Obama is weak, Putin is strong, analysts and observers said as the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg concluded on Saturday. Obama arrived with the intent of convincing the Russian leadership to remove its opposition to an American attack against the regime in Damascus. He carried with him solid testimonies pointing to the massive use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces. But this baggage was excessive and unnecessary.
It is doubtful whether there is even one Russian politician, analyst, intelligence official or officer who does not know for certain that the order to attack Damascus' suburbs with chemical weapons came from Assad's headquarters. The Russians are not that blind, stupid or ignorant.
If the Assad regime's guilt is so obvious also to senior Russian officials and the Russian people, who are not buying the government's claim that the attack was a "provocation by terrorists," then what purpose does Putin's opposition serve? In my estimation, Putin's prattle is meant to prove to the few clients Russia has left among the developing nations that it will not spare any diplomatic and political effort to chip away at America's strength and put a spoke in its wheels. It will do all it can to protect its rogue clients - all except for the use of military force.
Meaning, Russia will talk a lot but do nothing. In every possible aspect, Russia of 2013 is light years behind the US. Russia's annual defense budget does not amount – in real terms - to the monthly American defense budget. Russian soldiers last fought 30 years ago in Afghanistan, where they suffered a humiliating defeat. The Russian arms industry appears advanced only in American movies.
The Russian economy is entirely dependent on oil, gas and natural resources. Russia, the OECD said in a recent report, is less industrialized – relative to the rest of the world - than it was in the 1970s. The plans of the previous president, Medvedev, to establish high-tech cities remained up in the air. In addition, the population of the Russian Federation is continually shrinking, as is the number of Russians living in it.
Putin's theatrical muscle-flexing does not represent any power or interest group in Russia. The Russian president does not have even a minimal interest in getting involved militarily to protect an Arab regime that used gas against its own citizens. The horrors of war are embedded deep in the psyche of every Russian mother, and the Russian media outlets, aside from the state-owned television networks, are showing an appreciation for the democratic manner in which the Americans are arguing for and against a military operation in Syria.
So, the truth is that Putin is weak and Obama is strong. Putin is playing the role of the jester whose hands are empty, while Obama is playing the role of the level-headed leader who is not rushing to draw. Therefore, in my estimation, we can guess how it will end: Putin will blink first. A moment or two before the missiles start flying and the planes take off for Damascus, or perhaps shortly after that, Russia will propose an arrangement calling for the removal of Assad and his people from power.
Putin will not hesitate to distance himself from Assad and throw the Syrian president and his murderous entourage to the dogs. By doing so he will also be able to crown himself, somewhat justifiably, as the man who stopped the war and saved the peace in the Middle East. Whatever. The titles aren't important, the result is.
My prediction regarding Russia's conduct may be wrong. Putin may not mind sitting on the sidelines while the US attacks Assad, hoping that it finds itself in a bind – or not. Like Winston Churchill once said: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.