Opinion

Ian Bremmer

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

Ian Bremmer
Sep 19, 2013 15:01 UTC

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.

What does Obama’s snub mean for U.S.-Russia relations?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 9, 2013 19:55 UTC

Earlier this week, Barack Obama announced that he won’t be meeting with Vladimir Putin in advance of the September G20 summit in St. Petersburg. That was, at least in part, a response to Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum, a move that left the White House “extremely disappointed.” So what will the fallout be? Are the media’s Cold War comparisons appropriate?

No. This episode will have limited impact on an already toxic bilateral relationship that matters increasingly less around the world.

Obama made the right decision — and more importantly, he did it at the right time. By snubbing Putin when he did, Obama will allow Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts to work back up from this low-water mark when they meet this week. If he had waited to snub Putin, it would unwind any progress that might come out of the current meetings. Obama clearly understands there is more room for productivity among senior diplomats than between the heads of state, where the relationship has always been icy, and any shortcomings are higher profile.

American exceptionalism, seen through the prism of American blunders

Ian Bremmer
Jun 13, 2013 14:39 UTC

The past weeks’ revelations about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s broad electronic surveillance program, follow a grand American tradition of major disclosures that undermine the high standards to which the United States holds itself — and the world. In this case: How can the U.S. tell other countries to stop using the Internet to pursue their aims at the expense of others when it has been systematically spying on foreigners for years? 

This contradiction is nothing new in American foreign policy: it’s the flip side of American exceptionalism. The United States is so eager to cast itself as a pinnacle of various behaviors and values that when it inevitably falls short, it leads to awkward contradictions. That’s a shame, because the United States actually does have substantive differences from many other countries on civil liberties, human rights and democracy — it’s just that its stance ensures any slipups and embarrassments overshadow everything else.

Look no further than last weekend, when the NSA disclosures spoiled the Obama administration’s plans to corner China on its own cyber practices. Instead, publications like the Guardian were running headlines like “U.S.-China summit ends with accord on all but cyberespionage.”

  •