PARIS – “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin famously quipped when told to be mindful of the Vatican. In an updated lesson in realpolitik, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently was happy to count Pope Francis as an ally in opposing American military intervention in Syria. Presenting himself as the last pillar of respect for international law, Putin offered ethics lessons to the United States – and specifically to President Barack Obama.
With the US-Russian agreement, signed in Geneva on September 14, to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Russia has returned to the global scene – and not only because of its nuisance value. Could Putin one day receive, like Obama before him, a Nobel Peace Prize? Has not Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who proposed the deal, already entered the pantheon of great Russian diplomats, as the successor of Karl Nesselrode, the Russian envoy to the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna and to the Congress of Paris in 1856?
Of course, Russian diplomacy has performed extremely well recently, but it does not stand on its own merits alone. Russia’s diplomats would have gained little without America’s foreign-policy malaise – a victim of Obama’s vacillation and of Americans’ hostility to any new military adventure, however limited its scope – and Europe’s deep internal divisions.
Yes, Russia is emerging from its humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Heir to an imperial tradition that has shaped its national identity, Russia is resuming in the Middle East a role and status more in tune with the one it had from the Czarist era to Soviet times.