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