Ukraine was never going to be the end of the Russian dictator's ambitions. Putin needs a steady diet of escalating conflict. And without a more strategic game plan among U.S. and other policymakers in the free world, Moscow and others will continue to step in where the West refuses to tread.
Like many others, I believed that Putin's next show of force might be in the Transcaucasian region. But in September of this year he surprised the world again by intervening even further south
, all the way down in Syria where he is hoping to prop up his old dictator pal, President Bashar al-Assad.
Once again, the world was caught flat-footed, with the apparent exceptions of Iran and probably Iraq, both of whom quickly revealed themselves as Russian partners
. Meanwhile, even as Russia claimed that its military was focused on attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has been clear that Russian airstrikes have actually been focusing on non-ISIS, anti-Assad elements, some of whom were actually trained by the United States. Assad wants to be able to depict himself as the only alternative to ISIS and, after enough bombing, he will be.
The move is a classic play from the dictator's handbook, in which dictators portray themselves as white knights even as they try to destroy all legitimate opposition, turning the political environment into a desert in the process. And what manages to survive in a desert? Snakes, rats, and scorpions.
As with Ukraine and the worthless Minsk ceasefires, Putin is happy to negotiate once he has achieved dominance on the ground through the use of force. And the reality is that all the well-fed diplomats in Vienna won't change anything in Syria. Putin sends bombers, Iran sends troops, and Obama sends John Kerry. Is it any wonder who is calling the shots in Syria now?
How does this keep happening?
The United States is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama appears to have no interest in flexing those economic and military muscles to defend U.S. interests. Quite to the contrary, they are atrophying. But the blame cannot be laid squarely at the White House's door. Even as Putin is bullying his way around the globe, Europe is failing to properly protect its own borders, apparently hoping Putin will simply stop in Ukraine. But why should he?
Part of the problem is that, to use some chess terminology, dictatorships have a clear advantage when it comes to rapid tactical maneuvers. Parliamentary authorization is not necessary, there is no critical media. Dictators don't worry about long-term consequences, only about looking strong and staying in power now. They know that they cannot afford to look weak or get distracted.
Even the most long-lived dictators rarely look beyond tomorrow's battles because it's hard to look toward the future when you always have one eye over your shoulder. Putin, for example, may well be stuck in quagmires in both Ukraine and Syria. But he cannot slow down at all -- he needs ever more action, more conflict, and more mud in the water to rally domestic support and justify his position as Russia's president for life. What is good for Putin has nothing to do with what is good for Russians and Russia's national interest. In fact, they are usually opposed.
Democracies, in contrast, can be very slow to act tactically due to the multiple layers of public opinion, governmental accountability, and other systemic checks and balances. The strength of the free world is strategic, not tactical. Common goals, political and economic stability, and strong institutions allow for long-term planning and continuity.
After World War II, U.S. President Harry Truman's administration recognized the need for a new set of institutions, mostly to counter Stalin's aggressive Soviet Union. The 1947 "Truman Doctrine" established a principle of opposing Soviet advances wherever possible. Within the first several years of World War II ending we saw the birth of NATO, the United Nations, and the CIA, as well as the transformation of Voice of America from a wartime radio network into a State Department vehicle.