Vladimir Putin and the Limits of Thuggishness

A lot of American hawks have displayed a barely disguised admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin this year. Oh, he’s a thug and a bully all right, but at least he fights for his country’s interests—and wins. The appeaser-in-chief could learn a thing or two from him.

Not so fast, says Dan Drezner. Exhibit A in Putin’s 2013 display of statecraft was negotiating a deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and Exhibit B was his strong-arming of Ukraine to reject membership in the EU’s Eastern Partnership and instead join Russia’s planned Eurasian Union. Victory goes to the thuggish! Except, not so much:

It turns out that a lot of Ukrainians were not happy about this turn of events, and have engaged in eleven days of massive protests. Even Yanukovich’s allies are now talking about reconciling with the domestic political opposition….[The New York Times reports that] “the anger over Russia’s role has made it all but impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to take the alternative offered by the Kremlin — joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan”….Furthermore, as the Economist points out, the way Russia has lost is even more damning. Rather than EU pressure, it is domestic discontent that has stayed Yanukovich’s hand: “It is far better for the EU that the backlash against Mr Yanukovych comes from the streets of Kiev rather than from Brussels.”

As for that Syrian chemical weapons deal, it turns out that (a) Obama and John Kerry had a lot more to do with that than we knew at first, and (b) regardless of the opposition of hardliners in Israel and Saudi Arabia, it’s worked out pretty well for the United States. The truth is that Putin hasn’t gotten a lot out of that deal, but we have.

Bottom line: Maximum belligerence isn’t the answer to every foreign policy problem. Obama’s approach might be messy, but over time it doesn’t look so bad after all.