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Game, set and match to Putin?

Analysis: Why Russia’s recent diplomatic coup has finally put a smile on its president’s face.

Obama putin 09 13 2013Enlarge
Thumbing his nose. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin had had enough.

The Russian president spent far too long absorbing criticism from the United States on everything from human rights to his country’s foreign policy.

It’s no wonder, then, that the former KGB spy and his country’s most popular politician is basking in the glory of having flipped the diplomatic bird to the United States.

It began as a surprise proposal by Russia earlier this week to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control that stole the wind from American sails and positioned Moscow as the proactive peacemaker in the crisis.

Then came Putin’s controversial “plea” in The New York Times on Wednesday, which argued that a US strike would destabilize the Middle East and fan the flames of terrorism.

It was a punch straight to the American gut, during one of President Barack Obama’s most vulnerable moments.

All part of Russia’s strategy.

Having shouted from the sidelines since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia had found itself in a situation disconcertingly similar to the one it faced over Libya in 2011 and in the Balkans in the late 1990s.

Its calls against Western intervention rebuffed, it stood by and watched NATO planes bomb Slobodan Milosevic into submission and Libya into chaos.

Between those two campaigns, Moscow witnessed with alarm the toppling of pro-Kremlin regimes in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics where so-called color revolutions succeeded with help from US-funded democracy assistance programs.

The Kremlin has since incorporated anti-American sentiment as a key component of its domestic political strategy. Especially since Putin’s re-election last year, it has trumpeted its view that Russia’s identity and proper place in the world is separate from the West and at odds with its liberal values.

Russia’s state-enforced nationalism has been shaped by everything from legislation reinforcing “traditional sexual relationships” to Putin’s stated ambitions to cobble together the remnants of the former Soviet Union to create the Eurasian Union — an eastern answer to the EU.

Russia has broadcast its defiance in various ways since Putin’s return. American-funded NGOs have been harassed or forced into closure. US Ambassador Michael McFaul has become an object of derision among state journalists and some Russian officials. Pro-Kremlin commentators have appropriated the term “Gosdep” (short for “State Department” in Russian) in diatribes against Russia’s opposition.

Now, with a US president weakened by lukewarm public support and an uphill congressional battle over a potential missile strike in Syria, the Kremlin saw a perfect opportunity.

In Thursday’s opinion piece, Putin rejected US attempts at unilateral action, saying any intervention must be sanctioned by the UN Security Council, where Moscow has used its veto to block numerous resolutions.

“The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not,” he wrote.

Then came the kicker.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.”

Much of the Russian political establishment has fallen into line, taking aim at the American “exceptionalism” invoked by Obama during his address earlier this week to the public.

More from GlobalPost: Putin likes it both ways

“The logic is this: the ‘exceptionalism’ of a nation mean exceptional rules,” tweeted Alexei Pushkov, the outspoken chairmen of Russia’s parliamentary committee on international affairs, on Friday. “That doctrine embodies political racism and separates the US from the rest of the world.”

Putin’s editorial swipe has paid off, angering American lawmakers — themselves split over the prospects of a Syrian strike — from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN the piece had almost made him vomit.

Others had starker assessments, including one unlikely source: the real estate magnate Donald Trump, who called the op-ed “a masterpiece for Russia and a disaster for the US.”

“He is lecturing to our President,” he wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Never has our Country looked to [sic] weak.” 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/russia/130913/putin-russia-syria-obama