In 1966, with the Vietnam War dragging on, then-Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt.) was asked for his opinion about the future of U.S. policy in the region. The Vermont Republican gave a relatively long, thoughtful answer about the United States “could well declare unilaterally … that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”
The front-page headline in the New York Times read the next day, “Aiken Suggests U.S. Say It Has Won the War.” In time, the public’s understanding of the senator’s position evolved into a convenient catchphrase – “Declare victory and go home” – which Aiken never actually said.
Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced unexpectedly that he’s withdrawing troops from Syria – in effect, declaring victory and going home.
“I believe that the goal set out to the ministry of defense and the armed forces has, in large part, been fulfilled and that’s why I order the minister of defense as of tomorrow to start the pullout of the main part of our military grouping from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin said.Putin’s declaration came as United Nations-led negotiations got underway in Geneva, Switzerland to end the brutal and bloody civil war that has left thousands dead and sent millions more into exile.
The headline in Politico this morning said the Russian autocrat “outfoxed” the Obama White House “again.” The obvious problem with a headline like this is the odd assumption that Putin has ever outfoxed the U.S. president – because by all appearances, Putin’s track record against Obama is roughly 0-for-forever, conservative admiration for the Russian leader notwithstanding.
The less-obvious problem is the assumption that yesterday’s developments were the result of a successful Putin mission, but that’s not really what happened.
Let’s not forget that when Russia launched its offensive in Syria, Putin envisioned a “decisive three-month offensive producing major territorial gains for the Syrian regime.” That was the expectation in September, but those “major territorial gains” simply never occurred. Take a look at the maps Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum posted showing Syrian land controlled by the Assad government now as compared to seven months ago. If the two side-by-side images look practically identical, that’s because they are.
The New York Times’ report added that Russia is “also facing deepening economic problems caused by the collapse in global oil prices, and the announcement may reflect Mr. Putin’s desire to declare victory and extricate his country from a costly military venture.”
To see this as a Russian triumph is to overlook every relevant detail. Putin bought Assad some time – propping up an ally in the midst of a brutal civil war – but military intervention proved to be vastly more difficult than the Russian president expected and produced little of the intended goals. By withdrawing, Putin is cutting his losses, so he can redirect his attention at some of his other pending messes.
That said, there was also the possibility of a broader proxy war in Syria, with Putin backing Assad and the U.S. backing some (but not all) of Syria’s rebels. With Russia scaling back and U.N. talks underway, that crisis now appears far less likely.