09/16/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Putin's Great Game

Vladimir Putin's moves over the past week have been nothing short of brilliant. His New York Times editorial cannot have persuaded any but the most ingenuous of readers, but it provided ammunition for factions in the American public already disposed to resist the president's call for action. And who knows? Some American voters, perhaps even some members of Congress, might be sufficiently ignorant of recent history to be able to maintain a straight face when Putin declares himself a champion of international law and the cause of world peace. Lavrov's agreeing to terms with Senator Kerry extended the strategy. Just looking at the tactical geopolitics, America is frozen for at least the next few weeks and possibly months (the schedule calls for the first round of inspections to be completed in late November). And the terms of the agreement that appear to give authority to the Security Council over the terms of any sanctions for Syria's noncompliance makes the victory complete. No matter what happens now, unless and until the U.S. backs out of the agreement that it has just accepted Russia is in control over the course of events. That, not Assad's victory, has been Russia's goal.

All of this benefits Assad. We have already seen him use the agreement to disclose his chemical stockpiles -- the existence of which he was denying only two days earlier on Charlie Rose -- to leverage to demand concessions. It does not matter whether the administration agrees to any such concessions, the calculation is that Congress will be less likely to approve interventions of any kind on behalf of the rebels so long as it may be argued that doing so might derail the negotiated solution to the chemical weapons issue.

But more than a gain for Assad, as a matter of geopolitical strategy, this is a clear victory for Putin. Putin's game is larger than Syria, and his audience is not the American voters, although he is happy to take advantage of the dysfunctional state of American politics. Putin's audience is somewhere else entirely: the capitals of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and China.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially under Putin's leadership, Russia has tried to position itself as "the indispensable country" for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These countries are what Russians call the "near abroad," the territories of the old Soviet empire that Putin views as Russia's periphery. It's a complex relationship that in some ways represents an inversion of the classic Marxian model of core and periphery: Russia has consistently demonstrated its willingness to forego profits in return for continued political influence through its monopoly on the processing of fuels and minerals (I have written at some length about this here and here.) Russia wants control over the pipelines, but even more than that Russia is playing for hearts and minds. From the Baltics to Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan and even Pakistan, Russia is presenting itself as the real unipolar power in the region. America may have an infinitely large arsenal of missiles and tanks and airplanes, but as long as all that materiel is sitting at home it is not a relevant factor. Russia is presenting itself as the regional economic and military hegemon, or at a minimum as the only genuine counterweight to China.

In that respect, Putin has now given that very large global audience something to see: the prospect of a Russian president telling an American president to back off, and making it stick. That is an image that must be chilling to viewers in places like Georgia or the 'stans, whether those observers are governments who would prefer to look toward the EU rather than Russia or opposition movements hoping to promote democracy through political action. Russia has not been secretive about its role or its willingness to throw its weight around, whether in the invasion of Georgia or meddling in Ukraine or in cutting off fuel to the Baltics and Northern Europe in 2009. In fall 2011, Russia participated in regional multinational war games, and when Russia's Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov was asked the purpose for the exercises he explained that it was to have an immediately available multinational force ready to respond in the case of an outbreak of anything like an Arab Spring in the post-Soviet world. Given Russia's recent history -- the invasion of Georgia, meddling in Ukraine, cutting off fuel to the Baltics and Northern Europe -- the proclaimed willingness to exercise force in the region to forestall unwelcome political change is one that regional audiences will take seriously.

That's the credibility issue that matters. Not whether a future aggressor, even Russia, will necessarily think that American threats of military action can be ignored. Any actor in a future situation will have to decide how likely it is that America will follow through on its threats based on the particular situation. But before we ever get to that point, the question is whether after the self-imposed wound of the Iraq debacle America is credible in terms of its willingness to compete with Russia for influence anywhere outside of Western Europe. That is a real question, and Putin has moved smartly to maneuver a perception that favors his preferred answer.

The issue is not only or even primarily a matter of the projection of military force. Russia also seeks to extend its economic and cultural grip. National governments will decide with whom to do business, local elites -- especially the younger generation -- will decide in what direction they look for cultural inspiration, educational systems will be modeled and popular entertainment will look for references either West or East (and North). It is a generational battle, that may ultimately be decided in twenty years by the decisions that elites make now about where to send their young people to be educated or the shape that the social institutions of civil society assume. Putin himself fully recognizes the importance of Western influence; that is why he has been so insistent on driving out NGOs and pushing back against signs of nascent liberalism. Now, in the popular imaginations of the lands of the Near Abroad, Putin has demonstrated that Russia remains America's equal in the globe and the unequaled indispensable power in the region.

None of that means that the U.S. was wrong to accept a negotiated agreement for the disclosure and ultimate surrender of Syria's chemical weapons. A successful international effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria would be a positive outcome by any measure. Further, Obama is to be credited for his careful statement of the issues and his willingness to step back from the threat of unilateral action in favor of international cooperation. And nothing can excuse the weakening of the United States that has been caused by the isolationism and, worse, the insane obstructionism of the Republican caucus in Congress, or the complete mindlessness of much of the criticism that the administration has endured.

But going forward, the U.S. must recognize the contours of Putin's Great Game and think strategically about our response. Obama's "pivot to Asia" in the fall of 2011 sent a dubious signal about America's long-term commitment to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one that is only partly counteracted by continuing U.S. investment in oil fields and cooperation in education projects. The U.S. and Russia are not involved in a competition for territory or military supremacy; instead we are involved in a competition for influence. Obama hinted at that when he said that Russia does not share our values in Syria, which is a start. But we are playing catch-up, at best. This ought to be a competition that favors the U.S., but at the moment it does not look as though we are paying attention to the fact that we are in the game.