Many of you may recall when Russian President Vladimir Putin interceded on behalf of Syria during the debate over potential US military strikes in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons. It is widely agreed that our President was outmaneuvered by Putin's timely offering of a compromise, as I quote from the above-cited article:
"The accord, however, was as much about U.S.-Russian ties as it was about Syria. The conflict has chilled relations to levels recalling the Cold War.
In reaching a bilateral deal after what one U.S. official described as three days of "hard-fought" debate, Moscow and Washington can each count benefits.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it brings management of the Syrian crisis back to the United Nations. For Obama, it solves the dilemma created by Congress' reluctance to back military strikes that he was preparing without a U.N. mandate."
-Reuters, 14 Sep. 2013
When the Ukrainian situation erupted just two months later, it was widely speculated in pro-Russian circles that the unrest was fueled by Western-backed dissenters who were likely receiving help from outside sources (the implication being the CIA was involved), since America had an axe to grind after Putin embarrassed us with the Syria deal. Ukraine is strategically crucial to Russia, not only because of the Russian military bases in Crimea, but also because the vast majority of Russian oil exports to Western Europe travel through Ukrainian pipelines. While it will never be definitively proved that the US has had any involvement with the Ukrainian civil unrest (or the Syrian opposition movement, for that matter), it doesn't seem altogether illogical to make the leap that yes, we were in fact stirring up trouble in both Syria and Ukraine.
Fast forward to February of this year, when our President began stepping up his rhetoric on Ukraine, opening the door for yet another opportunity for the US to get involved in political affairs in Russia's backyard. It's no secret that these two men have a mutual disdain for one another, and I'm forced to wonder if perhaps the President was attempting to force a confrontation in some kind of quest for justice after the Syrian embarrassment.
When Putin responded by raising the stakes with troop deployments, Obama responded asymmetrically with his threats of economic sanctions. The critical mistake there was assuming that a Russian would have any respect for a non-military reaction (hint: he didn't). Viewing the sanctions as a minor inconvenience at best, Putin opted to again raise the stakes with increased military activity in the Pacific. At this point, Obama was faced with a critical choice: either man up and play Putin's game on a military scale, or fold under pressure. It seems to me that he chose the latter.
Last week, the Syrian opposition forces in Homs (their longest-held stronghold in Northern Syria) withdrew, and less than 24 hours later Putin drastically altered his tone on the subject of Ukraine. Again, while it will never be proven that the US has had any material involvement in the Syrian Opposition (other than a PR visit by Sen. John McCain) it stands to reason that the collapse of Syrian Opposition in their biggest stronghold, followed by an immediate relaxation of rhetoric on Putin's part, suggests that an unspoken deal was reached whereby we abandon our interests in Syria, and Putin stands down on his plan to annex more of Ukraine.
To some, this could arguably be called effective diplomacy. In my mind though, as I'm sure in Putin's, this marks yet another victory for Mother Russia. Not only did he get to keep his Middle East pawn, he also ripped some very lucrative chunks off of his former Soviet vassal-state in exchange for the US simply avoiding the possibility of either a costly military conflict or further international embarrassment.
This is what happens when a one-term Senator tries to play political chess with a man who spent 16 years in the KGB.