Commentary: Don’t call Putin a genius

Vladimir Putin’s global stature appears to be at an all-time high. Some observers the Russian president the  and for good reason. Last week, during a series of meetings with the leaders of Syria, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin took the central role in a to end Syria’s civil war by winning support from Turkey and Iran to host a Syrian peace congress.

The Sochi summit conspicuously did not include delegates from the United States or the European Union. And while its focus was on the Middle East, it’s clear that Putin has expanded his influence beyond the region. In Europe, he destabilized Ukraine by annexing its Crimean peninsula and supporting separatists in the Donbass region after Ukrainians overthrew their pro-Moscow president in 2014. In Asia, he has an increasingly close relationship with China. In the United States, charges of Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump have dominated Washington’s political landscape and overshadowed the administration’s legislative agenda.

This is an impressive turn of events for the leader of the economically-anemic remnant of a former superpower. Given that Russia’s economy has a of $1.283 trillion – or barely 7 percent the size of America’s – Putin arguably has played a weak hand brilliantly.

But Putin’s apparent successes may turn out to be failures. The view of the Russian leader as a master tactician overlooks how his achievements risk blowing up in his face.


Consider Ukraine: Russia has historically  to dominate its southern neighbor and Putin remains loath to allow the country to leave Moscow’s orbit and join the West. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Kremlin  to use a combination of Kremlin agents, local collaborators and irregular Russian soldiers to conquer the entire southern and eastern half of Ukraine. Since Ukraine’s military had only 6,000 combat-ready troops Putin’s dream of creating this “Novorossiya” — or New Russia — seemed within reach.

Unfortunately for Putin, things did not work out as he had planned. While Ukraine is culturally and linguistically between a Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented western half and a pro-Russian, Russian-speaking eastern area, Putin’s war on their country crystallized a of national identity. Privately-funded military battalions and civilian volunteers  the regular army beat back Russian-supported separatists and collaborators, and recent nationwide polls  a greater sense of Ukrainian identity then prior to 2014. Support for joining Western institutions like the EU and NATO has also  while anti-Russian sentiments have hardened.

Although the Kremlin may hope these trends eventually reverse and pro-Russian leaders like former President Viktor Yanukovych come to power again, that’s  wishful thinking. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine actually removed millions of Russia-friendly voters opposed to NATO and the EU from Ukraine’s electorate, making it much more likely Kiev’s leaders will eventually make good on their promise to bring Ukraine into the West. Putin may have gained Crimea but he lost the rest of Ukraine.

Putin’s interference in America’s elections also hasn’t worked out as planned. The Kremlin hoped Trump’s election would result in more Russia-friendly policies, but the opposite has occurred. Putin’s secret April proposal to completely  the Russian-American relationship, and to cooperate on a whole series of global issues from Afghanistan to North Korea to cyber security, largely went nowhere. In August,Congress almost unanimously  new economic sanctions against Russia – provisions directly targeting Putin’s oligarch allies – while also barring Trump from lifting previous sanctions without congressional review. Putin hoped Trump’s election would weaken NATO, but the president has  Washington’s commitment to defend NATO allies. Trump has backed this up by continuing to deploy American forces to the Baltics while also sending additional troops to the Polish-Russian border. And, in part to Trump’s consistent demands, Washington’s European allies are finally increasing their defense budgets.

While the Kremlin may still hold out hope Trump will eventually act on his  desire to improve ties with Moscow, American domestic politics likely preclude this from happening. Some members of Trump’s own cabinet Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster hold hawkish views on Russia and will probably push back against any attempt by Trump to improve the Russian-American relationship. More importantly, even if Trump wanted to normalize the relationship, the optics of doing so while Trump – and several of his closest relatives and advisors – remains under suspicion for colluding with Moscow’s attempts at electoral interference makes this politically implausible. Indeed, the investigation into Russian meddling provides incentive for Trump to appear tough on Russia to insulate him from accusations that he’s a secret Russian puppet – something officials advocating supplying arms to Ukraine are of.

Putin establishing closer ties with China also doesn’t represent the threat Americans fear. The Chinese economy dwarfs Russia’s and this economic likely relegates Russia to the role of junior partner in any possible alliance.

Moscow’s military cooperation with China also represents less then meet the eye. Though joint-military exercises  increased, these are unlikely to produce any kind of formal anti-Western alliance. Even worse for Putin, Moscow’s new  to sell Beijing its most advanced arms may actually undermine Russia’s long-term geopolitical position. Underlying mistrust between the two Eurasian powers dating back decades  and if a one day a revanchist China seeks to reclaim its historic Siberian territory Russia will regret Putin’s decision to pursue short-term economic benefit at the expense of its national security.

To be clear, Putin can point to some genuine political accomplishments. Beyond his successful Syrian-diplomacy, other key Middle Eastern countries have also been rushing to curry favor with him. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has Putin multiple times, asking him to respect Israel’s interests in Syria. And in what observers considered a historic development, King Salman bin Abdulaziz – accompanied by a 1,500 person delegation – became the first Saudi leader to visit Moscow. The two countries multiple agreements, including a remarkable deal for Riyadh to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Putin may have emerged as a Middle East power broker, but his gains elsewhere are tenuous. It’s time to realize that claims of his geopolitical genius are more myth then reality.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.

The views expressed in this article are not those of News.