Don't let China distract us from Russia

Don't let China distract us from Russia
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As Washington foreign policymakers are pivoting their attention toward China, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkraine rejects claims that it violated Belarus air space Ernst on Russian buildup on Ukraine border: 'We must prepare for the worst' Biden cannot allow his domestic fumbles to transfer to the world stage MORE has secured a strategic win in Syria.

Not only has Moscow shored up its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has also secured basing rights in the strategic Eastern Mediterranean for at least the next 49 years. Moscow uses this position as a springboard to project power into NATO’s southern flank and throughout the Middle East, boost arms sales and cultivate a regional perception of a Great Power that stands by its allies. Regional adversaries and allies see Russia as a key interlocutor that can talk to all sides. Simply put, Russia is a reality they have to deal with, whether they like it or not.

In the United States, by contrast, three successive administrations to date have little to show for their involvement. Assad, one of the worst dictators of our time, remains in power and the region is slowly edging closer to accepting this reality as well. President Barack Obama famously dismissed the Russian intervention in Syria as an adventure that will get Russia “stuck in a quagmire,” one that “won’t work.” This prediction did not age well. 

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Republicans and Democrats, policymakers and pundits, consistently misjudge Putin. For years, many consoled themselves that Putin is merely a short-term opportunist and tactician, but his grim achievements also suggest a commitment to a long-term, zero-sum, anti-American vision.

The Syria case is instructive. For Putin, the intervention was never fundamentally about Syria: It was about reasserting Russian glory after the ignominious Soviet defeat in the Cold War and, in the process, delivering a blow to the Western liberalism he despises.

By shoring up a fellow dictator, Putin strengthened his own position in power. He forced the West into a dialogue on his terms and simultaneously deterred it by establishing a strategic position in a crucial part of the world that Russian rulers always understood mattered to Great Power competition. Unencumbered by Communist ideology, Putin’s focus on flexibility and pragmatism achieved more in the Eastern Mediterranean, and more broadly, in the Middle East, than the Soviet Union — at the expense of the U.S.

For years, Western commentators and policymakers underestimated their adversary and waited for what one analyst dubbed aptly the Godot of Russian decline, while Putin advanced his interests. Putin, who believes the West is weak, is exploiting the global perception that America’s foreign engagement is on decline at best, or a force for instability at worst. He is pursuing a strategy of limited means — he is careful not to overextend his resources, especially not in the Middle East.

No, we are no longer fighting the Cold War. But by fomenting and manipulating small-scale wars and so-called “frozen conflicts,” he has intensified an arc of instability surrounding Russia as a buffer against the West, from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in the west, to south in the Caucasus, that helps perpetuate the traditional myth of Russia as “besieged fortress.”

Syria, which is the southernmost edge of this arc, is headed for a similar frozen conflict scenario. Meanwhile, Putin seeks Western accommodation and recognition as a Great Power with a “privileged” sphere of influence.

It is time to stop selling Putin short. Over the years, he continuously crushed domestic opposition, with increasing brutality. The Russian economy is plagued by corruption and other problems, but it remains resilient in a way its Soviet predecessor never was. Having deployed his overt and covert forces abroad, his minions are firmly entrenched, while the latest round of Russian military reforms shows real improvements.

No matter how much U.S. policymakers wish that Russia would just fade into the background so they can focus first on China, this is simply not in the cards. The U.S. must focus on both simultaneously. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first-rate superpower is the ability to address two global threats at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. This means crafting a long-term strategy toward Russia, a historically “weak Great Power” that has focused on geopolitics over all else, even at the time when the U.S. pivoted to counter-terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.

A former KGB officer, Putin is skilled in the art of deception and misdirection so he is neither as weak nor as strong as he would like us to believe. But Putin’s catalog of achievements demands that Washington policymakers recognize and respond to the hardnosed, pragmatic realism that drives him to undermine U.S. influence. He is not leaving the stage anytime soon. 

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of upcoming book, “Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence.”