Russia's Time to Step Up

President Putin has a chance to show the world that his country can make a difference.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
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Russia is having a moment. But it will need to follow it up with positive steps to turn it into something more.

Just a few weeks ago, Russia seemed like an international pariah, criticized by Western nations for its anti-gay law, for the trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (who lost his Moscow mayoral bid last week), for the crackdown on civil society activities, for giving refuge to American leaker Edward Snowden and for protecting Syria's Bashar Assad. And just last month, President Obama canceled a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, citing a lack of common ground.

But in a stunning twist, Russia has now emerged as a international dealmaker. It seized an opportunity to negotiate the handover of Syrian chemical weapons in a bid to forestall a punitive U.S. military strike following an August gas attack outside of Damascus. The next step is an international peace conference that will aim to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In an extraordinary op-ed to the American people in the New York Times last week, Putin fashioned himself as a defender of sovereign rights and a promoter of international norms. It was an incongruous stance for a leader who crushed a separatist movement in Chechnya and militarily supported another such movement in Abkhazia, at the expense of sovereign Georgia.

Still, it is welcome to see Russia play a more constructive role in the Syria crisis, and not simply threaten to block any international effort or U.N. Security Council resolution. Now in the spotlight, Russia has a chance to show the world that it matters.

Otherwise, Russia's moment might be fleeting.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced on Saturday that they had reached an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The announcement comes as a U.N. investigative team prepares to release its findings about the August attack. The U.S.-Russia accord outlines a path and time frame for removing or destroying all of Syria's stocks and equipment within 12 months – a difficult task even in the best of times, and a herculean one in the midst of a civil war.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Vote to Strike Syria?]

A long road lies ahead, with questions about compliance and verification looming, but what matters to the Russians now is that they are at the table. They have scored a significant diplomatic win – albeit only at gunpoint – by buying time for their long-term ally Assad and by pushing the action to the United Nations, where Russia has veto power on the U.N. Security Council.  

The Russians also seem to have global public opinion on their side. At the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, the majority of participants sided with Putin as he criticized the U.S. stance on Syria. And members of Congress, facing public opinion polls that showed little support for the administration's plan, breathed a sigh of a relief when they postponed a vote last week to authorize U.S. military force.

If Putin looks like he is smirking, there is good reason for it. But now that he has made himself indispensable, he will need to deliver the goods.

It is easy to be an obstacle on the world stage and the Russians are expert at playing spoiler. But being a broker means they have to play a more positive role. The Russian side should build on the momentum achieved in Geneva and put pressure on the Assad regime to stop the slaughter in Syria.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Russia worries about instability in the Middle East and fears the rise of Islamic extremism close to its borders. The end of the Syrian war would be in its own interest. And a successful resolution of the conflict could open the door to further cooperation with the United States on other issues.

President Obama has been criticized for seemingly ceding leadership on the Syria issue to Putin, but it is  past time for Russia to help find a solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria and it is smart for the United States to include them at the negotiating table.