Mr. Putin’s neighborhood

The Daily

June 22, 2012

It appears to be time for a redo of President Obama’s famed “reset” on Russia.

The president, after all, has little to show for it beyond a treaty reducing long-range nuclear arsenals on both sides and Russian acquiescence in the use of its territory to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. And those limited achievements spring directly from Russia’s self-interest. Russia’s long-rage nuke stocks need cutting for financial reasons. As for Afghanistan: Russia doesn’t want to see a Taliban victory either, so its interests align with America’s.

That is not true in most other parts of the world, and nowhere is the clash clearer than in Syria, where Russia has emerged alongside Iran as the most notable backer of the Assad regime. There are numerous reasons for Russian support for President Bashar Assad. Start with the strategic rationale: Syria is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. It even hosts a Russian naval base — the only military base that Moscow still has outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Then there is the financial rationale: Syria has long been a big buyer of Russia’s weapons (including the helicopter gunships now being used to slaughter rebels). Finally, consider the ideological rationale: Russian President Vladimir Putin is a dictator who rules over an increasingly restive population. He has no desire to see another dictator toppled in the Middle East or anywhere else, lest this send the wrong (from his perspective) message to the Russian people.

The Russian president clearly has buyer’s remorse over having signed off on the U.N. resolution which allowed the U.S. and NATO to help topple Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi — another longtime Russian client — last year. He won’t make that mistake again. Hence Russia has made clear that it will block any U.N. Security Council resolution that might authorize military action against the Assad regime. China is another obstacle, but the Chinese are unlikely to veto a resolution if they have to stand alone to do so. Putin is the key obstacle to U.N. action in Syria.

Not surprisingly, Obama had no success in budging him during two hours of talks Monday at the G-20 summit in Mexico. The body language between the two men was, in one reporter’s words, “off-the-hook chilly.”

The only thing surprising here is that Obama could have imagined any other result. It’s high time the president stopped giving the Russian autocrat a veto over American action. As in Kosovo — when Russia similarly blocked a U.N. resolution on behalf of one of its allies — the U.S. should assemble a “coalition of the willing” and seek multilateral cover from NATO, over which Russia does not exercise veto power. Otherwise there is little hope of ending the growing civil war in Syria anytime soon.