National Security & Defense

Putin’s Gun vs. Obama’s Pen

Two Russian Su-24 Fencer bombers fly over USS Donald Cook (U.S. Navy/Getty)

In international relations, an effective message needs both constructive content and form. Consider the latest messages by President Obama and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, on Syria.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported the Obama administration’s warnings that it may arm Syrian rebels with advanced weaponry. One unnamed U.S. official told the Journal that this will “up the ante, if needed” to push Russia to force Assad toward political reform. But also on Tuesday (and the day before), President Putin was sending his own message: He deployed two fighter jets and a military helicopter to harass a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea. Training with a Polish helicopter crew, the destroyer had to suspend operations. The contrast is striking: President Obama deploys unnamed officials to offer qualified statements to reporters. President Putin turns a U.S. Navy vessel in international waters into a combat-exercise prop.

The contrast matters for reasons beyond national pride: It informs the ongoing struggle for Syria’s future and the global balance of power. With Syria’s February ceasefire now in ruins, in the civilian rubble of continuing Putin-Khamenei-Assad attacks, President Obama wants some stability. By threatening to escalate support to U.S.-aligned rebels, Mr. Obama hopes to accomplish two things. First, he wants to pressure Putin toward concessions, at the talks currently under way in Geneva, on a timeline for Assad’s withdrawal. Second, he seeks to persuade the Sunni Arab monarchies and Turkey not to increase their independent lethal support to Syrian rebels. Today, the Sunni monarchies have very little faith in President Obama. Even Obama himself knows this (although he likes to pretend he doesn’t) and worries that the monarchies might soon start funding such groups as the al-Qaeda subsidiary known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Saudi Arabia is far from a good ally, of course, but if the kingdom continues to draw away from U.S. influence, the politicized sectarianism now driving Middle East chaos will get much worse, and the world, from Brussels to the U.S., won’t be insulated from that chaos. Sadly, President Obama’s message won’t be read in Riyadh and Moscow (and every other capital) as a meaningful threat, but as his signature acknowledging exceptional strategic weakness.

Putin is so confident in President Obama’s weakness that he gambles with the lives of U.S. military personnel without fear.

And that’s why President Putin likes his sharply contrasting messaging. Putin’s Syria strategy is relatively simple. First, he fuels President Obama’s delusion that Russia doesn’t need strong U.S. pressure in order to make compromises in Syria. (Note Putin’s constant deployments of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov into absurd press conferences with Secretary of State John Kerry, and stunts such as Russia’s military-withdrawal feint last month.) Second, Putin continues to focus on securing Assad as a servant of Russian imperium. As I explained last October, President Putin’s military operations in Syria have always sought an an Assad safe zone in the country’s west. Third, by throwing occasional air strikes at Daesh headquarters in Raqqa, Putin feeds Western delusions that Russia shares our interest in confronting the death cult. But when it comes to it, Putin has deliberately left Daesh alone. After all, by allowing Daesh to retain a presence in the provinces of Northern Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, and Deir ez-Zor, Putin allows Daesh to retain its Euphrates rat lines from Iraq to Syria to Turkey — and thus also into Europe. By keeping Daesh in power, Putin retains the golden offer he can dangle before President Obama: Accept my domination of Syrian politics (i.e., let Assad stay and cease support for the rebels), and only then will I help you confront Daesh threats to European cities.

Ultimately, the message being sent in the Baltic Sea is central to this strategic showdown. Russian air crews are flying exceptionally dangerous maneuvers with decrepit equipment. Putin knows this; that he continues to deploy these capabilities in an increasingly aggressive manner, thus risking a military conflagration, illuminates his deeper strategic confidence. In 2016, he is so confident in President Obama’s weakness that he gambles with the lives of U.S. military personnel without fear.

We’ve come gone 180 degrees from 2008, when President Bush deterred Russian escalation in Georgia by parking U.S. military transport planes at Tbilisi airport. Eight years later, as Putin continues to double down against Obama’s anti-realism, our adversaries, from Europe to Asia, are sensing the vacuum. We must face Putin down. This weekend, President Obama should suspend U.S. participation in the Geneva talks and immediately provide — rather than have aides anonymously discuss the possibility of providing — advanced weapons to rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army. Doing so would confront Putin at his own game, and make it clear the U.S. understands that power is vested in action, not in words.

– Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is http://www.tomroganthinks.com.

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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