Putin is winning on Snowden, Syria and Sochi… but so what?

By Ian Bremmer
September 19, 2013

Vladimir Putin’s having a hell of a summer. Before writing the most talked-about New York Times op-ed in months, he embarrassed his chief rival, the United States, by harboring its most high-profile dissident, Edward Snowden. He then came out ahead on negotiations over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people. The general consensus is that Putin and Russia are winning.

But what, exactly, are they winning? Russia’s prize for conquering the summer isn’t power — it’s constriction. In defending Assad, harboring Snowden, and preparing for the Sochi Olympics, Putin is actually just inviting more complications. This has been a summer of shallow wins for Putin as he puts his ego and personal quest for international legitimacy over his country’s best interests.

On Syria, it’s certainly true that Putin has made Barack Obama look bad. Russia has taken the lead on negotiations, minimized America’s military motivation, and undermined Obama’s foreign policy standing. All that’s great if you’re looking at it through the lens of a power ranking of the global elite. After all, I firmly believe that nobody has consolidated more power than Vladimir Putin.

But what does it mean for Russia? After Moscow’s maneuvering, Russia is now left with Bashar al-Assad, a leader as entrenched as he is weak. Russia is more firmly attached to a regime consistently committing war crimes and considered a rogue dictatorship by all advanced democracies on the planet. Even if Russia’s support leads Assad to give Russia a footprint in Syria, Assad is not the guy you want to double down on. Russia has won, sure, but it has won what few other countries want — more Assad.

It’s also won more Snowden. Again, Russia’s taunting of the U.S. after it chose to grant the former NSA contractor asylum was seen as a big win for Putin. But what has it gotten in return? Severely strained ties with the biggest economy in the world (though not so strained that America wouldn’t negotiate on Syria out of spite), and a dissident who likely didn’t have any new information to share with them that won’t eventually go public. There’s a reason the Cubans, Venezuelans, and Ecuadorians didn’t want Snowden. But the Russians, through botched diplomacy and their own sense of swagger, stood by him. Now they’re stuck with him. If Snowden is in fact a prize, the Chinese played their hand best in this scenario. They harbored Snowden long enough to possibly gain access to all of the valuable information he carried, but then let him jet to Moscow — leaving Russia holding the bag.

If Putin needs a lesson in how to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, he already has a personal example at hand. When the International Olympic Committee awarded Russia the 2014 Olympics, it was seen as a stamp of approval on Russia’s new plutocracy. But Russia’s strict laws against homosexuality and the recent Pussy Riot spat could politicize the Sochi Olympics. Expect public protest and international scrutiny to transform the games into a referendum on Russia’s record on political freedoms and human rights. That’s not to mention the security risks stemming from an Olympic Games held so close to the North Caucasus.

Nor is the honor of hosting the Olympics an economic boon for Russia — although it certainly will be for Putin’s closest friends. The Games are now 500 percent over budget, and the most expensive of all time — and that money is largely going to corruption rather than any infrastructural investment that might continue to pay dividends to the Russian people. (The $7+ billion in contracts awarded to the companies of a single childhood friend of Putin’s exceeded the entire budget of the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver). Suffice it to say, by the time the Sochi Olympics come around, the focus will be on anything but athletics.

But it’s another spotlight for Vladimir Putin. He has certainly had a most enjoyable few weeks. At best, he’s been attempting to consolidate power over the Russian people and on the international stage so as to continue to govern effectively. More likely, it’s just Putin putting his personal agenda over his people’s. And what has it won them? The ire of the world’s sole superpower, tighter ties with the Assad regime, and the loosest Olympic budget in history — pyrrhic prizes indeed.

This column is based on a transcribed phone call with Bremmer.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during his meeting with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow September 12, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

31 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

When it comes to Syria, Vladimir is the best poker player in this chess tournament.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Putin actually made Russia and the USA BOTH look good, with his negotiations on Syrian chemical weapons: despite Assad’s incredible protestations to the contrary, America won the war against Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities without even firing a shot; merely by moving a few ships and submarines around between the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean!

At the same time, we found out that Assad is more pragmatic than we had given him credit for, and that the “Free Syrian Army” is unwilling to help us rid the world of chemical weapons, or to help guarantee the safety of UN weapons inspectors! The statement by General Salim Idris seemed bitter, and did nothing good for the FSA’s cause. I had thought better of him.

We now find ourselves in the unenviable position of needing Assad (most probably, a brutal and deceptive dictator; or perhaps, a well-meaning but out-of-touch figurehead stooge teetering atop a brutal and corrupt hegemony) for at least another 12 months. We now need him and his “government” as partners in the destruction of chemical weapons they are credibly alleged to have used in the mass-murder of thousands of their own people!
But seriously, what is the alternative?
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/1 9/us-syria-crisis-turkey-idUSBRE98I0C120 130919
What is our primary objective: to punish past wrongdoing, or to prevent a future genocide?
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/1 2/us-usa-defense-dempsey-idUSBRE98B05920 130912

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Mr. Brenner is bright young man. So I feel a little perplexed by his overall stance.
Who is saying that Russia is or was going to win anything? Or expects that anything good will come of all these disagreements with the West?
There was no plan. Neither regarding Snowden, nor Syrian civil war. There are national interests, which stipulate the actions.
I am not going to talk about Syria. Everybody seems to be tired of Syria-related discussions. Just consider it through:
1. Russian concerns related to security in the South of Russia.
2. And determination to prevent NATO interventions. Ever.
The truth is that the whole world supports the Russian position in regards of NATO interventions without U.N. approval. The exception is the NATO members themselves.

As clearly demonstrated by the Libyan precedent, the NATO easily enforces Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.

I am telling you seriously: I will never happen anytime soon. If any country or alliance wishes to wage a war, it can do it unilaterally. Which means illegally.

This position is supported and shared by China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina and the most U.N. members.

It doesn’t make Assad better. Actually, it is not relevant to Assad. It is related to the national sovereignty.

Snowden? How is Snowden in play here? There is no extradition treaty between the countries. So there is no Snowden.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Well, Russia keeping Snowden was really a favor to Obama, keeps him from embarrassing himself even further persecuting a whistleblower admired by most people. The deal in Syria is a very brief reprieve, Assad is already taunting Obama asking him to pay $1 billion to cart away his arsenal for destruction. Big loss of face and will only be downhill from here, completely unrealistic plan to start with, given scale of arsenal, state of war, lack of incentives to cooperate – in fact every reason to be obstructive. I agree that Putin strutting his stuff is a brief moment of glory, Russia will continue in structural decline.

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

I believe this article smacks of anti-russia pro usa bias. Some of the points are not based on relevant facts but biased arguments. Putin has gained a legitimate international standing when it comes to syria. The quotes of “few countries want assad” and “considered a rouge dictatorship by every advanced democracy” are laughable. WESTERN countries do not want assad now, less than five years ago Hillary Clinton was conducting State Department visits to Syria, shaking hands and making deals. What changed? They could not CONTROL assad anymore. I believe that leaving Assad in place is infinitely preferable to the U.S led chaos that continues in Lybia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia is doing the U.S a favor by intervening and stopping conflict. Sochi will be a win for Putin despite the political overtones, lest we forget CHINA was host to the olympics, were there protests there? NO

Posted by zerocool81 | Report as abusive

Obama let Putin win, just part of his strategic plan to destroy America. I would never trust a person, let alone vote for one, that had such a disturbing Marxist background not to mention all the questionable lapses in his past. Impeachment is the only solution.

Posted by SeeAllEvil | Report as abusive

Ian Brenner has authored a stupid article. Vladimir Putin very effectively defended international law and hopefully prevented American aggression against Syria. I am certain that the chemical carnage on August 21 was planned and performed by foreign militants, probably financed and assisted by the Gulf states. When this truth becomes evident, Obama will find himself in a really unpleasant position, to put it mildly.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

Mr. McCain pointed out in his op-ed that “Putin is holding Russia back”. A similar sentiment was expressed in an article in the Chinese government newspaper
“Global Times” which questioned whether Putin’s personal maliciousness toward the West was contrary to Russia’s best interests.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

SaigonQ2,

You made me laugh:

Russia in structural decline vs. America in the institutional collapse.
A good match, I would say.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

In my opinion (and unfortunately for US political establishment majority of US citizens as well) the world is a safer place because of Syria solution crafted by Putin. Forget for a few minutes what US politicians speak and concentrate only on their acts of last 20 years.
US became a bully of todays world. And bully hated but feared also by its own gang (NATO). Russia (backed by ally China) said NO to US for the first time since 1990. It was brave to say so because: 1. has real second strike capability AGAIN since early 2000′s 2. its leaders have experience in dealing with US during Cold War.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

US stated goals and ethical values (democracy, human rights, no WMD etc. bla, bla, bla) are perceived by everybody (both allies and competitors) through the lenses of US severe internal political and economic problems.
They all imagine whether major war in Middle East is the only solution to crazy printing by FED, effectively a fast track debasement of world reserve currency: US dollar.
Most powerful economy and military power are to defenders of US dollar status. In a very short time, no more than 5-10 years with current partisan US politics, US military power will be the sole defender of status quo. That is why whole world is arming to counterbalance US military hegemony.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Mr Bremmer, there was no chemical attack that killed 1400 people in Syria. 1400 is a made up number. The world knows this was a staged, Hollywood style sinister massacre by western supported terrorists to provoke a US intervention, Lybia style. As to how many that were really killed to stage this event…it’s murky, nobody knows.

But the truth is coming out. Why almost no women died in this “discriminating” chemical attack. Why the dead are so neat as if they all died peacefully with their faces showing no horror? where are the grieving mothers and family of the dead? why there isn’t mass funerals like it’s always the case in the middle east in these kinds of incidents…?

Have you Mr Bremmer heard of this expression: False flag black op? That’s what it was. A failed one just like all others in the Syrian conflict since “Houla massacre” . We will go toe to toe and match warmomgers’ lies and propaganda this time with the truth.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

@outpost2012 US institutional collapse may be an exaggeration, but I think it will be a historical example of a strong dynamic nation tearing itself apart. Extraordinarily inept foreign policy blunders don’t help, and accelerate the drain of global soft power and influence, but there still a lot of legacy goodwill. Keep on squandering!

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

“Vladimir Putin’s having a hell of a summer.”
Well, as Russian saying goes: “count chickens in Fall”…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Mr. Bremmer sounds like a rented propagandist desperately trying to counter the success of adversary. Starting with Snowden, he is not a bag. His revelations have shown the Big Brother in action and this is no mean thing. Interest of Russians granting him asylum was in giving strong kick to the stream of American moral supremacy endlessly pursuing state of the human rights in Russia. Now, one can see how shallow it is: clean your own house to perfection before you comment on the dirt in your neighbours’ house. Regarding Syria, Russian interest is clear: willingness of the US to send Tomahawks and drones can easily default to a world policemen reaching every territory including Russia.
Sochi Olympics is just taken like another rabbit from the hat. There is every reason to believe they will go well.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Mr. Bremmer sounds like a rented propagandist desperately trying to counter the success of adversary. Starting with Snowden, he is not a bag. His revelations have shown the Big Brother in action and this is no mean thing. Interest of Russians granting him asylum was in giving strong kick to the stream of American moral supremacy endlessly pursuing state of the human rights in Russia. Now, one can see how shallow it is: clean your own house to perfection before you comment on the dirt in your neighbours’ house. Regarding Syria, Russian interest is clear: willingness of the US to send Tomahawks and drones can easily default to a world policemen reaching every territory including Russia.
Sochi Olympics is just taken like another rabbit from the hat. There is every reason to believe they will go well.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

One small problem – all that is happening today may be even a kind of loss for RF today, but as long as one project consequences in the future, one must realize that US lost long-term – this summer last hopes of “Pax America” were shattered.
USA loses:
1. High moral ground
First Snowden affair then “war dance” debacle – against will of american citizens as polls show.
So one must be really “sheeple” to believe that US democracy still works all the time. And unless Obama gets impeached and Senate totally renewed – this damage will only grow with time.

2. Perception of USA foreign policy as unstoppable juggernaut.
Since ’90 USA was de facto world’s only superpower, unopposed and with “might makes it’s right” motto.
Now world knows that there’s at least two poles of the world again – and stars-n-stripes must thread carefully when tricolors/St.Andrews/red flags are near.
Combined with decline of US military – look up proposed cuts for next year – in few years we’ll see much more different world.
And (1) add to that number of friendly-neutral countries now deeply offended by US spying program – prime example bein’ Brazil which basically refused to buy american hi-tech arms (and Sweden are jubilous for saving their thought-to-be-doomed Grippen fighter program).

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

The remarks above concerning your published article in Reuters echo my own opinions of it. Such articles must be informative if one is not deliberately intending to brainwash a perceived functionally illiterate public.

As an example, you state regarding Edward Snowden: “There’s a reason the Cubans, Venezuelans, and Ecuadorians didn’t want Snowden”. But you neglect to state the reason! Nor do you make any mention of the “discussions” which the US subsequently had with those governments following their initial acceptance to grant Snowden asylum as a whistleblower.

Surely, in your brilliant reporting, there is room for improvement and enhanced transparency.

Posted by RC4 | Report as abusive

Putin’s letter to the American people in the NYT, for those who bothered to read it, is actually civil and polite unlike Putin’s detractors in the national media. Bremmer along with other opinion writers have ignored its central point which is that it would be a pity if the United Nations went the way of the League of Nations. The international order of law is worth preserving and countries, no matter how powerful, who break it, do so at the peril of world peace and their own. This trait of willful ignorance was perhaps what Putin was referring to in the last paragraph of his letter when he mentions the dangers of believing that you are exceptional.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

The “exceptionalism” part was exactly what made the letter so emotionally disputed.

The Obama’s line in his speech was asking to be addressed:
the exceptional people – the exceptional state – the exceptional policies of the state.

This logic is so deeply misleading, and so much contradicts the Obama’s own beliefs – that it could not be possibly left without a comment.

Every discussion about the U.S. exceptionalism is stuff to enjoy for reading and posting. Reading and posting.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

US can no longer claim moral leadership. Syria’s killed thousands with Chemical weapons no doubt, where the US has killed 100′s of thousands with traditional munitions. Just different methodologies with the same result ending in death. No better and no worse.

Lest we forget the false claim/evidence of WMD’s in Iraqi, Iraqi is worse off today than with Husein. US failure to recognize that it has no cultural finesse when it comes to other cultures will continue be it’s undoing. If you move past the hoopla you will see find that US and Russia are no different in the corruption/special interest/lobbying and cronyism we find in every form government in US.

Bremmer is providing disinformation. If the US truly wanted to capture the moral high ground, past leaders and their henchmen would be tried for war crimes in the Hague. Instead they’re still the talking heads on so called mainstream media. I’m no fan of Putin, but he’s the only one challenging the US Regime and their diminutive foreign policies. He understands the consequences if the US bombed Syria.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana

Posted by GileGQI | Report as abusive

Ian Bremmer invites us to retreat to ignorant, blind Patriotism with no questions asked.

No thank you.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

“Expect public protest and international scrutiny to transform the games into a referendum on Russia’s record on political freedoms and human rights.”

Nothing of the sort happened when the games were in China, so why should it affect anything in Russia?

Posted by SgtYahoo | Report as abusive

dude, nuf already with pussy riot, they brake law on purpose and that incident in cathedral is simply bad taste, I can appreciate that amerikans worried about gay pride more than religious integrity and tolerance, but w/e keep supporting punks abroad

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive

@SgtYahoo
>Nothing of the sort happened when the games were in China

Well, not exactly – it is during Olympic Games that georgian proteges of USA begun war they’ve lost.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

sorry amerikans, I didnt mean that, its just pussy riot= very offensive, idk if hate crime is a real common law term or something I heard on hln, but what they do can be qualified on many occasion.

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive

I smell cold war mentality from this article. The cold war has been over long time ago, Mr. Bremmer.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

@Kailim: “The cold war has been over long time ago, Mr. Bremmer.”
Actually, if you follow Mr. Putin’s anti-American rhetoric and, most importantly, his continual anti-Western stance on overwhelming majority of issues, both at home and abroad, you’ll get a feel that the cold war is alive and well…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

@UauS

Would you elaborate some more regarding the Putin’s anti-American rhetoric or anti-Western stance? What do you exactly mean? That there are disagreements between Russian and U.S./NATO? That particular laws are not liked?

Putin is quite reserved, in my opinion.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

that’s true tho, Russians don’t admire westerners as much as lets say cnn thinks they should, really only germans impress them.

I think its because most adventurous western investors that came right after soviet Russia collapsed were also most likely to break laws. and western news portrays them as human rights activists. Probably same people who angered everyone on middle east

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive

@OUTPOST2012.NET
Read Reuters article today: “Russia re-opens railway link with North Korea”. As the saying goes, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive