Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is piling on military support for the faltering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. And Washington is shocked—as Washington’s always shocked when the predictable-but-distasteful becomes reality. Unlike the current U.S. administration, Putin doesn’t abandon embattled allies. What’s more, Russian leaders, whether in Soviet or neo-imperialist guise, always strike when the United States and the West are distracted or weak.
After being forced to back down by the Berlin airlift, Soviet leaders paid more attention to timing their actions. They cracked down in Berlin in 1953 when the United States was trying to end the Korean War. In 1956, Russian tanks moved into Hungary while the British and French were flubbing the Suez Crisis and getting spanked by the United States. Twelve years later, the Soviet Army rolled into Prague while the United States was mesmerized by Vietnam’s swelling casualty lists. And Soviet desantniki seized key locations around Kabul, spearheading a “fraternal” invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, while President Carter was reeling from a series of crises and failures (Christmas was coming, too).
Should we, then, be surprised that the new czar of all the Russias has moved to shore up a strategically useful ally while America’s president lies curled up in a ball? That Putin has taken and continues to take advantage of the most weak-willed and indecisive administration in American history?
Much has been made in the media of Russia’s rust-bucket naval yard at Tartous on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. But Putin’s commitment is about far more than post-modern “coaling stations.” Deepening his strategic partnership with Iran (meetings in Moscow with key Iranian operators preceded Putin’s dispatch of forces to Syria), Putin foresees a wall of Russo-Iranian influence stretching from the Mediterranean into western Afghanistan (and, perhaps, beyond)…a wall that would shut out U.S. influence and cow our regional allies.
Before sending in his troops, Putin waited, artfully, until President Obama concluded his deal with Iran—a deal the White House cherishes and will not jeopardize by confronting Iran. The Iran nuclear accord is Moscow’s shield, as well as Teheran’s.
Putin succeeded in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He’ll also succeed in propping up “President” Assad—although the cost may prove higher than Moscow anticipates, given that Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, does not share President Obama’s dread of confrontation. Meanwhile, Putin cynically presents his support for the Assad regime as putting Russia in the vanguard of the struggle with fanatical Islam.
The additional human tragedies won’t even register.
The question now isn’t how we will respond. We won’t. The question is “What will Putin do next?” Given his record and the historical pattern of Russia’s shape-shifting empire, the answer is “More.”