A tough adversary named Putin

Russian policy has been hard at work exploiting Arab perceptions of U.S. weakness and diminishing influence in the Arab world

Hisham Melhem

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The common denominator that has been challenging the United States and undermining its foreign policy for 14 years from Syria, to Iran, to Ukraine is the cunning, ruthless and talented Mr. Putin; the president of Russia who would like to be the man who restored the far gone greatness of Mother Russia. Mr. Putin has dominated most of the post-Soviet history.

Ever since his ascendency to power, the Cold War mentality has been creeping back to Moscow. U.S. President Barack Obama may opt to deny that disagreements with Russia over the war in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine are part of competition on “some Cold War chessboard,” but the Russian president’s feet are firmly planted in the geopolitical dynamics that are at the heart of Russia’s agonizing struggle to come to grips with the loss of its stature as a superpower following the dissolution of the Soviet empire.


For President Obama and the leaders of the European Union, the issues that dominate the post-Cold War era are globalization, climate change, international trade, and the role of NGO’s and transparent governance.

But for Mr. Putin, who said in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” in the 20th century, the overriding obsession is one of restoration. That is, the restoration of Russia’s sphere of influence in the “near-abroad,” from Georgia to Ukraine and beyond.

The irony is that Mr. Putin is running a former empire that, had it not been for its huge oil and gas production and its nuclear arsenal, would have been as influential internationally as Italy, whose economy is almost the size of Russia’s.

By contrast the economy of the state of California is almost the size of the economy of Russia. Yet, Mr. Putin struts on the globe as the leader of a great power trying to dazzle the world by spending $50 billion on the Sochi Winter Olympics, while bullying Ukraine and Europe by threatening to withhold energy supplies, or by invading Georgia; checking and challenging the U.S. in the Middle East and East Asia.

Ironically, Mr. Putin’s successes in foreign affairs do not reflect the economic and political accomplishments of Russia, but are the results of American and European fecklessness, incompetence and wobbly leadership.

Talented Mr. Putin

Mr. Putin’s talent is that even when he is dealt a weak hand he plays it cunningly. He does not limit his challenge to the United States to the political domain only. He is willing to question and challenge intellectually that most salient of American claims: American exceptionalism.

In September 2013, Mr. Putin penned an article that was published by the New York Times taking issue with President Obama’s views that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It is what makes us exceptional.”

Mr. Putin said that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” as if Russian history is devoid of such claims and attitudes.

Russian policy has been hard at work exploiting Arab perceptions of U.S. weakness and diminishing influence in the Arab world following the withdrawal from Iraq, the planned withdrawal this year from Afghanistan, and Washington’s confusing approach to the Syrian conflict.

Hisham Melhem

Last summer, Mr. Putin overshadowed President Obama when he acted decisively and “saved” Mr. Obama from a major embarrassment in the Congress which was not about to approve his decision to punish the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons against its own people.

Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, ransomed al-Assad and removed him from America’s crosshair by striking a deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal. He basked in the limelight as he appeared to be a decisive leader who stands by his allies, in contrast to what appeared to the world as a reluctant and timid American President.

Obama may think that Putin may look like a “bored” school kid at the back of the classroom, or that “Putin has one foot in theold ways of doing business,” but the reality is that Putin cunningly understood the gap between President Obama’s tough rhetoric on Syria and his unwillingness to translate words into action.

In the months that followed that episode, U.S. officials would oscillate between beseeching Moscow to play a positive role and lean on al-Assad to compromise, and lobbing scathing criticism at Russia.

Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry did criticize Russia because of its unqualified support of its Syrian ally and because it continued to stymy Western attempts at getting the Security Council of the United Nations to adopt a resolution to provide humanitarian relief to besieged Syrian cities.

Last week, Sergey Lavrov chose Baghdad, Iraq as the venue to accuse the U.S. of encouraging the financing of “terrorist organizations” in Syria in a brazen attempt to exploit Iraq’s concerns because the violence in the country is spilling over to Iraq.

From Snowden to Sisi

Mr. Putin had a wonderful moment of Schadenfreude (German word meaning malicious delight at another's misfortune) when intelligence leaker Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia and Putin refused to return him to the U.S.; a move snubbing President Obama. Snowden blew the lid off of U.S. surveillance programs before and after arriving in Moscow.

The revelations created serious tensions between the U.S. and some of its closest allies such as Germany, and important neighbors such as Brazil.

Russian policy has been hard at work exploiting Arab perceptions of U.S. weakness and diminishing influence in the Arab world following the withdrawal from Iraq, the planned withdrawal this year from Afghanistan, and Washington’s confusing approach to the Syrian conflict.

In recent years, Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in the Gulf and Egypt have experienced unusual chills because of U.S. policy towards Syria and the Iranian nuclear program, among other issues. Russia is trying to revive its old role during the Cold War as a reliable supplier of weapons.

From 2008 to 2011, Moscow more than doubled its exports of arms to the Middle East.

The deterioration of relations between Cairo and Washington has provided Moscow with a new opening in Egypt, where the military backed authorities are hinting that they would like to diversify their weapons suppliers.

It was a significant move for Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the anticipated yet unannounced presidential candidate, to choose Moscow as his first capital to visit in his civilian suit. Clearly Sisi was sending a signal to Washington that the Egyptian military has other options, although no serious observer would believe that Egypt can or could wean itself any time soon from U.S. armaments.

Mr. Putin was more than eager to welcome his Egyptian visitor. In fact Putin “ordained” Marshal Sisi as the next president of Egypt when he told him “I know that you, Mr. Defense Minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt. I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people”. Obviously, the US was miffed, and said that it is not up to “Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt. It’s up to the Egyptian people to decide…”

The Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis

The extensive collaboration between Russia and Iran to support the al- Assad regime transcends the main theatre of the Syrian conflict, which includes now Iraq and Lebanon.

Both countries see that they are facing a deadly threat represented by Sunni Islamist extremism stretching from the Caucuses, where Putin’s Russia fought viciously against Islamists seeking independence in Chechnya and Dagestan, all the way to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Mr. Putin’s unshaken support for al-Assad goes beyond loyalty to an old ally.

The Russian president believes that the Syrian president, who claims that all those who have rebelled against his despotism are Islamist terrorists, is fighting the same sinister forces that Putin engaged ruthlessly in the Caucuses.

Without the strong Russian and Iranian support for the al-Assad regime, that regime would have collapsed by now. Syria is important but Ukraine is almost existential.

Ukraine, was, is and will continue to be Mr. Putin’s main battle against the U.S. and the West in general. He knows what every historian of Russian and central European history knows: Russia cannot be a great power without Ukraine being firmly in its political, strategic, economic and cultural sphere. Ukraine, which is Slavic and mostly speaks Russian, was an integral part of Russia’s history.

In fact, Slavic civilization began in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s bread basket. Putin sees the country as a Russian province. He is reported to have told former U.S. president George W. Bush in 2008 “Don’t you see, George, that Ukraine is not even its own state.”

It is too early to speculate whether the recent agreement reached in Kiev will restore calm and lead to a political process, or it is merely a passing truce.

The struggle in Ukraine is one involving complex issues that transcend politics and economic interests revolves around issues of cultural orientation and national identity. But, what is clear is that Mr. Putin, in his confrontation with the West in Ukraine. will not be only tough as he is in Syria, will put up the kind of fight that only those who believe that their very existence is in danger do.

This article was first published in al-Nahar on Feb. 20, 2014.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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