Vladimir Putin – Leader of the Free World
If Mikhail Bulgakov had come back to life and written a Levantine sequel to The Master and Margarita, he could not have devised a scenario more lurid than what we now observe in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the leader of the Free World against Islamist terrorism, directing the efforts of France and Germany and setting terms for American involvement. Reeling from last week’s massacre in Paris, France lacks both the backbone and the brute force to avenge itself against ISIS, but in alliance with Russia it will make a more than symbolic contribution.
In 2008 I endorsed Putin for the American presidency, in jest, of course. Now he is leading America’s president by the nose and directing the anti-terror efforts of France and Germany. No-one could have anticipated Putin’s sudden ascent to global leadership during the past several weeks. Russia is in the position of a a vulture fund, buying the distressed assets of the Western alliance for pennies on the dollar. Faced with an American president who will not fight, and his European allies whose military capacity has shrunk to near insignificance, the Russian Federation seized the helm with the deployment of a mere three dozen war planes and an expeditionary force of 5,000 men. One searches in vain through diplomatic history to find another case where so much was done with so little. As an American, I feel a deep humiliation at this turn of events, assuaged only slightly by Schadenfreude at the even deeper humiliation of America’s foreign policy establishment.
The world runs by different rules than it did just a few weeks ago. Putin has answered the question I asked in September (“Vladimir Putin: Spoiler or Statesman?”). President Obama declared at the Nov. 17 Antalya summit, “From the start, I’ve also welcomed Moscow going after ISIL…We’re going to wait to see whether, in fact, Russia does end up devoting attention to targets that are ISIL targets, and if it does so, then that’s something we welcome.” After this week’s Russian and French airstrikes on ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa, that is a moot point. It seems like another epoch when Mitt Romney declared that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical threat. Russia, on the contrary, is pulling America’s chestnuts out of the fire. Obama is utterly feckless; by the time the next American president is sworn in, the world will be a difference place. Ukraine? Never heard of it.
Obama wants to follow, not lead, as he told reporters at Antalaya: “What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and to protect the people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies and people like France.. I’m too busy for that.” Russia is happy to give him the opportunity to follow. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground took America out of contention, along with aerial rules of engagement so risk-averse that only one in four American sorties against ISIS released it bombs. The Russians are not squeamish about collateral damage and likely to be far more effective.
Putin meanwhile told his commanders, “A French naval battle group led by an aircraft carrier will arrive in your theatre of action soon. You must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies.” Just what sort of alliance this will be is clear from raw numbers. The Russian air force has 67 squadrons flying modern fighters (against France’s 11), including 15 bomber squadrons (the French retired their Mirage VI bomber in 1996) and 14 assault squadrons. 25 squadrons fly ground-attack aircraft a bit lighter than America’s A-10 “Warthog,” namely the SU-24 and SU-25. Even allowing for poor Russian servicing, which leaves many planes unable to fly, Russia has vastly more air power than its French ally.
To make more than symbolic contribution to the Syria campaign, France will have to remove fighter aircraft now supporting its more than 5,000 military personnel in Africa. Germany’s air force, I am told, will assist by picking up the slack in Africa so that French aircraft can redeploy to the Levant. Although Germany is not officially part of the Syria campaign, Berlin appears to be coordinating closely with Russia and France, although its own military air fleet is in notoriously poor condition.
Russia’s willingness and ability to use force in Syria gives Putin considerable diplomatic flexibility. Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested today that Russia might throw Syrian President Basher Assad under the bus and agree to a power-sharing agreement along ethnic and confessional lines on the Lebanese model. As the leader of a military coalition to reduce ISIS, Putin can afford to let Assad go, provided that the West agrees to preserve its naval station at Tartus. In the broader diplomatic context, Putin would expect the quiet expiration of economic sanctions against Russia directed at its seizure of Crimea as part of the overall bargain.
A very different sort of Middle East might emerge. Russia and China in the past have allied themselves with Iran against the Sunnis, largely because their own restive Muslim populations are entirely Sunni. If the Russian-led coalition succeeds in humiliating ISIS, the two Asian powers will have less use for their obstreperous Shi’ite allies of convenience. Although Russia and Iran are allied
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