Vladimir Putin has outplayed the famously competitive Barack Obama once again.
In Ukraine, Syria, and even 2014 Olympic medal count, Putin is the winner. Moscow is triumphant, Washington looks ridiculous. The Ukrainians are realizing that Obama is talk and Putin is action; the Estonians and Latvians are wondering if the U.S. will really come to their aid in honor of the NATO treaty.
This is becoming a pattern watched by audiences everywhere: the clever Russians beating America on the field of international security and democratic ideals.
It should not surprise the U.S. that Putin sees international affairs as an adversarial contest. This is not because Putin is a Cold War throw-back. Rather, it is because Putin is a predator. Like a wolf or a shark, he can sense weakness.
President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Putin senses a lack of confidence in Washington, D.C. and its allies while his own hand is quite strong at home. He is willing to exploit this advantage. We saw that in his recent boast to a senior European official that he could take Kiev in two weeks.
From the outset of this administration, Obama signaled weakness to Moscow. He did so by telling the world that the U.S. would no longer push Moscow on key foreign policy priorities such as democracy and human rights, favoring instead a “reset” in relations. In diplo-speak, “reset” means “retreat” and Moscow knew it.
At the same time, Obama—thinking that the microphones were off—told Putin’s lackey Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that the U.S. would back down on missile defense for our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. In short, within a short time of taking office, Obama had sold out our friends (e.g. Poland, Czech Republic) and shown the white feather while Putin has carefully calibrated Russian policy to pursue its national interests.
How has that “reset” gone? Not well.
Russia has continued to challenge U.S. foreign policy across multiple spheres, while tediously keeping our State Department busy via bi-national commissions. At the strategic level Russia feels that it was deceived about Western intentions toward Libya, which resulted in regime change and the disintegration of order there. This has caused Russia to harden its stance against United Nations intervention of any kind in Syria, punish democracy activists at home, bully Europe, and now invade Ukraine.
The U.S. is not leading: It is clear that there is little stomach among the Western allies to stand up to Putin, despite the fact that many Eastern European countries are quietly signaling that they would follow a strong lead from Washington (or London or Berlin).
And countries around the world are watching: Authoritarians will have strengthened resolve while their oppressed publics can expect little from Washington.
When it comes to U.S.-Russian relations, it seems as if the situation has gone from bad to worse, and in each imbroglio Russia has the upper hand. This cements Putin’s role as Russia’s strong-man, making Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry as well as President Obama look like shrill but impotent schoolmarms.
- September 2012: Putin kicks the U.S. Agency for International Development out of Russia.
- December 2012: Putin stops American adoptions of Russian children.
- June 2013: Russia accepts Edward Snowden indefinitely.
- September 2013: After overtly supplying the Syrian President Bashar al Assad regime for two years, Putin creates a deal that saves Assad, undercuts the rebels, and makes the U.S. look asinine.
- Ukraine 2014…
In short, in the past two years the score is at a minimum Putin 5, Obama 0. Make that 6 to 0: Not only did Russia win more gold medals than any other country while hosting the Sochi Olympics, but, more importantly, Russia scared off or throttled expected terrorist attacks. By any measure, that was a huge achievement.
Maybe Obama is not counting but Putin and all of Russia is.
Russia is led by a ruthless competitor, someone who understands that international politics is a contact sport and that the national interest must be pursued in a clear-eyed, determined manner. In contrast, the Obama administration’s approach has been hope, lofty speeches, and weakness, whether on human rights or Syria or Ukraine.
Ask pro-democracy demonstrators across the Middle East if the U.S. has been a faithful ally. Ask Latin Americans if the Obama administration has been a constructive leader in the region. Ask a Muscovite if the U.S. is more respected in Russia today under Obama.
They’ll tell you proudly, “Putin is winning.”
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and the author of "Ending Wars Well" (Yale University Press, 2012).
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