US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Putin December 15, 2015 in Moscow
Both Western and Russian sources are reporting that Vladimir Putin is now prepared to sacrifice Bashar Assad, and they are treating this as a victory for Washington, which has long insisted on that, and a retreat or even defeat for the Kremlin, which has sought to defend its fellow dictator.
At one level that may be true, but at three other levels, it is not.
First, sacrificing Assad is not the same thing as sacrificing the Assad regime. Putin has always been willing to sell out even his allies but never interested in selling out his interests. Consequently, he will continue to insist on an Assad-like regime in Syria; and it appears likely some in the West will agree in the name of cooperation.
Second, Putin has achieved what he craves most of all, recognition by the West that if it is going to address any problem anywhere in the world, it must take Russia’s position into account. By his military intervention in Syria, he has undermined the US-led coalition by successfully demanding that his views be treated as equal to its.
And third, he has achieved something far more significant: he once again has received Western deference for his position that the great powers, one of which must be Russia, are quite entitled to negotiate the fates of other countries without their participation. Thus, once again, not only the fate of Syria but of Ukraine was discussed in their absence.
A generation ago, many in the occupied Baltic countries and East European states demanded that no decisions about them should be taken unless they were participants. That position was summed up by the slogan “nothing about us without us.” And it was one that the West generally but not always agreed to.
Putin has never liked that. He wants a Congress of Vienna-type world in which the great powers decide and the smaller states obey. And in this case at least, he appears to have gotten what he wanted in that regard as well.
Consequently, despite what some are saying, Putin didn’t lose and the West didn’t win. In fact, in Moscow, it was just the reverse.