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Ukraine Reveals to Us How Vladimir Putin Sees the Middle East

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (front C), accompanied by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (front L), walks to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region (REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev).

Editor's Note: This article by Michael Doran was originally published on Mosaic Magazine under the headline “It’s Not Just Ukraine: What his actions in Eastern Europe tell us about how Vladimir Putin sees the Middle East” on Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

Does the Ukraine crisis mark the beginning of a new cold war? The answer from President Obama is a firm no. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war,” he told a Dutch newspaper.

The president is partially correct. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the intention nor the capability to challenge the entire European order, and it is certainly not mounting a global revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, it is a revanchist power, and its appetites are much larger than the president cares to admit.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game seems obvious. Somewhat less apparent is the fact that his revisionist aspirations also extend elsewhere, and most saliently to the Middle East.

Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” relations with Russia was rooted in the firm conviction that the main cause of Russian-American competition in the Middle East lay in the previous Bush administration’s war on terror, which was read by the Russian leader as a pretext for a global power grab. Bush’s freedom agenda, with its support for democratic reform inside Russia, only confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions.

Alienating Putin, the Obama White House believed, had been a strategic blunder, depriving the United States of a potentially valuable partner. Putin, whatever his faults, was a realist: someone who could cut a deal in situations—like those in the Middle East—where Russia and America shared many interests. Once Putin fully grasped our sincerity, demonstrated by our ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian fears of American aggressiveness would dissipate and Russian-American cooperation would blossom.

Unfortunately, getting through to Putin proved harder and took longer than expected—though not for want of trying. Famously, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, an open microphone caught Obama making his pitch. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he told then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. “I understand,” Medvedev answered. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Eventually, Putin did seem to grasp the concept. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward last September with an offer to strip Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama saw the move as a breakthrough, precisely the kind of mutually beneficial arrangement that the Russian reset was designed to generate. Soon, working together on the chemical-weapons problem, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov also conspired to launch Geneva II, a peace conference designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.

In the dawning new era, Syria was seen by the White House as a prototype: a model for stabilizing the Middle East and containing its worst pathologies. If successful, it could be applied to other problems in the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the greatest challenge of all. In his speech at the General Assembly last September, the president was eager to defend his friendship with Putin in just these terms. “[L]et’s remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama reminded his critics. “We’re no longer in a cold war.”

Today, just six months later, the new model is collapsing before our eyes. The proximate cause is the spillover from the Ukraine crisis. On March 19, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia would retaliate by exacting a much greater price: it would throw its support to Iran in the nuclear talks. “The historic importance of what happened . . . regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia,” Ryabkov explained, “is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Even before Ryabkov issued this extortionate threat, there were clear signs that the Kremlin never truly supported the new model of Middle East cooperation. Kerry and Lavrov did convene Geneva II in January, but the conference ended in abject failure thanks to the intransigence of the Assad regime—which after all is Russia’s client. Shortly thereafter, Kerry openly blamed Russia for the Syrian disaster. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”

In the Middle East as in Eastern Europe, then, the reset looks increasingly bankrupt. In fact, being based on two major errors, it never had a chance.

The administration’s first error was the failure to appreciate Putin’s either-or perspective on politics, a viewpoint succinctly expressed in Lenin’s famous formula: “who-whom?” Who will dominate whom? In Putin’s view, all accommodations with the United States are tactical maneuvers in a struggle—sometimes overt, sometimes covert—for the upper hand.

In the bad old days of the cold war, the overtly malevolent intentions of the Kremlin were hard to misread (although, even then, some American leaders did try to misread them). Today, Russia’s motivations are more complex: a unique mix of Great Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, and autocratic whimsy. This makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin’s behavior. For 364 days of the year, a deal between a Western client and Gazprom, the largest Russian natural-gas supplier, will function like a normal business transaction. On the 365th day, to teach the recipient a lesson about who’s really in charge, Putin will cut the gas flow.

Adding to the unpredictability is Putin’s mercurial-seeming personality. Perhaps the single most revealing fact about him is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground.

Turning a blind eye to such niceties, Western politicians assumed that by enmeshing Putin in a web of diplomatic and economic deals, they would foster in Moscow a sense of shared destiny that would ultimately work to moderate Russian behavior. As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, the web has indeed created mutual dependencies. But the crisis also reveals that the two sides do not approach dependency in a spirit of reciprocity. When shaking hands on a deal, Putin never fails to assess whether he has positioned himself for a speedy takedown of his partner.

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

Lack of attention to the perfect fit between Putin’s mentality and Middle East reality constitutes the second error of the administration’s Russian reset.

With respect to political alignments, the most influential event in today’s Middle East is the Syrian civil war. That the conflict is barbarous is easily gleaned from a slogan of the pro-Assad forces, scrawled on buildings in all major cities: “Assad, or we will burn the country.” This demand has divided the entire region into two groups. On one side stand the allies of America: the Saudis, Turks, and other Sunni Muslim states, all of whom agree that, come what may, Assad must go. On the other side, the Iranians, together with Hizballah, have lined up squarely behind Assad, their partner in the so-called Resistance Alliance.

For Putin, Syria has raised two key questions, each a variant of who-whom: (1) who will dominate inside Syria; (2) who will dominate in the region more broadly. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who two years ago, in a rare slip of the tongue, best explained how Putin saw these questions: “if the current Syrian regime collapses, some countries in the region will want to establish Sunni rule in Syria.” More bluntly, the Kremlin sees itself as the great-power patron not just of the Assad regime but also of Iran and Hizballah—the entire Resistance Alliance. At the time, Moscow’s unvarnished preference for Shiites won little attention in the United States, but it sparked a storm of outrage in the Sunni Arab world, leading one prominent Saudi commentator to dub the foreign minister “Mullah Lavrov.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s position was in perfect keeping with one of the most fundamental rules of strategy, perhaps best expressed by Machiavelli: “A prince is . . . esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is, when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another.” In the Middle East, Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.

In Syria, the United States criticizes Assad harshly and says it sympathizes with the opposition. But it releases only dribs and drabs of military aid to opposition forces while simultaneously qualifying and hedging its diplomatic support. Fretting incessantly about the Sunni jihadist elements fighting the Assad regime, it develops no strategy to combat them; instead, it cozies up to Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons. When the Sunni allies of the United States compare the confusion of American policy with the clarity of Russian strategy, it’s no wonder they despair.

Obama is not entirely oblivious of the problem. In a recent interview, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked him bluntly, “So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?” His answer: “[T]here are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off-guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” This exercise in condescension, while doing nothing to allay and everything to aggravate the fears of America’s allies, offers a glimpse into the mindset that generated the reset, a mindset that dreamed of a concert arrangement whereby both Russia and America would place a greater value on comity with each other than either would put on its relations with allies.

To be sure, Putin will gladly sign on to American-sponsored initiatives like Geneva II. But he will insist on guiding them in directions that, regardless of their stated intentions, serve the interests of his clients. If the Obama administration has yet to admit or adjust to this reality, that is partly because the Russians do not wave a flag identifying themselves as the great-power patrons of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Nor does Putin back Tehran and Damascus to the hilt as the Soviet Union backed its clients in the cold war.

It is thus more accurate to say that Russia is in an alignment, not an alliance, with Iran and Syria. Depending upon competing priorities and the vicissitudes of world politics, Putin will tack this way today, that way tomorrow. In the end, however, he will never sell out Tehran and Damascus in order to win compliments in Washington; if forced to choose, he will always side with the former against the latter, and will certainly leave them in no doubt that Russia is their most dependable friend in the United Nations Security Council.

It is this fact that makes Russia a revisionist power in the Middle East and the permanent adversary of the United States.

What, then, about the Iranian nuclear question? Hasn’t Russia consistently called for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Didn’t it vote in favor of six Security Council resolutions against Tehran? Hasn’t it signed on to the economic sanctions? Surely all of these actions support the Obama administration’s contention that Russia, in certain contexts, is a valuable partner.

Indeed, Putin has a strong track record of supporting some actions designed to prevent an Iranian bomb; in an ideal world, he would probably prefer an Iran devoid of such weapons. But he also has a strong track record of building the Iranian nuclear program and of providing security assistance to the Iranian military. Whatever his preferences in an ideal world, in the here and now his goal is less to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than to garner as much power and influence for Russia as he can. He is supportive enough of the United States and its key European partners to maintain credibility with them. On the key issue of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is never so supportive as to be taken for granted.

How this cynical game works was revealed in Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s extortionate threat mentioned earlier. It has placed Obama on the horns of a severe dilemma. If, on the one hand, the president simply acquiesces in Putin’s power play in Ukraine, he will embolden not just Russia but also Iran, Syria, and Hizballah by demonstrating that, just as in Syria, he retreats when challenged. If, on the other hand, he marshals a robust Western response, he could well provoke the threatened Russian countermeasures of increased support for Iran.

No matter which course the president follows, the Ukraine crisis has damaged the prestige of the United States in the Middle East. America’s Arab friends in the region, who are on the front line against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, already feel the pinch, and are deeply uncertain about how to respond. Unlike the Resistance Alliance, they are not accustomed to cooperating on their own. As Karl Marx notoriously said of peasants, America’s Arab allies are like potatoes. When U.S. leadership provides a sack, they take on a single form and become hefty in weight. In its absence, they are a loose assortment of small, isolated units.

The ally who most immediately feels the fallout is Israel. On March 17, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described, with unusual bluntness, the consequences of what he called the “feebleness” of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s weakness, he argued, was undermining the position not just of Israel but also of America’s Sunni allies. “The moderate Sunni camp in the area expected the United States to support it, and to be firm, like Russia’s support for the Shiite axis,” Yaalon lamented.

Yaalon spoke no less despairingly of Obama’s ability to make good on his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “[A]t some stage,” he observed, “the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.” On the matter of Iran, Yaalon concluded, inevitably, “we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

Whether Israel actually has the political will and military capability to launch an independent strike against Iran is anybody’s guess. But two facts are undeniable. First, Putin’s muscular foreign policy and Washington’s timorous response have increased the pressure on Israel to strike independently. Second, Obama has lost influence over the Israelis—just as he lost influence over his Arab allies when he refused to back them on Syria.

Adrift in Machiavelli’s no man’s land, neither a true friend nor a true enemy, Washington is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing.