The last half-year has seen a remarkable and unprecedented rise in the foreign policy fortunes of Vladimir Putin, at the expense of the United States and some of its key allies. My colleague Tom Nichols and I explained how President Obama’s flip-flop on Syria – first advocating intervention after the Assad regime crossed the White House’s “redline,” then backing away from the conflict – effectively handed control of the situation to Putin. The subsequent loss of American power and prestige in the Middle East, which was met with some skepticism, seems to have been borne out by events this autumn.
Moreover, the defection of Edward Snowden to Moscow in June has offered the Kremlin even more opportunities to weaken America’s international image and cause rifts in the Western alliance – all long-term goals of the Kremlin’s. I’ve elaborated at length Moscow’s interest here in exploiting this epic American counterintelligence fail for Russian benefit, and events seem to be bearing that out, quite painfully for Washington, DC. That Snowden is controlled by the Kremlin is increasingly evident, and it can be expected that the geopolitical pain emanating from this case will continue to win political points for Moscow for some time.
It’s not just old counterspies and Kremlin-watchers like myself and Nichols who say this, now the Russians are saying the same thing publicly. A recent article in the Moscow daily Izvestiya is revealing. Authored by the well-known foreign policy commentator Boris Mezhuyev, who is politically well connected in Moscow, the piece is tellingly titled, “We’re World Champions! How Russia and its President Won the Global Political Influence Championship,” and elaborates just how good a year 2013 has turned out to be for the Kremlin on the world stage.
Noting that Putin was named the world’s most powerful person by Forbes magazine, Mezhuyev observes, “This year has indeed turned out to be very successful for Russia as an international player and for its leader.” Adding that Russia’s foreign policy fortunes were middling in the first half of 2013, he notes that things turned around dramatically thanks to Syria and Snowden, and America’s fumbling of both issues.
Characterizing Putin’s master play on Syria, “he completely changes the entire situation. Then the world order that was hostile to us collapses like a house of cards.” The Damascus gambit has indeed been a game-changer for Moscow, since now countries across the Greater Middle East are seeking the Kremlin’s input and even leadership: “This opened up the possibility for the United States to begin peace talks with Iran, and here too our role is more than significant,” Mezhuyev adds, gloating a bit about Putin’s “Eurasian” concept finally becoming a reality, while harming the long-term alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
“But that is still not all,” he explains: “The revelations of Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, are fracturing the formerly cloudless trusting relations between the United States and its European allies,” he adds, twisting the knife a tad, if not unfairly, as he observes Moscow’s strategic intent. Russia’s windfall from Snowden keeps mounting and spreading: “The House of Representatives, humiliated by Obama, together with the Senate, is now prepared to launch an investigation of the National Security Agency’s arbitrary actions, and this very combination of events increases the chance of victory within the Republican Party of the more Russia-friendly anti-interventionist wing [of the GOP]. In this situation, Obama has been forced to apologize to [German Chancellor] Merkel, and naturally they are both falling in the polls.” Almost pinching himself, he adds, “To be honest, I do not remember a time in the last two centuries of Russian history when we have been so fantastically lucky.”
And Mezhuyev may well be right. Over the last six months, a series of American foreign policy missteps combined with cunning Russian moves have indeed changed the international playing field in several key areas which cannot be construed as anything less than disastrous for the United States and the West. It’s time we accept what’s really going on, and work to gain back the diplomatic and political ground that’s been lost so suddenly. Washington’s loss isn’t Moscow’s irrevocable gain – yet.