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Putin snarls, but Obama gets the last laugh

For months, Republicans and much of the media accepted as fact that Putin is a strategic mastermind, while Obama was struggling to keep up. This was backwards.
Image: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St....
For much of the year, conservative praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin was so overwhelming, you'd think he was the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) gushed, "Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles." Rudy Giuliani said of Putin, "That's what you call a leader." Even Mitt Romney hailed the Russian autocrat: "I think Putin has outperformed our president time and time again on the world stage."
But if Republicans can pull themselves away from drawing hearts around their Putin photographs, they might notice that it's President Obama getting the last laugh as developments go the opposite of the way Russia had hoped.

Seven months after Ukraine's former president Viktor F. Yanukovych rejected a sweeping trade deal with the European Union and set off protests that drove him from power, Ukraine's new leader on Friday concluded the pact, which Russia has bitterly opposed as a threat to its own economic and strategic interests in the former Soviet Union. [...] The accord with the European Union fulfills an election promise by Mr. Poroshenko to move Ukraine closer to Europe, reversing a course set by Mr. Yanukovych before his ouster.

Putin's quite the grand master chess player. It takes a rare talent to push potential allies away, while tarnishing your country's reputation on the global stage and pushing your economy into a recession.
As Thomas Friedman recently put it, "Let's add it up: Putin's seizure of Crimea has weakened the Russian economy, led to China getting a bargain gas deal, revived NATO, spurred Europe to start ending its addiction to Russian gas and begun a debate across Europe about increasing defense spending. Nice work, Vladimir. That's why I say the country Putin threatens most today is Russia."
What's more, let's not forget that this isn't just a story about Putin getting it wrong; it's also a story about Obama getting it right.
Max Fisher recently had a fascinating piece arguing that he was skeptical about the U.S. policy, but it now appears Obama's strategy "of letting Putin hang himself is working."
Fisher added that it's the U.S. president's approach that's going "surprisingly well," adding, "This has been so effective, and has apparently taken Putin by such surprise, that after weeks of looking like he could roll into eastern Ukraine unchallenged, he's backing down all on his own."
In case it's not obvious, there's still a great deal of fluidity to the story and no one should think it's over. Indeed, Putin has proven to be alarmingly erratic in his decision making, so how he'll respond to the new Ukrainian announcement is a bit of a mystery.
But literally for months, Republicans, conservative activists, and much of the Beltway media simply accepted as fact that Vladimir Putin was a towering giant and a strategic mastermind, while President Obama played the role of confused child, struggling to keep up.
Those assumptions now appear ridiculously wrong -- it looks like Obama knew what he was doing after all. Whether the right and the punditocracy are willing to admit their error remains to be seen, though no one should hold their breath.