Throughout the summer, Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine kept up a daily drumbeat of attacks on the Ukrainian army, inflicting significant casualties while avoiding a response by Western governments. On Sept. 1, following a new cease-fire, the guns suddenly fell silent. Optimists speculated that Vladimir Putin was backing down.
Then came the reports from Syria: Russian warplanes were overflying the rebel-held province of Idlib. Barracks were under construction at a new base. Ships were unloading new armored vehicles. Putin, it turns out, wasn’t retreating, but shifting fronts — and executing another of the in-your-face maneuvers that have repeatedly caught the Obama administration flat-footed.
It’s not yet clear what Russia’s intentions are in Syria — or, for that matter, in Ukraine, where it continues to deploy an estimated 9,000 regular troops and 240 tanks on top of more than 30,000 irregulars. Some analysts claim that a floundering Putin is meddling in the Middle East out of desperation because his bid for Ukraine has failed. But another way to see it is this: Putin’s use of force succeeded in inducing the West to accept his Ukraine demands — and he is trying to repeat his triumph in a second theater.
Certainly, no one looks more fooled by the latest Kremlin stunt than the man assigned to call Moscow to protest, Secretary of State John F. Kerry. In May, Kerry traveled to Putin’s favorite resort, Sochi, to confer with him on Iran, Ukraine and Syria. When the meeting was over, Kerry publicly recommitted himself to the proposition that the wars in Ukraine and Syria could be solved through U.S.-Russian cooperation. To begin with, a special diplomatic channel was set up between Moscow and Washington for coordination on Ukraine, with the goal of ending the conflict by the end of the year.
Over the summer, while Washington was preoccupied with the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. and European diplomats quietly leaned on the democratically elected, pro-Western Ukrainian government of Petro Poroshenko. In Sochi, Kerry had offered full-throated U.S. support for the implementation of an accord known as Minsk 2 — a deal hastily brokered by Germany and France in February, at a moment when regular Russian troops were cutting the Ukrainian army to ribbons. The bargain is a terrible one for Kiev: It stipulates that Ukraine must adopt a constitutional reform granting extraordinary powers to the Russian-occupied regions, and that the reforms must satisfy Moscow’s proxies. That gives Putin a de facto veto over Ukraine’s governing structure.
Though Russia wasn’t observing point one of the Minsk deal — a cease-fire — Poroshenko was pushed hard by the Obama administration to submit a constitutional amendment to the Ukrainian parliament. He did so, then won preliminary approval for it by warning legislators that his fragile administration risked losing U.S. support. The cost was high: Violent demonstrations outside the parliament resulted in several deaths. But it looked like the United States had delivered on Kerry’s commitment to Putin.
Putin, however, rejected the concession. The reform, he publicly complained, had not been worked out with his proxies and did not “change the essence of Ukraine’s structure of power.” His demand to dictate Ukraine’s political system could not have been more blatant. Yet rather than dismiss it, Western leaders are promising more appeasement. “It is imperative to overcome those differences” with Russia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her most recent meeting with Poroshenko, according to her office. Kiev is now being pressed to allow elections next month in the occupied territories, even though they remain under the control of Russian troops and much of the Ukrainian population has been displaced.
How does this translate to Syria? There, too, Putin has an agenda as clear as it is noxious. He wants to block any attempt by the West and its allies to engineer the removal of Bashar al-Assad and force his regime’s acceptance as a partner in a new “coalition” fighting the Islamic State. Putin apparently pitched that idea to Obama during a phone call in June. Obama, like Kerry, concluded — wrongly — that Putin was ready to cooperate.
Now, suddenly, Russian boots are appearing on the ground in Assad’s ethnic stronghold, Latakia . Some analysts say Russian planes and drones could be used to carry out attacks on the regime’s behalf. Kerry’s protests have been brushed off.
Perhaps Putin really is improvising or bluffing in desperation. But maybe he is calculating that the Obama administration will respond to his belligerence in Syria the same way it did to that in Ukraine: by broadly conceding his demands and trying to get its Syrian and Arab allies to accept them. Of course, Putin has yet to get his way fully in Ukraine, in spite of the West’s lobbying, and he’s unlikely to succeed in saving Assad. But if one of his aims has been to show that he can push the United States around, he’s doing pretty well.