In one theater after another, Russian President Vladimir Putin has successfully challenged Western predominance and even superseded it. Putin has fueled pan-regional instability through his clandestine dismemberment of Eastern Ukraine and has contributed to an intensifying European refugee crisis, which has ballooned since the start of Russia’s pro-Assad military campaign in September. Under Putin’s Machiavellian direction, Russia has managed to exploit U.S. ambivalence in Syria and carve out what is likely to be a revitalized Russian sphere of influence in the Levant. Russia’s military is expanding its ability to project power globally, is advancing at a faster rate than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and is not even paying a high price for its robust intervention in Syria. To paraphrase the ever-articulate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE: Putin is winning abroad and the U.S. is losing.

This is the narrative that Putin wants you—and more importantly, his own citizens—to believe.


Though many of these claims are in fact true, the reality is that Russia is much weaker in a comprehensive sense than it appears to be. Though its power projection capability truly is formidable, U.S. policymakers would be wise to reassess Russia’s comprehensive power in both real and relative terms. Such an analysis will do much to reestablish U.S. operating confidence abroad and frame a new strategic outlook for U.S. policy with respect to Russia’s reemergence in Europe and the Middle East.    

An introductory course in international relations will teach you that a strong economy is the foundation of military might, and, at present, Russia’s economy is hurting. Badly. Inflation is in the double digits, real wages are plummeting, and the economy is contracting as Western sanctions and tumbling oil prices threaten to further undermine the country’s critical energy-exportation industry.

Much of Russia’s adventurism abroad, from Georgia in 2008 to Ukraine in 2014 and to Syria in 2015, can be read alongside the country’s contracting economy and growing dissatisfaction at each juncture (every intervention followed an “oil price plunge” and subsequent economic slowdown.)  

As is often the case with a regime looking to maintain legitimacy and curb domestic dissent, a faltering economy—which inevitably breeds such dissent if left unresolved—can lead to the collapse of the prevailing order. In general, an autocratic regime’s foremost concern is its own survival, and, when economic circumstances threaten its existence or even its legitimacy, the regime must pursue policies that either cure the problem or distract from it.

Rather than embrace the cure of structural economic reform and market liberalization, Putin has consistently opposed such measures, a decision rooted in his preference to keep himself and other Russian kleptocrats wealthy and in power at the expense of the Russian people. Opting for the second option taught in Autocratic Regimes 101, Putin has chosen to disguise widespread economic malaise at home by engaging in adventurism abroad, all in the name of demagogic nationalism and the “rescue” of “repressed” Russian minorities in neighboring ex-satellite states. Irrespective of the actual outcomes of such a foreign policy—which, as I would argue, is really a domestic policy—Putin’s state media will continue to craft an image of Russian triumph and adversarial acquiescence.

Perception has similarly misguided U.S. policymakers with regard to Russia’s strategic objectives in Syria. In step with Putin’s probable expectation when planning the intervention, Secretary Kerry will likely accept Russian concessions (read: promises of concessions) at the negotiating table in Geneva in exchange for the easing of Ukraine-related sanctions. Putin will promise to force Assad into a cease-fire in line with opposition demands, prompting the administration to begin lifting lower-tier sanctions. Then, to the world’s surprise, the aerial bombardment of opposition strongholds and civilian areas will resume, and Putin will be on a fast track to tearing down the sanctions regime entirely. 

To make matters worse, the cost of Russia’s intervention in Syria is a financial bargain for Putin and produces the following secondary advantages: the rearmament of Russia’s sole remaining naval base outside of its immediate territory at Tartus in Syria; the destabilization of Western Europe through unsustainable refugee migration, thus weakening the West’s resolve and ability to maintain a hardline against Russia in the East; the provision of a convenient pretext for the suppression of alleged Islamic “terrorists” domestically, who will surely surge in response to Russia’s not-indiscriminate targeting of Syria’s Sunni population; and lastly, the creation of a perception that Russia is the most decisive offshore actor in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Regional observers and presidential candidates alike have mistaken (or have dishonestly chosen to overstate) these secondary benefits as the guiding objectives of Russia's foreign policy and will likely fall prey to Putin’s strategic ploy of diverting American attention away from his nation's profound economic vulnerabilities, which tumbling energy prices and tough-nosed sanctions have only just begun to expose.

To gain the upper hand in both regions, the U.S. must reassert the real—rather than the perceived—balance of military and economic might between itself and Russia. Such a pivot in perspective will enable policymakers to reconstruct a more confident and exploitive pan-regional policy reassured by the reality that Russia is weak and that America is still in fact great.

Putin’s game uses perception to shape reality. If America wants to play—and win—then she must mold international perceptions out of surprisingly favorable realities. 

Diamond is a student of Economics at Yeshiva University in New York City.