The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is Putin’s world now

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Jan. 7. (Sputnik/Via Reuters)
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Here is what Vladimir Putin’s 2020 has looked like so far.

The Russian leader went to Damascus, Syria, to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a week ago and then flew to Istanbul the next day for the inauguration of a strategic pipeline that brings Russian natural gas to Turkey and Europe underneath the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine. Standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Putin called for restraint in Iran-U.S. tensions and for a ceasefire in Libya. Over the weekend, he received German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow and got on the phone to call the leaders of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, countries that support opposing sides in the war in Libya, to make them an offer they could not refuse. By Monday, the Russian leader was receiving the warring factions in Libya in Moscow to broker a cease-fire.

It’s a frenzied and broad agenda for any leader. And it also tells us something about the new world order that is emerging.

While President Trump spends his time tweeting insults and threatening to start Middle Eastern wars, Russia is filling the vacuum in international diplomacy. In the case of Libya, ending a bloody conflict at the doorstep of Europe in an oil-rich country is a major deal. It could bring Erdogan and Putin even closer and force Europeans to start thinking in pragmatic terms about working with Russia on energy and security. As Europe starts thinking of a post-American world, Russia is gaining the prestige it never had.

Russia was always considered a disruptive power while the United States had a track record of establishing “order” in various parts of the world. Post-World War II European unity, supporting democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the equilibrium of military power in Asia or even the efforts to transform the Middle East regimes were, for better of for worse, attempts by Washington to create a friendly and stable order in its own image.

America used to try to design the world, Russia used to try to sabotage those plans. Now things almost look the other way around.

Sure, Russia seems to be punching above its weight in terms of economic and diplomatic capacity, but it is shaping events nonetheless. In Syria, Putin altered the course of a civil war that the United States was watching from afar. In Ukraine, Russian intervention has changed the map and dashed Ukraine’s European dreams. In Venezuela, Moscow’s support has been crucial to maintain Nicolás Maduro in power. In the Middle East, Putin is the leader you want a selfie with.

The decline of U.S. hegemony has been long discussed — the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington documented five waves of post-World War II American “declinism” back in 1988. His view was that the constant fear of American decline was what led to America’s impressive capacity for constant renewal.

But Huntington never bargained for a President Trump. Trump doesn’t believe in the U.S.-led liberal order or in its institutions. He has eviscerated the U.S. diplomatic capacity and undermined the idea of a U.S. global role among a substantial portion of the American public. The United States may still have the capacity for renewal, but under Trump, it doesn’t seem to want to — it no longer seems to have faith in itself or its own ideas.

Right now, the future for Libyans is unclear. If Putin manages to broker a ceasefire over the next few days, political negotiations will take place in Berlin. If all succeeds, Libya will likely emerge as another divided country. There’s always a bargain. For Syrians, Russia’s footprint meant having to learn to live with their torturer. For Ukraine, it was the end of European integration.

Russia will continue pushing for a world order in which the strong rule the weak and take their territory if they object. It will be an unhappy and unstable world where critics and dissidents are discredited and persecuted. An order in which authoritarianism proudly asserts its legitimacy over democracy.

Read more:

Dennis Ross: Why Soleimani’s killing is a gift to Vladimir Putin

David Ignatius: This is what a real Iran strategy would look like

Max Boot: Trump’s Iran strategy is still a failure

The Post’s View: Proclaiming Trump victorious in Iran is shortsighted and premature

Andrew McCabe: If you think Iran is done retaliating, think again