What Putin Understands That Most Americans Don't

"As we examine whether or not Obama was playing chess, we should also examine whether or not, in this instance, he played against a superior opponent."

Here is a reaction to the Putin op-ed on Syria, and resulting flap, from a reader who was born in the Ukraine, came to the U.S. as a child, and is now an American citizen living in California. I think it is worth reading.

The highlighting in his message is by him in the original. If I were boiling what he says down to a sentence it would be: Americans who are on a high horse about Putin's hypocrisy or effrontery should try to imagine how this episode looks in the rest of the world's eyes. And (a second sentence) understanding that reaction matters, since U.S. pressures on Syria are based on the assumption that we are defending international norms and borderless human yearnings for decency. Please check out his assessment in full.

I've seen a lot of hurrah-ing on two points in the past few days. The first has been that we appear to have (accidentally) avoided involving ourselves in a campaign in Syria. Which is reason for joy. The second has been a kind of dismissal of Putin, particularly of his op-ed in the Times, and its shallowness.

The second instinct, I think, is a mistake. I want to take a second to point out what was obviously bogus about what Putin wrote. He obfuscated Russian interests in Syria, he ignored times Russia found it imperative to fight with, let's say, Georgia, despite a lack of Security Council support. And he intentionally confuses making the UN Security Council powerless by ignoring it (military action) and making it powerless by ensuring that it just doesn't touch any nations with which you are allied (veto).

This is understood. However, beyond this critique, what Putin understands and what I'm sure the Obama administration understands, is the Russian President is arguing from a flank supported by and playing to much of the world. And for us, at least, that should be unacceptable.

The narrative in America is that Putin is a strong-man oppressing his people, in line with a sophisticated Assad, and that this is what maintains his power. When a former oligarch or recent opposition runs, ostensibly against Putin's party, as in the recent mayoral campaign, and they lose, we say that they secretly won and it was rigged anyways. And the assumption is always that Russia has stacked the votes.
This may surprise American readers, but being a cynic that dispatches your political opposition is not necessarily a position that lacks popular support in Russia. Avoiding debt, side-stepping recessions and having massive oil reserves is actually a pretty great way to assure your long-standing popularity. What makes Putin dangerous is that he's not hanging on by any threads in his country. He is not lying in fear of a populist uprising. He may not be understood this way by Americans, but Russians, with their own history, understand him quite well as largely the most successful apparatchik since Khrushchev, both in keeping with his own interests and with Russia's.

As we examine whether or not Obama was playing chess, we should also examine whether or not, in this instance, he played against a superior opponent. And we must then assess the damage this game did. Because Putin wasn't writing to United States citizens, even as that was the premise. He was writing globally. He was writing for a world that is quite willing to accept the narrative of Americans quick to rush into war, quick to disrespect the Security Council, quick to disregard international law. And he is writing from a position of an alternative power.

He is making his case, a case that the world will not understand as Americans understand it. He has protected his interest in Syria under the banner of advancing an international interest. He has established, further, a precedent. That the United States does answer to the council, that it cannot act unilaterally and that our nation can be made to suffer a geopolitical consequence. If you were a country in the Middle East, whose protection would you want right now?

I brought up Khrushchev not incidentally. I currently view our recent impasse as very similar to the Vienna Summit. Americans are quick to hand-wave the foreign apparat, but slow to realize what just happened. We got duped into having a fight we didn't want to have. We wanted limits on Assad's power, and we now have significant limits of our own by way of this precedent.

I believe it is quite possible that we were playing a long game, but in this instance, I believe our opposition was playing a longer one. That this, while a temporary strategic success, will come out to be a failure of realpolitik. We should have been as prepared for Putin as it appears he was for us.

A related reaction from another reader:

As an admirer of Mr. Obama I nonetheless agree with his critics that he has bungled Syria policy, isn’t sure what he wants, and his Secretary of State has made poor arguments delivered with hyperbole reminiscent of the 2nd Bush administration.

And yet…

By punting to Congress he has strengthened the Republic

And now chance words from the annoyingly pious Mr. Kerry might bring a negotiated solution

Perhaps the first requirement for being a great politician is a vast store of good luck. 

Also check out this parallel assessment from What Would Vannevar Blog.

Update: Also please take a look at this remarkably unsparing analysis from my long-time Atlantic colleague Robert Kaplan, on the ways in which -- despite the obvious differences -- the Syrian situation can be compared to Iraq.