The talented, dangerous Mr. Putin throws the gauntlet

The Russian president, who loves to show the world his physical prowess and machismo, does not have a sunny outlook on international relations

Hisham Melhem
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In the span of few weeks Russian President Vladimir Putin changed the map of Europe, when he stealthily invaded Crimea, then flamboyantly annexed it in the first land grab in Europe since World War II.

The invasion undermined the tenuous political order that was supposed to have taken shape in that vast land mass called Eurasia after the end of the Cold War and exposed the limits of NATO’s power.


The talented but dangerous Mr. Putin threw the gauntlet to President Obama, challenging his belief in the inviolability of international law, the sanctity of treaties, smart diplomacy and soft power. It is still too early to say what will be the shape of the new relationship between the U.S. and its allies and Russian’s Putin Post Crimea, since we don’t know the geographic limits of Mr. Putin’s revanchist dreams.

After all Mr. Putin pledged to defend the rights of Russian communities in neighboring states and has spoken of the common Orthodox faith and the “culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

He told the Ukrainians that they are not simply close neighbors, “but as I have said many times already, we are one people” and that “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities.” Believers in Revanchism use identical language. The late Syrian President Hafez Assad used to talk about the Syrians and Lebanese as one people living in two countries.

The partner was always an adversary

Mr. Putin’s determination to restore parts of the former Soviet imperium into a new Russian space led him to sacrifice the gains that Moscow achieved since the breakup of the Soviet Union: Russia’s ascent into the World Trade Organization in 2012, its entry into the exclusive club of powerful economic states, the group of seven making it the G-8 in 1998.

His annexation of Crimea ended the so-called “reset” policy adopted by the Obama administration with great fanfare, since it was assumed that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was an aberration and that we could do business with our partner Mr. Putin.

The Russian president, who loves to show the world his physical prowess and machismo, does not have a sunny outlook on international relations. The cunning Mr. Putin does not hesitate to play rough inside and outside Russia. The “pacification” of Chechnya was brutal. His intimidation of his domestic critics has been merciless and thorough.

His threats of withholding energy supplies to Ukraine and the rest of Europe shows that he is more than willing to play rough. Mr. Putin ran circles around the Obama administration’s Syria policy.

While he seemingly collaborated with the U.S. to arrange a peace conference, he kept his Syrian ally well supplied with weapons, provided him with diplomatic immunity at the United Nations, and while his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was talking about a political transition in Syria, Putin in fact was pushing for a military victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The partner was always an adversary.

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

Mr. Putin sees himself as the faithful son of an aggrieved Russia that has been wronged and violated repeatedly by predatory Western empires determined to keep it a landlocked contained country. To leaders like Mr. Putin, history is always alive and staring us in the eyes. One would think that he would have admired the great William Faulkner’s observation that “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

Obama and Kerry are indignant because of Russia’s aggression in Crimea and they have every right to be so. However, indignation even when justified is an attitude at best and not an effective strategy.

Hisham Melhem

It was no surprise then, that president Putin told the Russian people and the world in his speech last Tuesday proclaiming the “reunification” of Crimea with Russia that “we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today.” Not too many people took seriously Mr. Putin’s remarkable lament in 2005 that “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the (20th) century.”

The Russian President is still yearning to those good old days of strength, power and respect the Soviet empire enjoyed. In his recent speech, he bemoaned the fact that “after the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.”

The intersection of retrenchment and assertiveness

What makes President Putin’s challenge to the United States and Europe dangerous is that it takes place at a time when a sizable number of Americans and many in the world see the U.S. and the West in general in retrenchment mode.

President Obama’s allergy to the application of military force to settle thorny and horrendous conflicts such as the one in Syria is well known to friend and foe. His use of Drones and special operations against terrorists, is of limited risk, and was in part at least driven by his desire to prevent another successful terrorist attack, since this would be disastrous for the country as well as to his political viability.

In his policy towards Syria, President Obama has never seriously included the military option in his tool box. He truly wanted to believe that the “tide of war is receding” and that his mission was to end the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush.

The president of the United States, when he realized that he cornered himself after declaring that he will punish the Syrian regime militarily because it used chemical weapons against civilians, allowed the very cunning Mr. Putin to save him from his predicament when he proposed a deal to dismantle Syria’s CW arsenal.

Even when Putin was behaving as if the Cold War was still alive when he annexed Crimea, President Obama’s aid said that the “United States does not see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we are in competition with Russia.” In every statement by President Obama or his Secretary of State John Kerry, there is a renewed commitment to diplomacy, and another urgent appeal to Mr. Putin to negotiate.

The tone of U.S. officials and their cautious statements are deepening the concerns of Washington’s allies from Europe to the Middle East to East Asia.

If the United States and the European Union seem to be looking inward, Russia and China, to a lesser extent are in an aggressive or assertive mode. China is flexing its muscles in the East China Sea unnerving Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and trying to create a different environment for the U.S. before it proceeds further into its much talked about “pivot” to Asia.

President Putin observed that the once powerful militaries of Western Europe were unable to bomb a militarily weak and fractious country like Libya into submission without the United States. Mr. Putin correctly calculated that whatever the U.S. and the European countries would throw at him after Russia absorbed Crimea.

He knew that NATO lacks a military option and that the will to even arm Ukraine and the other vulnerable former Soviet states and enhance NATO’s military profile is not strong enough. Putin also knows that militarily powerful states can create facts on the ground in their neighborhoods and force the world to live with them, while continuing to do business with the aggressor.

This is true in the case of Georgia of course, but it is also true in the case of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories where it continues to build illegal settlements. It is also true with the forgotten Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, just as it is true in the case of China’s control of Tibet.

Crimea is gone

Few politicians would say publicly what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said explicitly that ‘Crimea is gone,’ but many in fact believe so. The limited military deployments taken after Crimea’s takeover, such as sending a destroyer to the Black Sea or 10 additional jet fighters to the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to patrol their skies are symbolic at best.

Deploying these assets, along with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland to meet with Baltic leaders to assure them that the U.S. and NATO are committed to their defense, shows that the U.S. is focusing now on preventing the Putin juggernaut from further advances and not rolling back the invasion of Crimea.

The financial sanctions and visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. and its European allies on individuals and entities in Ukraine and Russia, who facilitated the takeover of Crimea will inconvenience these individuals but it will not make a serious dent in Putin’s armor. Visa restriction as a foreign policy tool is probably seen as amusing by the likes of Mr. Putin. They are not the stuff of lethal ammunition that a great power is supposed to wield.

From the beginning of the crisis, President Obama kept insisting that if Putin does not back down, he will impose “additional costs on Russia.” Clearly, president Obama and Kerry are trying to change Putin’s calculus.

This approach is reminiscent of the efforts of Kerry to change Syrian President Assad’s calculus by putting pressure on him to force him to sue for a political solution. One wonders that if the Obama administration could not force Assad to change his calculus, how could it force Mr. Putin to change his.

Weak sanctions will not change Russian behavior. It is doubtful that serious, painful sanctions will be imposed on Russia, especially if it does not move into Eastern Ukraine, because of European economic ties with Russia, dependence on its energy supplies and fear of Russian financial retaliation.

Also the United States is still reluctant to completely alienate Moscow because it needs Russian help in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in addition to keeping the supply routes and Russian airspace that the Pentagon uses to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More importantly, the U.S. will need Russia during the final withdrawal of soldiers and materials.

Even America’s space program – to the extent that it has one- is totally dependent on Russian rocketry. This is an ironic twist of fate that is breathtaking, for the country that dominated space exploration for decades.

However, if anything, the sanctions are likely to harden Russia’s position on Syria. One cannot see how the U.S. after imposing sanctions on Russia would turn and ask Moscow to put pressure on Assad. The chemical deal would likely proceed, but along with it one could see stepped up Russian military supplies to Assad.

This new reality means that the Geneva II process has died and gone like Crimea. Obama and Kerry are indignant because of Russia’s aggression in Crimea and they have every right to be so. However, indignation even when justified is an attitude at best and not an effective strategy.

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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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