Where the Russian leader lacks any real strategy, his American counterpart is short on nerve. They're playing two different games and following very different rules.
PARIS — Poker is an American game as much as chess is Russian. But the current world champion in poker is Russian, while the world chess master is American. The leaders of the world's two biggest military powers aren't playing the same game, and certainly aren't following the same rules, part of what makes it so hard to make sense of what's happening not only in Syria but also the rest of the world.
Since his rise to power in the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing to restore Russia's might. And that implies the creation of a new balance of power with the United States, achieved by multiplying the points of tension.
After the Georgian warning shot during the summer of 2008, Putin geared up for a resolute and audacious new action phase following his return to power in 2012. It came first in Ukraine, where the Russian president annexed Crimea in a matter of weeks, then in the Donbass region, where he supported the emergence of an armed separatist insurrection, thus paralyzing the country's development.
Would it all have been possible without President Barack Obama's August 2013 renouncement of an airstrike campaign to punish the Syrian regime for crossing Washington's "red line" by using chemical weapons against its own population? Probably not.
From that moment on, there was an absence of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. And the Russian intervention in Syria that began September 30 is both the consequence and the illustration of that. On the one hand, we have Putin calling the shots, getting his protégé, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, back on track and setting the military and diplomatic tempo. Meanwhile Obama appears to be tossed around by events, seemingly incapable of using real force and ready to be fooled by Iran.
But things are not that simple. True, Putin is taken up in a kind of "permanent coup de théâtre" policy, stringing up tactical successes along the way. But does he even have a strategy? Taking Crimea was a superb operation, as far as Russian public opinion is concerned. But it was pointless, strategically speaking. A 2010 agreement guaranteed that the Russian fleet could stay in Crimea's Sebastopol port for 30 years. And the annexation was also very costly — $20 billion, according to the French-Russian Observatory. On the other hand, Ukraine's destabilization has led to European and American sanctions that, coupled with falling oil prices, have plunged the Russian economy into a deep recession.
Putin as sheriff
By intervening in Syria alongside Iran, Moscow is alienating the two worst enemies of the Assad regime: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudia Arabia still sets the world's oil prices, a resource vital to Russia. Turkey, meanwhile, is in a crucial position on the route of the South Stream, the Russian gas pipeline project bypassing Ukraine to the south.
Finally, by taking on the rewarding but impossible role of Middle East sheriff, Putin is removing from U.S. shoulders a weight that, since the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, Obama no longer wants to carry. Putin has restored the prestige of both Russian diplomacy and its army, but he'll leave behind him a country with no other wealth than its raw materials — without a civil society, without solid institutions and facing a demographic decline. It's a country whose main asset remains its nuisance capacities. But poker is a game in which the player always has to raise his bet if he wants to be credible.
As opposed to those who naively and hurriedly awarded him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama never thought of himself as the world's president. He's a cold-blooded creature, calculating and without affection. The Syrians know exactly what his reluctance cost them, and his cynical abandonment of them in 2013, when he refused to deliver anti-aircraft weapons to stop the barrel bombings that killed thousands of Syrians, will feature in history books.
Maybe Obama lacks morals and panache, but he does have a strategy. This has translated into an unspectacular policy of failing to intervene, or doing as little as possible, trying to change the balance of power, working for the long term. In the Middle East, his legacy will be visible in two ways. The first will be the end of U.S. dependency on Saudi oil, thanks to his encouragement of shale oil development. The second will be the nuclear deal with Iran, even if that means alienating Israel and Saudi Arabia — again.
The American president thus dealt with the main challenge posed to his country after the 9/11 attacks, the only challenge that George W. Bush completely concealed: how to make the U.S. less dependent on Saudi Arabia, forcing it to reform itself and stop its policy of spreading an extremist and deadly ideology.
In the meantime, the energy revolution enabled the U.S. to turn towards new challenges, including those posed by China. But the problem with Obama's strategy is that his contempt for tactical victories has cost the U.S. too much credibility in the Middle East. International relations are as much a matter of perception as a matter of substance. Obama's other weakness stems from the fact that his successor could choose to undo his strategic choices, unlike Putin, who's here to stay.
To win at chess, you must always have time on your side.