, Secretary of State John Kerry has diverted to the Israel-Palestinian dispute rather than repelling Russia’s incursions into America’s Middle East dominance.
However weak Putin’s economic hand or precarious his domestic political position, he has the momentum and a full range of options. His alliance could easily reach an unholy modus vivendi with ISIS, allowing both Iran and ISIS, despite their widely varying (indeed, conflicting) motives, to pursue their respective objectives against the Arabian Peninsula’s oil-producing monarchies. Or, Putin could offer the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs a respite from ISIS and Iranian threats in pursuit of their common objective of higher global oil prices.
Putin’s domestic vulnerabilities could, of course, be exploited by adversaries who understood his strategy and had both the determination and the capacity to protect their own vital interests. History, confirmed by several recent utterly childlike comments, tells us that President Obama neither understands what Putin is seeking, nor is inclined to counter it.
Not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East, Putin will remain unchecked by America for the next 15 months. As grim as the situation is now, it will be worse in January 2017.
John Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, was US ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.
This article was originally published by The New York Post.