“Russia is back,” said Ariel Cohen in The National Interest.Thanks to an impressive bit of geopolitical judo, President Vladimir Putin has made Russia appear to be the equal of the U.S., despite its weak economy and diminished military. Putin recently stepped forward to broker the deal under which Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will supposedly surrender his chemical weapons. That deal saved President Obama from the humiliation of having Congress reject his plea for a punitive military strike on Assad’s regime. But it’s Putin, a cunning former KGB operative, who most benefits. By making Obama and Assad partners in ridding Syria of chemical weapons, Putin guarantees that Assad, Russia’s client in the Middle East, stays in power. Most important of all, Putin has conveyed to the world that Russia “is the great balancer of America,” thus making himself far more powerful at home and abroad. Putin sure has “some balls,” said Julia Ioffe in NewRepublic.com. He followed up his triumph in Syria by running a smirking column in The New York Times in which he lectured Obama on international law, and allied himself with the majority of Americans who were opposed to the military strike. In the struggle for influence over the new Middle East, there is only “one man in the game who has a strategy, and it is not Obama.”

The game Putin’s playing is larger than the Middle East, said Peter Beaumont in Guardian.co.uk. Putin knows that his fellow Russians “still harbor a lingering nostalgia” for the Cold War era in which the Soviet Union was a feared superpower, holding sway over half the globe. Putin’s goal is to regain at least some of that status. By beating the U.S. president at geopolitical chess, said Howard Schweber in HuffingtonPost.com, Putin hopes to re-establish Russia as an “economic and military hegemon,” with a vast sphere of dominance extending from the Baltics all the way to Pakistan. And Putin just gave a “very large global audience something to see: a Russian president telling an American president to back off, and making it stick.”

Who cares who “seems” to be winning? said Andrew Sullivan in Dish.AndrewSullivan.com. As Niccolò Machiavelli himself once wrote, the player who appears to the most cunning and strategic is not always the one winning the game. If Putin’s ego drives him to assume responsibility for the “ghastly sectarian bloodbath” in Syria, we should encourage him to take it. A year or so down the line, if Assad reneges on his promises, or his sarin and VX gases show up in terrorist attacks outside Syria, or Putin’s “diplomatic achievement” results in even greater sectarian slaughter, the “botoxed former KGB hack” will rightly be blamed. “He hasn’t played Obama. Obama has played him.”

Despite his macho bravado, what’s really driving Putin is fear, said Michael Crowley in Time.com. For three years now, he’s watched tyrant after tyrant on his Middle East doorstep get dragged from power by angry citizens backed by varying degrees of U.S. support. With growing unrest in Russia about Putin’s own authoritarian excesses, he’s clearly worried “that America’s regime change agenda has crept into his own country.” That’s why he’s so eager to defend the sovereign rights of rogue states, and why he’s trying to undermine Obama before Obama undermines him. It’s not yet a second Cold War, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal,but “there’s a new chill in the air, isn’t there?”