It is said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been playing chess while President Obama has been playing checkers, or even marbles. While it is true that Mr. Putin is playing a game of chess on the stage of history, the United States is not playing a different game. Rather, like a pawn on Russia’s chessboard, Mr. Obama is just being played.
It is 2009. Mr. Putin has just given the West a preview of his plans by intervening in Georgia. Doing her very best to prove how clueless the Obama administration really is, Hillary Clinton hands Russia’s experienced foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, a toy “reset” button, which she presses. Mr. Putin gets an endorsement. Democrats are so desperate to prove diplomacy is effective that Mrs. Clinton takes a lesson from Neville Chamberlain in dealing with the leader that she would later compare to Hitler. The game is on.
By the end of its first term, the Obama administration has made Russia its equal partner on the world stage. When the subject of a missile defense becomes an irritant to the relationship, Mr. Obama asks for patience by promising Mr. Putin’s surrogate flexibility once he no longer has to explain himself to the American people. What he does not know is that Mr. Putin understands power — and weakness.
It is 2013. Mr. Obama has painted himself into a corner by threatening to take military action against Syria, a Russian ally, for the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. Mr. Putin comes to his rescue by devising a plan to ensure that the United States must walk away from its own red line without acting.
Mr. Putin knows that his stratagem will drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, erode their confidence in U.S. resolve, and make it impossible for the United States to threaten the use of force credibly again. The board is now defenseless.
It is early in 2014. Mr. Putin is getting ready to punish Ukraine for flirting with the West. Mr. Obama goes to Florida for a game of golf, and then makes a fool of himself on a show called “Between Two Ferns” on the website Funny or Die.
Mr. Putin must have thought it hilarious. He did not even have to set it up. He knows the world will be unable to take seriously the word of a man willing to submit to that kind of ridicule.
Then Mr. Putin takes Crimea. The Obama team is surprised to learn that its old standby, self-determination (the pretext for its feckless meddling in places like Egypt and Libya), can be used by the Russians, too. Who knew that Catherine the Great had annexed Crimea before 13 soon-to-be United States formed their own government? Russians know that just as well as they know the game of chess.
They also know that another U.S. president handed Stalin the keys to Eastern Europe at a conference in Crimea. Even though Nikita Khrushchev eventually gave Crimea away to the Ukraine as a gift to his Ukrainian wife, Russia thought it really always belonged to Russia. So Mr. Putin made his move and took it back.
Enter Mr. Lavrov again. He gets his nominal counterpart, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to agree to put internal reforms, including regional federalism — a pretext for further partition of Ukraine — on the table for future talks. Once again, Democrats are so desperate to prove that diplomacy works that they get backed into legitimizing Russia’s interest in Kiev’s political affairs. Mr. Putin wins without making a move.
Now all Russia has to do is promote dissent in Ukraine. Even though Mr. Putin needs no pretext, a still-clueless Obama administration gives him one anyway by sending its CIA director to Kiev. Check.
Eventually, Mr. Putin will turn his attention to addressing what he considers to be other historical wrongs involving the loss of Russian territory and influence. He is patient, knows history and knows he has time. Some places he wants, he can buy. Still other countries that have Russia on their borders and ethnic Russians within them will be able to understand what Mr. Putin has been able to do and how easily he has been able to do it.
After all, he is across the board from a president who makes Jimmy Carter look decisive. If you live in the region, calling Russia merely a regional power, as Mr. Obama did, looks like an extraordinarily naive and dangerous thing to do, which it was.
Mr. Putin admittedly has something the Obama administration does not — a professional to implement his strategy. Mr. Lavrov knows he has the upper hand when dealing with the Western politicians that are his American counterparts, both past and present. He knows that they have staked their reputations on what they call “diplomacy,” and that they will salivate at the prospect of more talking, good or bad.
So just as the Russians have mastered the game of chess that Mr. Putin is playing, Mr. Lavrov has mastered the game of conditioning that another Russian called Pavlov discovered, and he has made the Obama administration Mr. Putin’s pawn in the process.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.
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