Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Road From Damascus To Yalta

(Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)
(Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)
By Brian Whitmore

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.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: mf from: USA
March 15, 2016 20:02
what you say is true, but you also cannot lose sight of the fact that the West had no plan B for sudden collapse of Assad. A possibly appalling massacre of Alawites could have followed. You do not have to like Putin to acknowledge that he got an opening and exploited and quite possibly prevented a bigger massacre than he caused with his bombings. Failure has consequences. The West failed in Syria.

by: Anonymous
March 16, 2016 23:44
Your is a speech of a disappointed loser

what is most irritating in the way you write

is that constant background premise


""the world is ours and everything that happens in this world is to be under our control""

You are simply the mirror of this is evident American irritation
for the Russian intervention
considered an intruder in your business

and this is so evident in the constant attempt to demonize Russian intervention when you are so pathetically synthesizing it in this way :
"In Additions to killing 1,700 Civilians, bombing hospitals, exacerbating Europe's refugee crisis, and keeping Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime afloat"
put in your mind that
Today in Syria there is a ceasefire
that this ceasefire holds
and that this ceasefire is due in large part to Russian activity. while the US only went in tow
only thanks this and only thanks to russia
the peace talks in Geneva
today have for the first time a hope of reaching results

My dear mental wanker
do not worry,
your powerful nation will now have another occasion where to spend billions of its taxpayers

It sufficient just get back where US sowed another chaos
in that libya
where probably Mr. Putin will not break you eggs in the basket
and you will do what you want as usual

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About This Blog

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