Russia Keeps Winning

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

A few weeks ago, I wrote that if anything can characterize the Obama foreign policy it would be the phrase “the Grand Retreat.” It is often illustrated by propagandizing to the American electorate that it faces only two choices in any given foreign policy situation, both of which lack good outcomes for the United States; one is then characterized as better than the other. This is definitively the case with the Iran deal: President Barack Obama told the American people that they could either embrace his Iranian deal or there would be full-out war. The logic is simple: If you don’t support the deal, you want to go to war in Iran. It is amazing that an administration the mainstream media has dubbed as “smart” in diplomacy, in a slanderous attempt to condemn the Bush administration, is perhaps the least nuanced, least intellectual and least creative in decades.

Five times, this administration has been outmaneuvered by President Vladimir Putin’s Russia: The first was over missile defense based in Eastern Europe; the second was over chemical weapons in Syria; the third is over the situation in the Ukraine; the fourth is the desire to end sanctions against Iran; and the latest is again in Syria. It is a hard pill to swallow when one has to admit that Russian “diplomacy” is more skilled than America’s. On the other hand, this is hardly a mystery: Russian and Soviet foreign policy was always controlled by cold-eyed realists who see lives as statistics, time as a temporary impediment and boundaries as interim fictions.

The latest Russian offensive is illustrated by its vanguard leadership concerning Syria. Russia’s position has been to support the Bashar Assad regime, continue Russia’s influence from the Soviet era with Syria, and ensure that the twin rogue states in the Middle East – Syria and Iran – continue to cause problems for American interests. The Russians continue to operate a naval base in the Syria port city of Tartus. It appears that through meetings between Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, that the Russians are on their way to achieving all of their goals.

The situation for the Assad regime is not good, but it can continue to hold out on the military side. The Syrian opposition that is not part of the Islamo-Bolshevik movement, sometimes referred to as radical Islam or Islamic extremism, is so disparate (with little aid or support from the United States). The Islamic State group has been on the march, regardless of the halfhearted Western air campaign. The Obama administration can now sell the narrative to support Russian diplomacy, namely one that portrays Assad as a bad guy, but certainly not as bad as an Islamic State group victory. If you create that dichotomy, you will not get an argument.

The Obama administration is no longer calling for the ouster of Assad, and already lauded Russia for its flawed chemical weapons deal. (Assad and the Islamic State group both continue to use chemical weapons against civilians.) Not only will Russia gain huge worldwide diplomatic prestige if it can bring about an end to the Syrian civil war (on its terms), but the Russians will be praised by international liberals for stopping one of the worst human rights tragedies. Russia will regain some of the gains made by Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War, and this gives Iran even more breathing room, as it has a vested interest in the success of the Assad regime.

Russia does not even need Assad to stay; it only needs a direct hand in his replacement. Syria, under this model, will trade one dictator for another with Russian and Iranian foreign policy being the victor. This spring, The Hill reported that the Obama administration has had meetings with the Russians over a two way partition of Syria between the Assad regime and the non-Islamic State group rebels, with the territory controlled by the Islamic State group being a wild card. This is reminiscent of Vice President Joe Biden’s plan to partition Iraq into three parts, which would have almost guaranteed Iranian suzerainty over it.

Why has Russia been so successful? There are two basic reasons: First, Russia’s foreign policy is based on a cold calculation of Russian national interests abroad, nothing more or less. Second, Russia has clear goals of where it wants to be at the end of these diplomatic exercises. It is time the Obama administration matches the bear and goes on the offensive to a victory that represents not only what is best for the United States, but the civilians of the entire region who are the real victims of this Russian-Iranian chess game.