Beware of The Bloody Beqar: Relying Again on an Unreliable Mr. Putin - The New York Times

Relying Again on an Unreliable Mr. Putin - The New York Times:



Vladimir Putinescu a Hawk, and cold warrior decrepit: 

 Creditfotographed by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
It is hard to imagine a conflict more in need of a cease-fire than the cruel violence that has ravaged Syria, killing almost half a million people and displacing millions. Though one sincerely hopes otherwise, it is equally hard to imagine that the truce negotiated by the United States and Russia has much chance of achieving more than a brief respite from the killing. One reason is the extraordinary web of conflicting interests and agendas involved in this struggle, and the warring parties have to buy in to make the truce work.
The greater reason is that the central figure in the fray is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Despite years of sanctions, scolding and pleas, Mr. Putin’s entry into the Syrian fight in support of the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad last September has radically changed the dynamic of the war. Not only have the Russians changed Mr. Assad’s fortunes, but they also now hold the strongest hand in any attempt to end the conflict and stem the flood of refugees that has so disrupted Europe.
And how reliable is Mr. Putin likely to be in this enterprise? As he has already clearly demonstrated in Ukraine, a cease-fire to him is a tactic, even a smoke screen, not a goal. Indeed, he agreed to a cease-fire between Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and the Kiev government just as he began his airstrikes in Syria. Even now, the Ukrainian truce seems to be unraveling, suggesting that Russia is ready to stir those embers again.
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There is also this to understand about Mr. Putin: Whatever his geopolitical goals, one overriding objective since he began his third term as president in 2012 has been to compel the United States and its allies to recognize Russia again as a great power, and if possible to drive a wedge into the Western alliance. Rebuilding Russia’s power and demanding respect has also been the source of his continuing popularity among Russians, despite the price they’ve paid in economic sanctions and Western disdain.
To the degree that Washington and Brussels, and specifically Secretary of State John Kerry, have no choice but to deal with Moscow in trying to end the fighting in Syria, Mr. Putin has succeeded in his quest. Though the West broadly seeks to destroy ISIS and oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin, by contrast, has a concrete focus — to assure the control of Mr. Assad’s government over key areas of Syria.
Mr. Putin must not confuse a strong hand with victory — or with respect. Given the Soviet Union’s humiliation in Afghanistan years ago, he should know that no “victory” is possible in the Middle East, only a fleeting balancing of ever-contentious powers. Moreover, with the significant fall in oil prices, Russia does not have the resources to prop up Mr. Assad for long. However weak the West’s hand in Syria, Mr. Putin should not be allowed to believe that he can parlay support for a murderous dictator into respect for his power or acceptance of his cynical games in Ukraine.
"Vladimir Putin Credit Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
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