Russias President Vladimir Putin walks past President Obama during the G-20 summit Sept. 6 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
(Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV, AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA Today) - It looks, at least for the moment, like Russian President Vladimir Putin had something useful to contribute to dealing with the Syrian crisis after all.
Weeks after President Obama canceled bilateral meetings in Moscow with Putin because of doubts that anything constructive could come of such a visit, it's the Russians who have offered a potential opening for Obama, who has failed to win support from Americans or Congress to carry out a punitive military strike against the Bashar Assad regime.
Obama on Tuesday told lawmakers he has decided to put off a potential strike as he pursues a Russian-backed plan at the United Nations that would place Syria's chemical stockpile under international monitoring.
There is healthy skepticism at the White House about the plan, and administration officials have made clear to the Russians that this can't become a process of delay and avoidance.
But the proposal offers Obama what appears to be the clearest path to backing away from a military confrontation, while being able to make the claim that Syria paid a price for an Aug. 21 chemical that killed more than 1,400.
The turn in events also raises questions about whether the Obama administration has properly gauged Putin's motivations and what this could mean for the tense U.S.-Russia relationship.
"It shows that there are still some bargains to be struck with the Russians that the president maybe hadn't taken very seriously," says Stephen Long, a political scientist at the University of Richmond.
In a series of television interviews on Monday shortly after the Russians publicly floated their proposal, Obama tried to squash the notion that the Russian proposal - which came after Secretary of State John Kerry earlier on Monday made a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that a military confrontation could be avoided if Syria gave up its chemical weapons - came out of thin air.
After Kerry made the remarks at a London news conference, he spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and told him that the United States was not ready to embrace such a proposal, but was willing to take a hard look if a credible proposal were made, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
Soon after the Kerry-Lavrov phone call, Lavrov went out and announced that Russia was willing to play a role in securing the Syrian chemical weapons. The proposal was quickly embraced by Syrian government officials and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
The president said talk between the U.S. and Russians about securing the Syrian chemical stockpile dates back to a conversation Obama said he had with Putin at G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico last year. Obama said he and Putin again discussed the issue on the margins of this year's G-20, which was held last week in St. Petersburg, Russia.
For Putin, the opportunity to reinsert himself into the debate on Syria was ideal.
While Obama has staked his credibility on doing something in Syria, Putin has staked his credibility on not letting Syria become another Libya - a NATO-led and U.N. sanctioned operation that Putin fiercely opposed and said was tantamount to the Christian Crusades.
"This may be a way for him to look less weak, while also potentially boxing the United States in a corner, if we nonetheless go to war" in Syria, said Matthew Rojansky, a Russian expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.
For the last decade, Russia strove to play a bigger role in global politics, and it's long seen itself as having a rightful place in shaping the Middle East, even though its sphere of influence is largely limited to Syria and Iran.
If Putin is able to help shepherd a deal that averts U.S. military action, it would be a masterstroke. Even if it doesn't head off a strike, he may still end up looking good.
"If it comes to pass, he then becomes a necessary player in Middle East politics - which is something he wants, to enhance Russia's place in determining world affairs," said Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University "If it doesn't happen, then Putin looks like the one who tried to do things peacefully. This is a win-win for him."