Not long ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to be master of the world.
Despite premature reports of its demise, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — Putin's special project — went off without a memorable hitch. Months earlier, with an unintended assist from Secretary of State John Kerry, Putin thwarted President Obama's plan to lob missiles into Syria, very possibly saving Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Putin topped that off with a masterfully wry op-ed in The New York Times, lecturing Obama about peaceful diplomacy and the folly of "American exceptionalism." Mic, dropped.
Five years after Obama attempted a high-profile "reset" with Russia, Putin had just eaten Obama's lunch. If history had stopped in September 2013, or even January 2014, Putin would be remembered as a foreign policy chess master, steering Obama toward checkmate.
But of course, time didn't stop. So who's had the more effective foreign policy: Putin or Obama?
After two decades of diminished clout on the global stage, Putin has managed to make Russia matter again. But Putin's reputation is in a very different place than it was a year ago. As Sochi was wrapping up, Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia amid untenable clashes with pro-Europe protesters in Kiev. As the Games ended, Putin sent special forces in to occupy Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, effectively annexing it with a March 16 referendum that was not recognized as legitimate by other nations. A week later, in retaliation, the world's top seven economies kicked Russia out of the G-8, after 16 years in the prestigious club.
Then on July 17, 2014, Putin had what Newsweek's Owen Matthews calls his "Lockerbie moment — the week the world's attitudes toward Russia's leader tipped from wary distrust into frank hostiliy." That was the day Moscow-backed Ukrainian separatists, using Russian weapons, shot down a civilian airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members.
Western sanctions over Ukraine plus a collapse in the price of oil, Russia's most lucrative export, have hit Russia's economy like a wrecking ball. Moscow is slashing spending on just about everything...except for the military, which is getting a 33 percent budgetary boost.
The West isn't quite sure what to make of Russia's longtime leader. Liberals tend to view him as a corrupt, autocratic oligarch who's aligned himself with the Russian Orthodox Church to legitimize his crackdown on dissent, democracy, and gay rights. Conservatives also tend to view him as a freedom-crushing strongman, one who poses a growing threat to the U.S. and its European allies, but there is a sheen of appreciation and respect in some prominent corners of the U.S. and European right.
Last Thursday, for example, the hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial page laced their criticism of Putin's lawless bullying of Ukraine with what appears to be admiration, concluding that after the new Minsk peace accord, "Putin will consolidate his latest victory, survey the European landscape for weak spots, and make another move before America gets a new president who might do more to resist his conquests."
Which brings us to...
A summation of Obama's foreign policy might go something like this: America is stronger when it works with its allies to solve global problems, but the U.S. will act alone and with lethal force to destroy terrorists who are deemed threats to the U.S.
Which is to say, he's too hawkish for many liberals and too dovish for many conservatives. If Putin is a steely-eyed master of realpolitik, Obama falls into a no-man's land between realism and internationalist idealism.
One unidentified Russia expert who worked for two presidents told The New Yorker's David Remnick last summer: "I think Obama is basically a realist — but he feels bad about it." Michael McFaul, Obama's former ambassador to Russia, agrees. Obama "has idealist impulses that are real, and then impulses about concerns about unintended consequences of idealism," he told Remnick.
How that has played out in the real world is a case-by-case approach to world events. Obama has formally ended both wars he inherited, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are still U.S. troops in both countries. He has committed U.S. treasure but not blood to battling ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The same for Libya — arguably Obama's only real war — which is now a mess. He unapologetically violated Pakistan's sovereignty to kill Osama bin Laden.
Obama has ramped up America's drone war, a remote-control effort that has inarguably damaged al Qaeda but also hurt America's reputation. In the Arab Spring uprisings, the U.S. largely let things play out in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain.
In fact, most of Obama's highest-stake gambles internationally have been diplomatic, not military: the ultimately failed Russia "reset," the surprisingly promising Iran nuclear negotiations, the overdue Cuba thaw, the perpetually unlikely Israeli-Palestine initiative. Obama's pivot toward Asia, and passive-aggressively containing China, seems to be going moderately well. U.S.-India relations are at a modern high point.
So, if you step back a few paces and look at the big picture, whose foreign policy looks better, Obama's or Putin's?
There is certainly something to be said for Putin's hardball brand of statecraft: He seems to have a solid understanding of his adversaries and their weak points, and he's comfortable with the efficacy of raw power. On the other hand, while Obama's loud diplomacy and quiet aggression may not sit well with people who prefer their leaders to stomp around while carrying a big stick, the U.S. is doing better than Russia in the friends-and-allies department.
Russia has gained international clout. And Putin's use of proxy armies and stealth intervention have given Russia effective control over Crimea, the Abkhazia region of Georgia, and the Transnistria region of Moldova.
If The Wall Street Journal's dour assessment of the new Ukraine peace deal is correct, Putin has earned leverage over Kiev and all "the benefits of establishing a de facto satrap without having to foot the costs of sustaining it or assume political responsibility." Bit by bit, Putin seems to be rebuilding the old Soviet bloc, or the older Russian empire.
Under Obama, the U.S. has gained very little in concrete terms. America has a smaller presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama's limited military expeditions into Africa carry no expectation of permanent outposts. The U.S. was probably overextended, but its footprint has shrunk in the past six years, not grown.
On the other hand, America hasn't really lost much, either. A small minority of Americans view pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan as a loss.
Putin's Russia, meanwhile, has lost quite a lot. For all the territorial gains it may end up with in Ukraine, it has lost Kiev and the western part of the country for at least a generation. Territory can be regained, but grudges and loyalties live on for decades. The Ukraine situation will almost certainly lead to Western Europe finding new sources of natural gas, depriving Russia of one of its major levers of influence.
More intangibly, Putin's Russia has lost face. In the estimation of Newsweek's Matthews, that's a big blow:
MH17 — or, rather, the Kremlin's handing of its aftermath — has ruined years of careful soft-power building at a stroke. For someone as status-obsessed as Putin, that must hurt. [Newsweek]
Still, Time named Putin its runner-up 2014 Man of the Year, saying his "decision in March to invade and then annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine marked the first growth of Russia's dominions since the fall of the Soviet Union."
"Was Putin's taste of empire worth the cost to Russian prosperity?" asked Time's Simon Shuster. "For those who carry the grudges of Russian history, it was." He continued:
Russia now seeks to position itself as an alternative to the Western model of liberal democracy — and it's had some success. Right-wing politicians in France and the U.K., not to mention Central and Eastern Europe, are not shy about declaring their admiration for Putin.... His appeal is broad and growing for the many around the world who feel left out of the 21st century. [Time]
Vladimir Putin has been a transformative leader, boosting Russia's role in the world. Barack Obama inherited a diplomatically weakened America, but minor repair work is not the same as bringing a world power back from the dead.
In that respect, Putin's foreign policy can be judged as more consequential.
But like most people, I'd rather live in Obama's America.