Vladimir Putin is the dancing master. His dance is the kasatka, the Russian folk dance which tests the dancer’s balance and stamina, requiring him to crouch and fling out each leg and foot in turn, testing his balance and the nerves of those around him. It’s not a dance for the weak or distracted, and Mr. Putin is dancing the kasatka around Barack Obama.
The Russian president, once a KGB operative and steeped in Russian folkways, challenges the nerves of the encircled spectator. When Mr. Obama drew his infamous imaginary red line in Syria, and quickly reneged when he realized that brave words have to be backed by action in the unforgiving real world, Mr. Putin saw his opportunity. With aggression in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine and threats elsewhere, he unnerved the easily unnerved European Union and the Obama administration.
Mr. Putin understands history and understands that mere bluff often succeeds, particularly if the bluff is big enough. He plunged into Syria, began establishing bases on the Mediterranean, and propped up the collapsing regime of Bashar Assad. This was an immediate psychological and propaganda success, for Syria had once been the Mediterranean anchor of the old Soviet Union, and a return suggested that Russia was on its way back as a world power.
Western sanctions and the collapsing price of oil, Russia’s only real export, put Mr. Putin in a precarious crouch. The once-formidable Soviet war machine, despite its nuclear armory, is but a carcass of what it once was, but it was enough to turn the tide against Mr. Assad’s splintered opposition. Neither Washington nor its uninspired allies could pull the opposition together.
Mr. Putin seized on Secretary of State John Kerry’s idea of an armistice and a grand peace conference, which gave the dancing master respite from his kasatka, which had wearied Mr. Kerry and President Obama. They all agreed to gather in Vienna to talk, with totally opposite goals. The United States and its allies wanted Mr. Assad to go, the Russians were confident he would stay. The West usually negotiates for the sake of negotiations, talking for the sake of talking, and negotiating with an opponent who never gives in means that it’s the United States that makes the concessions.
The kasatka continues, and the latest fling of the limbs is to “order” the Russian military out of Syria. In his crouch Mr. Putin dearly needs to wrap up his commitment before it collapses, and his “concession” is presented as the gift of a noble and enlightened leader. Of course he has made no binding commitment of what he will withdraw, or when. Words are enough to thrill Washington and the West. If the past is prologue, the withdrawal might not take place at all.
The kasatka never ends with a final dazzling tour de force. Usually the dancer becomes exhausted and the dance merely subsides. That is likely to happen this time to the applause of the West and a befuddled President Obama trying to make something historic of the final few months of his presidency. The dancing master has achieved his purpose. The dance rescued him from the consequences of economic collapse, at least for the moment, and has energized, at least for the moment, his flagging domestic support with a feint at the old Soviet glory. Mission accomplished.