The Russian president has been vilified for his stance on Syria, but his manoeuvres over American foreign policy indicate his astuteness – and cunning – as a statesman
(Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj)
Last week, amid the thumb-sucking in large parts of the US commentariat over whether Putin had thrown a hapless Obama a "lifeline" over the Syrian crisis, it took Human Rights Watch's Anna Neistat to point out the Russian president's multiple evasions, including the transfer of arms to Assad.
She noted: "From the very start of this conflict, Russia has vetoed or blocked any Security Council action that may bring relief to Syria's civilians or bring perpetrators of abuses in Syria to account."
She also underlined how difficult it is to take seriously talk about "democratic values and international law" when his government at home "continues to throw activists in jail, threatens to close NGOs, and rubber-stamps draconian and discriminatory laws".
The reality is that Putin has won this latest round. He has narrowed the terms of the present debate on the war he is arming – which has claimed 100,000 lives and displaced 6.5 million – to the narrow question of disarmament of Syria's chemical weapons, a task that would be difficult enough to accomplish in peacetime. Already, it is clear, not least from the comments of Assad on Russian television, that the negotiation over the details of that disarmament will be spun out.
In the meantime, the horror of the war in Syria will drag on and on. On the question of red lines, Obama's has been crossed to no effect, while Putin's red line on western intervention has been defended at the cost of yet more Syrian lives on both sides of the war and no real prospect of a negotiated peace."