The recent surprise announcement by Vladimir Putin that Russia will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria is reminiscent of Sarah Palin's decision to leave the governorship of Alaska before her term was done. In the same way that Palin justified her decision by characterizing it as a courageous refusal to "go with the flow," Putin has declared victory as if his current withdrawal had been his aim all along. The main difference between these two cases is that in the latter instance, many people are buying it. The strange cult of Putin as some kind of strongman/strategic genius seems to have inexhaustible legs in American political discourse, thus it is easy to find examples of pundits praising this most recent development as a bold gambit.
This is not to indulge in "he's turning tail and running" machismo. I have very little interest in whether Mr. Putin deserves his "strongman" reputation or not. But the suggestion that this policy on Moscow's part has produced any significant achievements to justify or redeem it is strained at best. Russia has bought some breathing room for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Though this is an undeniable real-world effect, why it is in anyone's interests, including those of Russia, is as yet an imponderable.
When historians many decades from now sift through the evidence of the Syrian civil war there will no doubt be long debates about Russia's role, and one of the key interpretive questions will be whether Mr. Putin ever had a coherent policy, or whether he has been improvising from the outset. I will not play Karnak and predict who will have the better side of that debate. But, barring some miraculous result in the peace negotiations between warring factions in the Syrian civil war, the "he was just winging it" judgment may ultimately be the kindest reading that can be made of Putin's actions.
None of the coherent goals one might posit for Russia's policy meet any basic test of value. Assert Russia's relevance in the Middle East? If that was the object, it was achieved at a steep cost of increased misery to the Syrian people and decreased capacity in the fight against ISIS. Deflect attention from meddling in the Ukraine? The hordes of desperate refugees driven to the sea in part by Russia's machinations cannot produce fond thoughts in Europe.
The most cogent reason for Russia's intervention in Syria is the one that Putin himself gave to the UN, that the fight against jihadi terrorists such as ISIS must depend on the continued persistence of forces like the Assad regime. This, however, is a policy rooted in a view of the Syrian people (and Arabs more generally) so cynically pessimistic and paternalistic as to rival the xenophobic ramblings of Donald Trump. Now that Putin is set to (at least notionally) demobilize his forces with the civil war still raging and ISIS as strong or stronger than when he began, the best that can be said of him is that he has perhaps recognized the limits of Russian military power better than George W. Bush did in the case of America's involvement in Iraq. To anyone who would cite this as an example of Putin's strategic wisdom, however, it would have to be noted (as was true in the case of George W. Bush) that the one thing Putin could have done better than withdrawing "at the right time" would have been to refrain from deploying his forces in the first place.
The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and Putin's deployment of Russian forces to Latakia both stemmed from the same fundamental mistrust of the people of the Middle East, a refusal to acknowledge that they might effect social and political change on their own initiative. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been hampered by the same dysfunctional mindset, in kind if not degree. Putin's decision to withdraw forces now gives the lie to comparisons portraying him as more "tough" or "dynamic" than President Obama. In the end both leaders were willing to apply comparable levels of force to the Syrian theater. Indeed, President Obama proves the more durable "warrior," as our air campaign against ISIS will continue as Russia draws down.
The relevant comparison between Russia and the US is not over which nation was willing to drop more bombs- that is an effective draw. The real contrast concerns which nation was willing to back its principles with military force. President Obama correctly recognized early on that "Assad must go," that Damascus's use of military force against its own people made regime change (achieved militarily or politically) necessary for stability and peace in Syria. The US has erred in failing to construct a robust policy on that basis, because we did not trust the Syrian people to replace the Assad regime with a government to our liking. Thus we allowed the civil war to drag on and to create a power vacuum conducive to the rise of ISIS. If the US had been as willing to use its strategic power to oppose the Assad regime as Russia has been to support it, the Syrian civil war might already be over, and ISIS might never have existed (or at least might be on its way to defeat).
Those who continue to laud Vladimir Putin are drawing the wrong lessons from history. The consequences of American passivity may be a cautionary tale, but its moral is complemented by that to be drawn from the story of Russia's "dynamism." Though America's failure in Syria demonstrates that correct principles will not be of help if a nation lacks the courage of its convictions, in Putin's decision to withdraw we see that no amount of military power will prevail if the political principles underpinning its use are misguided.