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.