As the Olympic Games begin, Vladimir Putin is determined that the event be a propaganda coup for his regime. The Russian president was even filmed this week at a Persian-leopard sanctuary near Sochi, calming a cub that had just attacked two journalists. (Competing footage of shambolic hotel rooms used by the visiting media in Sochi will be forgotten once the games get under way.)
Putin also has reason to be pleased with his geopolitical position, especially in how he has outmaneuvered President Obama over the past year. Last fall, he ignored Obama’s demands that Russia cut loose its Syrian ally, Bashar Assad, and allow him to be ousted from power. He then helped dissuade Obama from striking Syria with missiles by steering him into interminable talks about removing Assad’s chemical weapons from the country. “I entered my country’s service in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union beaten,” a senior U.S. military official told me as Obama let the Russians dominate the Syrian situation. “I never expected that under a future president we could go from being leader of the free world to following Russia from behind.”
Today, six months later, only a small fraction of the weapons are out of Assad’s control, and Secretary of State John Kerry has confessed to U.S. congressmen that the White House’s approach to Syria isn’t working. “[Kerry] acknowledged that the chemical-weapons [plan] is being slow rolled, the Russians continue to supply arms, we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told the Daily Beast. Kerry followed up on Graham’s comment in a CNN interview this week: “It’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes.”
On Iran’s drive to build a nuclear-weapons capability, the U.S. is on the verge of a silent surrender. Last week, Obama called Putin to enlist his help in securing a peaceful settlement with Iran. But John Batchelor, an ABC radio-talk-show host with impeccable foreign-policy sources, says that Putin believes “Obama has gone so far down the road of satisfying Iran’s demands that there is no reason to get involved. . . . What Iran wants from Obama, Iran will get, including a silencing of congressional calls for stronger sanctions and a media-launched seduction of the public to support détente.”
On the social unrest in Ukraine, Putin is convinced the U.S. is behind much of the opposition activity. Putin’s response has been deft — signing a $15 billion financial-aid package that Ukraine desperately needs and then withholding it until it’s clear that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is firmly in control of his country. Putin advisers have helped persuade Yanukovych to keep the protesters off balance by offering an opposition figure a place in his cabinet, and by beating a tactical retreat on new laws limiting public protests.
Russia has serious economic weaknesses — growth last year was only 1.5 percent, and oil and gas account for 75 percent of its exports (more than they did in 1980 under the old Soviet Union). But Putin has been able to bluff and bluster his way into the corridors of international financial power. Last month, Russia took over the chairmanship of the G-8, the world’s top industrial democracies. Russia’s presence in the group should be considered farcical, since it a) is not a democracy and b) is nowhere near a developed economy.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former German defense minister, and Garry Kasparov, Russia’s most famous dissident, say Putin’s success has come about due to “the astonishing leadership vacuum in the world.” They wrote last month in Time magazine that “Washington’s recent preference to let other nations, including Russia, lead on international affairs has eroded the U.S.’s authority.” Only now, they say, is Washington coming “to slowly realize . . . that to influence Putin it must speak his language, that of power.”
Barack Obama has proven that he can dominate and intimidate his domestic political opposition — Republicans still feel the sting of his “take no prisoners” negotiating style on the budget and debt limit. Obama the Chicago Street Fighter once famously told a Philadelphia crowd during the 2008 campaign that when it came to Republicans: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” But when it comes to dealing with foreign leaders, Obama continues to practice his famous “leading from behind” strategy. As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, that basically means the U.S. is satisfied with a bronze or silver medal in international influence, while he can go for the gold.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.