For Russian President Vladimir Putin, success in Syria involves multiple components. He wants Russia to re-emerge as a player of importance in the Middle East, a goal he already seems to have attained. He wants to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and see Islamist rebels defeated. He wants to see Syria's chemical weapons accounted for and destroyed. He wants tensions to remain high in the region, which keeps the price of oil up. And he wants to humiliate, or at least humble, President Barack Obama.
Putin is old-fashioned enough for Russia's greatness to matter to him. He does not want to be the captain of a team that finishes low in the division. The shirtless photo ops are just the outward sign of a type of Slavic machismo that prides itself on being able to endure anything and ultimately emerge victorious.
Unfortunately for Russia, there are few places today where the Kremlin matters. Eastern Europe is safely under NATO's shield. Ukraine is ornery and independent and, unlike Georgia, too big to engage militarily. The former Soviet republics in Central Asia have become adroit at playing Russia against China. Syria has thus presented a unique opportunity to make a difference. After two decades of, as Moscow sees it, condescension and contempt from the United States, Russia's counsel must now be sought and its influence solicited. Of course, the one place where Russia has always maintained real power, the U.N. Security Council, will play a significant role in shaping the situation in Syria.
Though Russia has been willing to lie outrageously on Assad's behalf -- most prominently by saying the chemical weapons were a provocation by the rebels -- it has also never said anything particularly positive about him. In a perverse sort of way, it's the principle of the thing that matters to the Russians. They don't like seeing authoritarian leaders deposed by American demand and NATO bombs. They identify.
Putin is sure that the U.S. wants to dominate the world. If he were running the world's only superpower, that's exactly what he would aim to do; ergo, he cannot imagine Obama leading a charge to do otherwise. In that, he is the prisoner of his own mindset.
Putin is quite sincere in wishing to see the rebels defeated and Syria's chemical weapons destroyed. Those rebels and weapons could migrate north toward Russia. Putin is particularly worried about the Winter Olympics set to begin in February 2014 in Sochi, a city located near the volatile Caucasus region that contains Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. There could be terrorist attacks against the Games themselves or in other parts of Russia while the Kremlin's attention is diverted to security in Sochi. (One lesson that terrorists of all stripes learned from the Boston Marathon bombings is that publicity is heightened if the cameras are already rolling when you attack.)
Putin's brilliance was not only in getting Obama off the hook with Congress and a war-weary American public, but in recognizing that the two countries had enough mutual interests in Syria to forge a deal. The U.S. too does not want to see an Islamist victory in Syria or a moderate victory that is then hijacked by Islamists. It is not high on the U.S.'s list of priorities to see Assad deposed. There has been some gassy "Assad must go" rhetoric, but when the U.S. came close to bombing, the stated intention of the strike was only to degrade military capability. The U.S. will continue to supply arms to those it considers moderates; and Russia, to the regime. America's conscience is salved and Russia maintains both income and influence. Tensions will not abate, which should keep the price of oil above the $100 mark -- right where Russia needs it to balance its budget.
The U.S., however, may be interested in more than simply salving its conscience. The Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan in large part because of a single U.S.-supplied weapons system -- the Stinger, a handheld rocket launcher that could bring down Soviet helicopters crucial to warfare in mountainous terrain. If the U.S. were to identify what weapons system could play the same role in Syria, the tide could turn swiftly against Assad and Putin.
It is obviously difficult to locate and destroy chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war. That will be a logistical problem for U.N. inspectors and a political problem for Russia. Russia will lose face if it can't make Syria, its client and ally, deliver. Assad may agree to a deal with no intention of complying. He's aware that Libya's Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear and chemical weapons and ended up dead in the street. Moreover, Assad may be a more desperate and less rational actor than Putin thinks. It shouldn't be forgotten that when Assad used chemical weapons in late August, he was firing against suburbs of Damascus. Rebels on the outskirts of his capital have to make a despot nervous.