At a press conference back in September, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a seemingly throwaway remark that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid outside military intervention by giving up all his chemical weapons.
The same day, Russia's President Vladimir Putin seized the diplomatic initiative by calling on his longtime ally to do just that, paving the way for a deal that may have prevented major military action and unpredictable instability in the Middle East.
"Putin Takes Advantage Of Kerry Blunder," the headlines blared. Purely in terms of visuals, Putin came out looking like a global peacemaker against the background of a bellicose United States.
And it wasn't just in the Syria crisis that Putin looked like a foreign-policy maestro. From the ongoing story of whistle-blowing former U.S. National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden to Armenia and Ukraine's abrupt U-turns on their European-integration ambitions in favor of closer ties with Moscow, 2013 seemed to be a gift bag of victories for the Russian president.
Despite Putin consistently grabbing international headlines in 2013, analysts are doubtful whether the Kremlin leader's tactical foreign-policy victories provide any tangible long-term strategic benefits for Moscow.
"Political leaders tend to look into foreign affairs when they feel weak and powerless in domestic affairs, and I think that is very much what has been happening now," says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services. "Putin appears to be having triumphs away, but on the other hand, that is because he is really neglecting domestic politics. He's not really got a strategy for how to deal with the opposition, how to deal with the long-term economic problems that are looming over Russia."
Analysts call the Syria deal the highlight of Putin's foreign-policy year. "The Syria initiative is by far the most important development on Russia's foreign-policy front during this year. And here Russia, of course, gained status. It really is one of the indispensable powers now in the Middle East," says Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.
Whistle-Blower Tit For Tat
Likewise, the ongoing Snowden affair is another case in which Moscow seems to have gotten the upper hand over Washington. Snowden ended up with temporary asylum in Russia in July and since then his leaks about U.S. eavesdropping around the world have embarrassed the United States time and again.
In terms of optics, it was a great story for Putin, who came off looking like the provider of safe haven for a persecuted whistle-blower. It was also much-needed turnabout, considering the year began with a tussle over U.S. sanctions against Russian officials connected to the death in custody of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
After Russia, in apparent retaliation, banned U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, many were left with the impression that Putin was willing to sacrifice children to avenge affronts to Russia. The Snowden affair was just what the doctor ordered for Putin, according to Tsygankov.
"The Snowden situation, the way I read it, wasn't of Russia's choosing, but Russia was able ultimately to score points with non-Western countries, and many Europeans are quite critical of the United States' handling of this case as well," he says. "So this is where Russia was able to build a little bit of a better reputation in the eyes of many Europeans."
Likewise, Edward Lucas, international editor at "The Economist," says Moscow has succeeded in using the Snowden revelations to drive a wedge between Washington and Europe. "This all feeds into a Kremlin narrative of moral equivalence -- that the West is finished and they don't really care about human rights, they just say this stuff, and, hey, what's the difference between the FSB and the NSA [Russian and U.S. security services]? And that, I think, has given the Kremlin's narrative a terrific kick by giving a terrific kick to the way the West looks at itself and thinks about itself. I find that quite ominous in the long run."
A Fragile Future?
Russia's other major foreign-policy score of 2013 was luring Armenia in September out of its planned Association Agreement with the European Union. That was followed in November by Ukraine's announcement in November that it was backtracking on its plans to sign an Association Agreement.
Ukraine's decision is still up in the air, with both Kyiv and the European Union saying the agreement may yet be signed in the spring of 2014. However, Russia's combination of energy power and economic threats has proven difficult to resist.
But with demonstrations against the Ukrainian government's decision often drawing hundreds of thousands to the streets, it appears that while Putin has been adept at pressuring the country's rulers, he is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of its citizens.
And this, says Galeotti, illustrates why Russia's hard power will have difficulty competing with the soft-power attraction of the West. "It comes down to the fact that these are all things that have to be actively maintained. This is not the same as soft power. This is not the same as the sort of natural drift of somewhere like Ukraine toward the European Union because there is so much in terms of economic and also social and also political and, indeed, moral advantage to doing so," he says. "The Russian oil-and-gas power is one that has to be constantly protected, reaffirmed, and such like. And I think it will in due course become a weapon that wastes away."
Moreover, going into 2014, Putin needs to worry about the underperforming Russian economy and a political system that remains nearly entirely focused on him personally, political scientist Tsygankov says.
"Domestically, Russia needs changes, needs more improvement as far as its economy is concerned, because it is performing at the rate of 1.5 percent now. This is not nearly sufficient to meet multiple challenges, including a rising China," Tsygankov says.
"And, politically, as well. Russia's political system is generally stagnant. There are many issues that need to be addressed. The state is not performing as well as it should be performing."