IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Putin's failures leave Russia reeling

Republicans said Putin was playing chess to Obama's checkers. They had it backwards -- it's Obama who made all the right moves.
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....
It was poised to be the biggest arms deal ever between a NATO country and Russia. France had a deal worth more than 1 billion euros to deliver a warship to Russia, and given Europe's economy and the number of jobs involved, French President Francois Hollande really wanted the deal to go forward.
But it did not. President Obama urged Hollande to leave Vladimir Putin isolated and the French president agreed, announcing last week that the warship delivery was off "until further notice" in light of Russia's aggression towards Ukraine.
Late yesterday, Putin suffered yet another failure.

President Vladimir V. Putin said Monday that he would scrap Russia's South Stream gas pipeline, a grandiose project that was once intended to establish the country's dominance in southeastern Europe but instead fell victim to Russia's increasingly toxic relationship with the West.

The New York Times characterized this as a "rare diplomatic defeat" for Putin, though I'm not sure why. Indeed, diplomatic defeats appear to be the only thing the Russian president has accomplished lately.
As Kevin Drum noted, "Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic states, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders -- and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin."
For months, Republicans in the United States ran around singing Putin's praises, convinced that it was the Russian autocrat gaining power and prestige on the international stage, while President Obama "failed to lead" and American influence waned.
It seems painfully obvious now that Republicans had it backwards.
George Packer has a fascinating new piece on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which included a classic anecdote.

Putin's brand of macho elicits in Merkel a kind of scientific empathy. In 2007, during discussions about energy supplies at the Russian President's residence in Sochi, Putin summoned his black Lab, Koni, into the room where he and Merkel were seated. As the dog approached and sniffed her, Merkel froze, visibly frightened. She'd been bitten once, in 1995, and her fear of dogs couldn't have escaped Putin, who sat back and enjoyed the moment, legs spread wide. [...] The German press corps was furious on her behalf -- "ready to hit Putin," according to a reporter who was present. Later, Merkel interpreted Putin's behavior. "I understand why he has to do this -- to prove he's a man," she told a group of reporters. "He's afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this."

I've long believed this is the detail that Putin's American admirers have never fully understood: some people act tough to hide their insecurities, while others actually are tough and see no need for pretenses. Putin belongs in the former camp, which seems to impress GOP politicians in the United States, but which doesn't actually produce positive results for Russia.
So, while Republicans run to the Sunday shows to announce that Putin is playing chess to Obama's checkers, Obama is helping scuttle Russia's warship deal. All the while, Putin is increasingly isolated, leading a country with a collapsing economy and neighbors eager to strengthen alliances with the West.
And as the price of oil continues to fall, Russia's problems are likely to get worse before they get better.
I'll be eager to hear all the apologies from GOP politicians who spent the year heralding Putin as the strategic mastermind the United States needs in the White House.