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The Road From Damascus To Yalta

  • Brian Whitmore

(Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

(Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

Vladimir Putin has learned that being a global troublemaker pays dividends.

He's discovered that being a big part of the problem assures that you are treated as a big part of the solution.

He understands that the politics of blackmail and geopolitical extortion can work wonders.

Before Putin intervened in Syria's civil war nearly six months ago, Russia was internationally isolated, bogged down in a quagmire in Ukraine, and reeling from Western sanctions.

It was a regional rabble-rouser that was -- justifiably -- being treated like an international pariah.

And now, amid an apparent pullout after 167 days of air strikes?

Well, now it has a seat at the big table, alongside the United States, as co-sponsor of the Syrian cease-fire.

Syria wasn't an end -- it was a means to an end.

And Moscow is seeking to leverage its success there into more global clout, the lifting of sanctions, a free hand in the former Soviet space, and a revision of the post-Cold War international order.

For Putin, Damascus is just a stop on the road to Yalta.

In addition to killing 1,700 civilians, bombing hospitals, exacerbating Europe's refugee crisis, and keeping Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime afloat, the Kremlin clearly thinks it has established a template in Syria to get what it has always craved: status as a global power presiding over a bipolar world.

Writing in Slon.ru, Moscow-based foreign-affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov noted that the intervention "resurrected Russian-American cooperation from the dead" and created the illusion that only the two "superpowers" can solve major international crises.

"The strategic goal of the Syrian gambit, to revive the bipolar format of Russian-American cooperation and rivalry for influence in the Middle East and the world that existed during the Cold War, has almost been reached," Frolov wrote.

"It is obvious that the Kremlin would like to make Syria a template not only for bilateral relations with the United States, but also to develop new rules of the game in a broader sense, and in other regions, for example with respect of Ukraine."

In fact, Ukraine will no doubt be the first place where the Kremlin will try to test what it believes to be its new-found leverage.

In a televised interview on March 13, one day before Putin announced the Syria withdrawal, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appealed to Washington to team up with Moscow to resolve the conflict in the Donbas -- presumably on Moscow's terms.

"We know that Kyiv is heavily influenced by the United States, which actually controls everyday life in Ukraine," Lavrov said.

"I hope that the Americans are aware of the need to search for compromise solutions to ensure the full implementation of the Minsk agreements."

Leaving aside the fact that Lavrov's comment is delusional in that it pretends that Russia is a mediator in Ukraine and not the aggressor, it appears to telegraph where the Kremlin is going next.

Russia will try to leverage the momentum from its Syrian gambit to get a final settlement in Ukraine that preserves Moscow's influence in the Donbas and gives it a virtual veto over Kyiv's political direction.

It will try to force the West to forget about Crimea and get on with business as usual.

That, of course, is how things work in the Kremlin's preferred world order. Might makes right; rules don't matter; great powers rule their spheres of influence and decide the fates of smaller nations.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia In Global Affairs and chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, all but declared the post-Cold War order dead in a gloating March 8 commentary in the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"Twenty-five years of trying to build a new world order have vanished into thin air," Lukyanov wrote.

"Once again, just like in the previous era, the real bosses remain Moscow and Washington, with no one else having the power or capacity to make important decisions and to start to implement them."

This is, no doubt, premature. But the Kremlin is moving closer to making it a reality.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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