In effect, Putin drew his own red line, right over Obama’s. Putin gave Assad a free pass to use any means to fight his people, anything save for chemical weapons. Moscow is a stickler for the letter of international law, and in 2013, it quickly organized a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council and a broad international coalition to oversee the destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal at sea. But despite the pointedly international nature of the operation, Moscow had essentially acted as Assad’s guarantor, with Putin having to ensure that Assad would no longer use chemical weapons. But three years later, Assad has clearly been emboldened by Russia’s military help and diplomatic cover for brutally reconquering Aleppo and other territory. If Assad can bomb aid convoys, starve cities into submission, if he can use mass torture and barrel bombs and even chlorine gas because it wasn’t covered in the 2013 deal, why not push the envelope a little further and use a little sarin gas he’s squirreled away or redeveloped or bought somewhere?
Now, there is little Moscow can do to save face. It gathered an international coalition to dispose of Assad’s chemical weapons, and made political hay out of their destruction, only to have Assad make Moscow’s effort look either less than thorough, or gruesomely insincere. Either way, Russia doesn’t look like much of a guarantor.
At the same time, though, it can’t just allow Washington to unilaterally violate the ideas of national sovereignty it has spent years, treasure, and Russian blood defending in Syria. It can’t allow Washington to so obviously disregard not just Putin’s opinion, but the Russian military. And so Moscow has to condemn the American strikes strongly enough to retain its position as a defender of the UN Security Council and international law, strongly enough to maintain its stature as a global military power—but not so strongly that it appears to condone not just the gassing of children but, more importantly for Moscow, the violation of international law on chemical weapons, a law that it helped to enforce in 2013.
The problem for Moscow is that this was all painfully predictable. In helping Obama kick the chemical weapons can down the road, there was only so long Putin could continue to embolden Assad before Assad would go too far, at which point there would be no more forgiveness from the very international community Moscow had helped to galvanize.
And this is perhaps the ultimate lesson for Americans who fetishize Putin as the ultimate, perfect villain, who outfoxes the hemming, hawing United States at every turn in Syria. Putin is brilliant at finding quick maneuvers that advance his agenda in the moment. He too kicks the can down the road, repeatedly. But that road is not endless, and time doesn’t always work in his favor. Or, put another way, when you become a guarantor, at some point the bill comes due.