It’s been almost two days since a ceasefire between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels took effect, and the verdict seems to be: so far, so good. The guns have mostly gone silent, aid workers are moving toward besieged towns and a tense calm holds across the country. There are still thorny issues to be resolved, including what will happen next week when the truce sunsets, but right now this temporary peace is working better than anything that’s been tried so far.
The ceasefire was negotiated by the United States and Russia, formerly on opposite sides of the conflict and still uneasy bedfellows. Its existence is unavoidable proof that Moscow has become a major player in Syria. Vladimir Putin suddenly looks like an international broker. Here in the United States, he’s certainly perceived that way, by at least two different camps. Donald Trump and his supporters, though they claim to deplore Putin’s human rights abuses, laud his strong leadership in difficult-to-govern Russia and view him as a potential ally. Foreign policy hawks, meanwhile, see him as a cunning adversary and USSR nostalgic who is at all times one phone call away from gobbling up Eastern Europe.
These two sides claim to be diametrically opposed—Trump fans say hawks are too belligerent; hawks say Trump fans are appeasers—but they’re actually different sides of the same ruble. Underneath both is a belief that Putin is a fearsome leader and that his Russia is resurgent.
This simply isn’t true.
Start with the fact that Putin still hasn’t gone full imperialist. Remember two years ago, when Russia invaded Crimea? Putin devotees cheered his defense of Russian interests against the illegal and pro-Western Ukrainian coup, while neoconservatives warned that a new global threat had emerged from the east. Both seemed to expect that Putin wasn’t finished, that he would venture onwards, maybe even annexing all of Ukraine. It never happened. Moscow did help foment a monstrous civil war in Eastern Ukraine, but the tanks never rolled, nor were Estonia and Lithuania invaded, as many alarmists predicted. Russia has proven itself to be a soft expansionist state, projecting power through everything from its media outlets to the Orthodox Church, but the hard westward expansion of the Russian Empire never came to pass.
Why? Because, even as Moscow pumps money into its military, it doesn’t have the economic capacity to become a true first-world power. Russia’s economy hasn’t actually grown since the summer of 2014, paralyzed by its primitive structure, which is almost wholly dependent on oil and gas exports, and managed by a crew of oligarchs. John McCain’s remark that Russia is a “gas station masquerading as a country” wasn’t very diplomatic, but it did ring true. Despite recent reforms, there’s little room in Russia for innovation or creative destruction, and when the price of oil plunged thanks to America’s sudden fracking renaissance, it was a blinding blow. The Soviet Empire revived? More like the Soviet Union at the end of its days, trying to remain militarily competitive while its economy molders underneath.
Putin knows this. It’s why he didn’t move further west into Ukraine: he can’t. It’s why he’s negotiating with America in Syria: he has to. It’s why he reportedly asked Bashar al-Assad to abdicate last year: he knows he can’t stay in the Middle East forever. Putin’s wars are intended to give Russia the gloss of a superpower and distract his people from the barren economy—with another long winter approaching and an election scheduled for December, he’s going to need it. But it’s just a lot of lipstick on a cold, tired, emaciated pig.
As Kevin Williamson wrote of Putin this week, “His is an ailing and sometimes chaotic but rich and cultured nation, and his gift has been to transform it into something between a second-rate oil emirate and a first-rate crime syndicate, Norway as run by the city fathers of Chicago.” Putin is neither the next Teddy Roosevelt nor the next Nikita Khrushchev, and those who suggest otherwise are only buying his snake oil. It’s easy to hate an eminent strongman like Putin; far harder to get riled about China’s less visible leaders, who are nevertheless menacing international commerce in the South China Sea, diversifying their formidable economy, and wisely staying out of foreign quagmires.
You tell me who the real slumbering giant is.