Hugo Spaulding, writing in the Institute for the Study of War notes that Vladimir Putin is challenging president Obama across a very broad strategic front. This is quite a contrast to the media perception that their confrontation is limited largely to Syria. He writes:
Russia’s Syrian campaign is part of larger confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. In addition to expanding the scope of its operations to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia issued an open challenge to NATO through repeated violations of Turkish airspace, the shadowing of U.S. Predator drones in Syria, and the launch of cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea through Iraqi airspace without warning the U.S. beforehand.
Russia accelerated its efforts to court U.S. allies including Jordan and Israel … bolstered its military presence near Afghanistan … announcing the deployment of attack helicopters to neighboring Tajikistan. In a snap ministerial meeting on October 8, NATO agreed to double the size of its Response Force and announced its preparedness to deploy ground forces to defend Turkey … Russia’s escalated support to Syrian regime operations against rebels and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria show that Russia’s main objective in the Middle East is not the anti-ISIS ‑fight, but rather the formation of a Russian-Iranian alignment that will serve its broader aims.
President Obama seems anxious to downplay the Putin challenge both in scope and seriousness. In an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes the president dismissively attempted to cast things in the narrowest possible compass, treating Russia like an inconsequential nuisance. When Kroft reminded Obama that Putin was bombing his proxies, Obama countered that he was leading on “climate change”.
Steve Kroft: Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II–
President Barack Obama: So that’s–
Steve Kroft: –bombing the people– that we are supporting.
President Barack Obama: So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine–
Steve Kroft: He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership–
President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we’ve got a 60-country coalition that isn’t suddenly lining up around Russia’s strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.
Obama seemed minimally aware that Ukraine and Syria were linked, even though he was at pains to deemphasize it. As for the base supporters like Max Fisher at Vox, they understood the situation as something that could be handled by a snappy comeback. ”Obama had a pretty sick burn mocking Putin’s ‘leadership’,” Fisher said. Putin dismissed, problem solved.