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What Putin Wants
Then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (C), Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller (R) and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L) at the gas compressor station 'Portovaya' outside Vyborg, September 6, 2011. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

What Putin Wants

Walter Russell Mead

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow on Thursday, where he met with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a bid to help wind down the Syrian Civil War. The Wall Street Journal report highlights the major sticking point:

After four hours of talks in the Kremlin, Moscow and Washington apparently remain divided over a crucial element of any peace agreement—the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While the U.S. has long held that Mr. Assad’s departure is necessary to any peace agreement, the Kremlin has insisted his government is Syria’s mainstay against chaos.[..]

“The improvements are welcome but they are not sufficient nor are they permanent. It is not a job finished and that is why we talked here today,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit here.

Putin sounds happier than Kerry with the way things are—after all, Assad is still on his blood-soaked throne, and his troops were pushing toward Palmyra even as the talks continued:

“We are aware that the groundwork we have on Syria has only been possible thanks to the position of the political—supreme political leadership of the United States, specifically the position of President Obama,” Mr. Putin said. “And I really hope that today’s visit will help us reconcile positions on or help make progress on both Syria and Ukraine.”

The big question for those watching the Syria talks these days: why on earth does Washington think it can persuade Russia to drop Assad? The United States has no troops on the ground, is clearly unwilling to commit real resources, has no ability to frustrate Russian designs if Russia doesn’t cooperate on Assad.

Russia these days is riding high. It demonstrated yet again that the Obama White House is given to making gassy predictions that turn out to be humiliatingly wrong—that Russia would get stuck in a “quagmire” in Syria, that Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine were signs of grave weakness, and, famously, that Assad must go.

Russia, meanwhile, has beaten its enemies, protected its friends, and consistently made the United States look stupid, vainglorious and weak. This is exactly what Putin wanted, and it is exactly what he got.

Russia’s next goal in the Middle East is harder: the logical next step both for Putin and Iran is to get the price of oil up. This is going to be difficult to do—though talk of the price falling to $20 a barrel (something that would have been ruinous)—seems to have died away for the present.

Putin now has some cards to play with the Saudis. Basically, if the Saudis will help him on the oil price, he can offer them some face-savers in Syria. Who knows: if the price is right, he could airlift Assad to a nice beachfront villa in Crimea. In fact, Putin has no interest in furthering Iran’s regional ambitions past a certain point, so he might well explore—he may already be exploring—the possibility of some kind of understanding the Riyadh. The Saudis, looking at Donald Trump and Barack Obama, may not think the U.S. is a good bet, and they aren’t all that happy with their results in Yemen to date. They may well think that there are worse things than cutting a deal with Putin. No support for jihad in Chechnya, security for the Alawites in Syria even as the Sunni form regional governments under Saudi influence, Russian tacit support for Saudi influence in Lebanon despite Iran’s ties to Hezbollah. And the oil price soars again, making everyone happy.

There is one big complication: as the price goes up, more and more U.S. shale production would become viable (the U.S. now produces almost as many millions of barrels per day as Saudi, at roughly 10:9). A price rebound in energy markets would boost this further, thus counteracting to a significant though unknown extent any plan to drive oil prices through the roof. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done: if Russia and the Saudis work together, they’re certainly capable of moving the market, even with U.S. fracking waiting in the wings.

Too many in Washington tend to blithely dismiss Putin’s strategy, or his chances. This is deeply ironic, for meanwhile, the U.S. leverage in the Middle East continues to decline, while Russian power is growing. Obama apparently continues to believe that Putin is inexorably doomed to decline, so sees no need to react. He also appears to believe that making one false prediction after another about future events won’t diminish his international prestige, and that empty posturing has no reputational cost in, for example, Asia, where Japan, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and many others stare aghast (or in secret glee) at his performance.

The foundations of world order are more fragile than they look. They aren’t getting any stronger as the Age of Obama wears on.

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