"This should be seen not only as a win for Putin, but also for Obama," said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert in Russian politics at the Center for Naval Analyses. "Everyone has latched onto it because it seems like a way out for Western countries that want to be seen as doing something, but were finding a lot of domestic resistance toward actual intervention."
The benefit for Putin in cutting this deal, multiple analysts say, is not only that it protects Assad from American military might -- Moscow also hopes that it will strengthen a norm against unilateral intervention. Russia aims to delegitimize military strikes not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and fears that this principle was badly eroded by the NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the Libya campaign more recently. Putin harped on this point in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, where he argued that Moscow was "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law," which was one of the only tools to "keep international relations from sliding into chaos."
The chemical weapons deal, therefore, provided Putin with an opportunity "to make sure that the U.S. is more firmly embedded in international institutions," according to Gorenburg. "They are the weaker power, and throughout history weaker powers have tried to use international powers to constrain stronger powers."
The Russian resurgence carries echoes, in some ways, of the dynamics of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union enjoyed strong influence with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad's Syria. As Lavrov told Foreign Policy earlier this year, "Russia feels more assertive" than it has since the Soviet collapse, and "can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests."
But it's still far too early to talk about Moscow's return to the influence it had under the Soviet Union. While Putin has had a good week, there is no guarantee that his luck will continue in the months ahead. There are legions of challenges in destroying Assad's chemical weapons: His arsenal has been spread across the country in as many as 50 sites, the United States is not sure it knows where all the stockpiles are, and destroying such toxic agents is an expensive and time-consuming effort even in peacetime. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear yesterday, military intervention is still on the table if diplomacy fails.
At the moment, however, things are looking up for the Kremlin. Putin's support for Assad, which has brought him so many problems in the Arab world, is even earning him the grudging admiration of critics tired of the fickleness of U.S. policy in the region.
"Here's what I heard from many people, [who are] not very sympathetic with the Russian position: OK, the Russian line is horrible -- but at least Russia has one. Compared to Europe, compared to America, compared to all the rest," said Lukyanov. "And in a way, this didn't give more popularity and more sympathy to Russia in the Arab world, but it produced a certain respect. Russia at least knows what it wants."