Vladimir Putin was losing legitimacy even before the economy shriveled [but] with action in Ukraine and Syria, he has made it appear that Russia is the equal—and rival—of America, The Economist notes:
That is not only popular among ordinary Russians but also contains a serious message. Mr Putin fears that Russia, in its weakened state, could be vulnerable to what he sees as America’s impulse to subvert regimes using the language of universal democracy. In both Ukraine and Syria, he believes, America recklessly encouraged the overthrow of governments without being able to contain the chaos that followed. He intervened partly because he fears that the revolutions there must be seen to fail—or Russia itself could one day suffer a revolution of its own. So far his plans have worked.
Still, there are many ways Russia’s withdrawal from “withdrawal” can play out, and not all of them will be good for Mr. Putin, says Stephen Sestanovich (right) of the Council on Foreign Relations [and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]. So let’s admire his caginess but keep in mind that the story is far from over, he writes for the Wall Street Journal. Suppose, for example:
- He doesn’t follow through. What Mr. Putin has announced is that he is ordering a withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian military personnel and that it will “begin” on Tuesday. If the pace turns out to be very slow, or the numbers too small to be meaningful, the failure to make good on his claims would only confirm Mr. Putin’s sketchy reputation. Remember, we’ll hear, he said Russian troops weren’t in Ukraine, but they were. He told European leaders that he would get out of Ukraine, but then he didn’t. Repeating the pattern in Syria will be costly.
- Bashar al-Assad begins to weaken again.Mr. Putin began this operation last fall when the Syrian regime was on the ropes. He gambled that he could stabilize the situation, and he seems to have accomplished that—and more. But some of the weaknesses that brought Mr. Assad to the brink are still there. If his hold on power begins to weaken, what will Mr. Putin do then? A choice between re-intervening or simply letting Mr. Assad fall will be a hard one. Mr. Putin has miscalculated these matters before. He probably thought that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was a goner in 2008, and he seemed to expect Ukrainian “separatists” would have an easy time expanding their territory in 2014. Both guesses were wrong.
- Western governments start to do more.Mr. Putin may imagine that he’s done enough to keep the U.S. and its allies from deeper interference in Syria—from trying to establish a NATO-protected “safe zone,” for example. That’s not a bad bet, but it’s hardly a certainty. If the next round of Geneva talks goes nowhere, refugee flows continue, Islamic State stays strong, and regime divisions re-emerge, Western debate will resume—perhaps with greater urgency. Has Mr. Putin been promised that the U.S. will not act?
“Eventually, deep Russian decline will limit its aggression,” The Economist adds. “For the time being, however, a nuclear-armed Mr Putin is bent on imposing himself in the old Soviet sphere of influence. In Mr Obama’s last year as president, Mr Putin, fresh from Syrian success, could yet test the West one more time.”