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Putin’s Success Masks Russian Weakness

Walter Russell Mead

Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy flair has both electrified and horrified the world for a full decade. Since 2008, Mr. Putin has partitioned Georgia, invaded Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. He has raised Russian power and prestige to their highest levels since the Cold War. He has muscled Russia back into the Middle East while inserting himself into America’s 2016 presidential election. He has also demonstrated an unequaled ability to weaponize information and bolster Russian power on the cheap.

Breaking the rules, in other words, is Mr. Putin’s specialty. But this year he seems to be taking a more laid-back approach. The Kremlin continues to spread disinformation, and its political opponents still occasionally turn up poisoned or dead. But as U.S. policy has become more frenetic under President Trump, Russian foreign policy has become more restrained.

In February a U.S. air and artillery assault killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria, but Mr. Putin’s response was low-key. In March he announced the first cuts to Russian military spending since 1998. In April he reacted with patience and calm when a popular revolution arose in Armenia against the pro-Russian government. And in May Russia stepped back as Israel bombed Iranian military installations across Syria, suggesting Mr. Putin agreed at least partly with the U.S. about the future of Iran’s presence there. As if that weren’t enough, Russia has joined Iran’s archnemesis, Saudi Arabia, in boosting oil production. This will help stabilize emerging economies that have been hurt by rising interest rates.

Don’t misunderstand: Mr. Putin hasn’t had a change of heart or decided to mend fences with the West. He is toning down his foreign policy simply because so many of his key objectives have been accomplished that his best option now is to consolidate his gains.

Ten years ago, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were on offense in Eastern Europe. Mr. Putin feared that the spread of Western ideas into Russia would challenge his rule. Those worries are gone: A divided and confused West has given up its dream of pushing eastward, and both the EU and NATO are less confident and less effective than they were a decade ago. The West no longer endangers Russia. The real question is how much Russia endangers the West.

Mr. Putin is no Stalin ; he seeks to weaken the West rather than destroy it. From his point of view, the current situation in Europe looks promising: The U.S. and Europe are drifting apart. The gap within the Continent also continues to grow, as discontent mounts between Germany and many of its southern and eastern partners. Italy’s new government is likely to push to end sanctions against Russia, while forcing Europe into a new bout of navel gazing over the euro. All this favors Moscow without requiring Mr. Putin to do much of anything.

In the Middle East, Russia would profit similarly from a period of relative inaction. Mr. Putin cannot realistically expect to make Russia a hegemonic power there, but he hopes to replace the U.S. as the region’s primary balancer and diplomatic power broker. Because the Syrian intervention is unpopular in a Russia that still remembers the Soviet Union’s disastrous march into Afghanistan, Mr. Putin must carry out this mission on the cheap.

For the moment things are breaking Mr. Putin’s way. If Syria is to be a playing field for outside powers, the U.S. and Israel would prefer Russia be the leader rather than Iran. Mr. Putin can tell Benjamin Netanyahu that Russia is the best security against the Iranian forces on Israel’s border. At the same time, Mr. Putin can promise Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Russia will keep Bashar Assad in Damascus and the U.S. out.

Despite Mr. Putin’s successes, Russia remains weak, and its leverage over other nations is limited. China can woo its neighbors with multibillion-dollar projects like its “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. Russia has much less to offer: If China is a tiger, Russia is a pussycat on stilts. Mr. Putin can obstruct Germany’s faltering European project, but he lacks the resources to offer an alternative. In the Middle East, the Kremlin’s position depends on American forbearance. If President Trump decides to make opposing the Assad regime a crucial part of his anti-Iran strategy, Mr. Putin may have to stand by and watch his client fall.

Meanwhile, developments at home counsel restraint as well. While Mr. Putin’s string of dramatic foreign-policy successes has shored up his domestic popularity, Russia’s sclerotic economy and corrupt social order ensure that the foundations of his power remain weak. Mr. Putin has made Russia great again on the international stage, but the Russian people would rather see him use that daring and finesse to improve the situation at home.

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