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Russia’s Middle-East End Game, at the Hands of the Post-Soviet Grandmaster

Why Putin believes U.S. policies in the Middle East since the Arab Spring have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous

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President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
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Vladimir Putin, now in power for over 13 years, has a history with the United States, his one-time opponent on the global chessboard. He began by mending ties with NATO, broken during the Kosovo conflict, and then actually applying for membership in the alliance that once faced off against the Red Army. In the wake of Sept. 11, Putin not only called George W. Bush, but also gave practical and substantive support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan—and tolerated a large U.S. military presence in former Soviet Central Asia. Putin also chose not to react strongly to the Bush Administration’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty that Moscow had for decades called a key pillar of strategic stability, and managed to live with Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the enlargement of NATO—to include, among others, the three Baltic states. The early picture of Putin’s relations with the United States was therefore one of relative harmony.

What changed Putin’s largely positive attitude toward the United States were the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, which he saw as U.S. actions to displace Russia from its “zones of interests,” at best, or, at worst, as a dress rehearsal for a regime change in Russia itself. Putin then changed tack and left the West’s political orbit to reassert Russia’s role as an independent great power, helped by a decade of high and ever-rising oil prices. He fulminated against U.S. global hegemony in a speech in Munich, but to little avail, as Washington’s support for Ukrainian and Georgian bids to join NATO helped destabilize the situation in Eastern Europe. The whole thing ended in a brief war between Russia and Georgia, which Putin saw as a U.S. client state. Had the crisis also spread to Ukraine, or at least to Crimea, a direct U.S.-Russian collision would have been hard to avoid.

The global crisis and the change of presidents at the White House—Putin himself always stayed in control, even when he let his protégé Dmitri Medvedev formally run Russia—allowed for a new beginning in U.S.-Russian relations. Putin took Barack Obama’s “reset” in relations with Moscow as a correction of the flawed policies of the previous administration. He had one substantive face-to-face meeting with Obama when the latter was visiting Russia, and he permitted Medvedev’s closer engagement with the U.S. president. But the results of that engagement, in Putin’s view, were mixed. Obama showed no interest in the post-Soviet space, which was good; he scaled down U.S. missile defense plans, which was good; and he bombed Libya into a regime change, which was plainly bad.

By the time Putin formally returned to the Kremlin, he had become incensed over what he believed was blatant U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic politics. He accused the U.S. State Department of actually paying for and running the Russian protest movement that challenged his rule in a series of unprecedented demonstrations. Once in office, Putin lost no time in turning against those whom he described as foreign agents. Official anti-Americanism, heretofore a situational reaction to occasional U.S. military operations or human-rights campaigns, had become a key feature of the brand of Russian nationalism that Putin set about constructing in his new term. In foreign policy, Moscow stopped merely grumbling over U.S. actions it did not like, as in Kosovo, Iraq, or Libya; it started actively opposing U.S. policies, particularly in Syria.

It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin is a very conservative politician and statesman, and he is deeply cynical about domestic politics and international relations. He defends the status quo: domestically, because it suits him best; and internationally, because it is often the lesser evil. In his more than a dozen years in power, he has lost his early admiration for the United States and his once-strong empathy for Europe.

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From Vladimir Putin’s perspective, U.S. policies in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Awakening have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous, and its record of prognostication and intervention has been abysmal. Obama had made veiled calls for change during his first visit to Cairo, but when the change in Egypt suddenly became a reality, he agonized before making a decision. Eventually, he pushed out one of America’s staunchest allies, Hosni Mubarak, and tried his luck astride the “wave of history.” Obama mistook that wave for democracy; in truth, its real name was Islamism. While publicly exhorting Egyptians’ readiness to embrace democracy, the United States was essentially trying to protect its geopolitical interests, including Egypt’s peace with Israel and the shipping along the Suez Canal. Using its leverage with the Egyptian military, the United States gambled on bringing Islamists to power, in the hope of domesticating them through the chores and challenges of governance. When they turned out to be incompetent and headstrong, the United States let the first democratically elected president of Egypt be ousted by means of a managed crisis; staged popular riots; and eventually a military coup. The U.S. government refused to see the coup for what it actually was, so that it could, hypocritically, circumvent a U.S. legal norm mandating cessation of U.S. military aid, a key U.S. instrument of influence. The new government in Egypt contains a number of U.S. friends, but its future is uncertain.

Putin himself has been rather skeptical on Egypt. After some persuasion, he did agree to ease the ban on dealing with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and even invited President Morsi to his court in Sochi in the spring of 2013. Putin may privately enjoy watching the Egyptians stop burning Russian flags over Syria and putting up instead his own portrait alongside that of Nasser. Yet, even then Putin sees little cause for short-term optimism when he looks at Egypt. The country is on the brink of a civil war, he commented on Morsi’s ouster in June 2013.

In Libya, Putin watched the U.S. president in 2011 decide on a military intervention in a foreign country against the advice of his own military, in order to be on the safe side in the forthcoming elections at home and to placate his allies in Europe and the Arab world. What was originally billed as a humanitarian operation to save lives in Benghazi was soon expanded to bring about a regime change in Tripoli, the U.N. Security Council resolution that Russia had allowed to pass notwithstanding. As a result, Putin commented, Libya ceased to be a functioning state; it broke apart into petty fiefdoms, turning Libyans into paupers. Even worse, the chaos that followed the toppling of Qaddafi released huge arsenals of arms and munitions, as well as thousands of trained radical fighters, into the neighborhood, from North Africa to the Middle East.

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Russia’s Middle-East End Game, at the Hands of the Post-Soviet Grandmaster

Why Putin believes U.S. policies in the Middle East since the Arab Spring have been misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous