Before the very real enmity that exists between the U.S. and Russian governments dooms the current initiative to secure Syrian chemical weapons, and continues to propel both nations along their trajectory towards a Cold War-lite, it’s worth asking whether the ongoing diplomacy could actually represent a game-changing, Nixon-to-China moment. Because viewed through the foreign policy prism of realism that defined Nixon and his former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – meaning a view unclouded by excessive idealism or rancor — there are trends afoot bringing the strategic interests of the United States and Russia, and their respective leaders, into unexpected alignment.
There’s little question, for instance, that Russia’s last-minute proposal for the international community to secure and eventually destroy Syria’s chemical weapons offered Obama a much-needed lifeline. Obama’s ill-advised decision to threaten loudly but pawn his big stick to Congress very nearly disarmed the leader of the free world at a moment of global upheaval. At this point, for the United States to continue to do next to nothing about the Syrian crisis represents a conscious decision to abandon venerable allies, and acquiesce to a failed state and the use of weapons of mass destruction in the heart the world’s strategic energy reserves.
Hardliners in Washington are already insisting that a former KGB apparatchik like Vladimir Putin is not a man the United States can do business with. Before Nixon made his legacy-burnishing trip to Beijing in 1972, however, they said the same thing about the arch communist Mao Zedong, who, after all, had backed our enemies the North Vietnamese. Chairman Mao did not let his revolutionary zeal or his enmity towards the United States cloud his vision, however, which perceived scores of Soviet armored divisions on his northern border. For different reasons, both Nixon and Mao felt the need for a rebalancing.
For all his characteristic bluster, when Vladimir Putin peers outside the Kremlin he likewise perceives strategic vulnerability. On his eastern border is a rapidly ascendant China, and to the west a greatly expanded NATO alliance. Along his southern border in the Caucuses are restive Islamic republics and Islamic terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda and its affiliates fighting in Syria. Putin has every reason to fear an implosion in Syria that puts chemical weapons into the hands of Islamic extremists with a land bridge to Chechnya and Dagestan.
As the authoritarian leader of a great power in decline, with a permanent seat and a veto in the U.N. Security Council, Putin also wants to avoid another unilateral, precedent-setting U.S. military action. With the U.S. looking inward after a decade of war, Putin also senses the world is becoming more multipolar, and wants back in the game in a way that doesn’t make Russia a weak counterweight to the United States. All of those incentives may drive Putin to take real risks to reach a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons.
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