Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto and a Center Associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's first appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in a decade, and his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday, appear to have been clear tactical wins. He put to rest the notion that Russia has been isolated in the wake of its widely condemned military actions in Ukraine or that he was personally ostracized. He presented Russia as an indispensable strategic player. He also boosted his personal political power. There is a question, though, whether despite all of this the Kremlin has a viable and sustainable international strategy.
In their speeches at the UN, the U.S. and Russian presidents differed sharply on key issues, including Ukraine and Syria. It was also evident that Mr. Putin greatly enjoyed his appearance, much to the discomfort of Mr. Obama, with Komsomolskaya Pravda crowing that "Vladimir Putin addressed the world." And Mr. Putin carefully projected a contrast between Russian action and U.S. rhetoric, and initiative versus reaction.
The long sideline meeting with Mr. Obama was a significant bonus for Mr. Putin who called the private talks "very constructive, business-like and frank," indicating that there was both disagreement and co-operation. Mr. Putin benefited in either case.
First, even in the case of disagreement, the symbolism of Mr. Obama having to meet with the Russian leader conveyed the message that the Americans had no choice but to deal with Russia. It signalled Russian strength to Mr. Putin's domestic audience and one of indispensability to Russia's allies or clients, including those in the Middle East.
Second, any agreement, no matter how vague or indirect, will undoubtedly be used by the Kremlin to claim that the U.S. has no choice but to co-operate in the face of Russian determination and power – this, despite the fact that the U.S. has an economy eight times that of Russia's and is the only true global power. John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, already indicated earlier that there would be some form of co-operation in Syria in the wake of the recent surprise and significant Russian military deployment around Latakia, Syria, and following Russia's agreement with the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria to share intelligence. Mr. Kerry used the term "deconflict," an arcane and obtuse formulation meant to mask the fact that the U.S. now had to have some kind of military co-ordination, even if it was not co-operation, in order to avoid an accidental military conflict with Russia in the region.
It is hard, then, to deny Mr. Putin's tactical cleverness and boldness. In supporting the Assad regime, and outflanking and consistently surprising the United States in Syria in particular, Russia is diverting attention away from its annexation of Crimea and its continuing support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine where, at best, we have a temporary "frozen conflict" that the Kremlin may unfreeze at will. It is also difficult to contest the powerful message that Mr. Putin sends to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, that the Kremlin supports its allies in all circumstances. With Washington's fecklessness and fumbling in Syria where, in a Faustian bargain, it had essentially subcontracted the removal of Assad's chemical arsenal to Russia, Mr. Putin knows how to extact a price for any Russian co-operation.
It is entirely different for Mr. Putin, however, to win strategically. Russia's unidimensional economy is contracting; inflation is growing and political dissatisfaction with increasing repression is bubbling under the surface. Despite Western European desires to avert confrontation, Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine and threats against the Baltic States are leading even the co-operative Scandinavian countries to increase their military expenditures. In the Middle East, Russia's ever-closer association with the murderous Assad regime (or a clone replacement) and the genocidal Iranian leadership not only further removes Russia from the company of advanced democratic states but entails expenditures that Russia can ill afford, and military risks in Syria where Russian casualties could quickly deflate popular enthusiasm for Mr. Putin's foreign policy "successes." Mr. Putin's "tactical wins," moreover, not only divert from needed domestic reforms but encourage reckless foreign behaviour.
In terms of Russian strategy there is, then, a real possibility that Mr. Putin may well be mortgaging Russia's future for personal political power.