Putin’s ‘We’ll see’ plan by Anna Arutunya of the Moscow News

Sometimes, President Vladimir Putin says – or does – a bunch of stuff, and everyone gets really, really confused.

It happens all the time, particularly when there’s a major global controversy, like whether someone needs to intervene in Syria’s civil war, which has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Or when we really, really want to know what Putin’s going to do five years down the line, so we corner him about it at press conferences.

So, at last week’s Valdai Discussion Club, where he met with international experts to talk about Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, Putin was inevitably asked about the possibility of another presidential term. Because that’s what he always gets asked about.

Actually, this time Putin started it first, by asking former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon whether he planned to run for president. Fillon turned the question directly back at Putin, saying, “I would not answer that question, because you did not answer it.”

To make a long story short, Putin finally caved in and answered, “We’ll see.”

Stop the presses! The Associated Press reported that Putin “could run” for a fourth presidential term in 2018, making him the longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin. The Daily Telegraph just went ahead and slapped a picture of Putin and Stalin together.

I seriously doubt that, given the domestic political tumult at home, Putin has decided on another term. But as for comparing Putin and Stalin, everyone just seems to be into that. Maybe it’s like watching a horror movie and being glad it’s just a movie, and not the real thing (with the question “or is it?” hovering threateningly in the background).

More pertinent is when people ask – and Putin responds – on more immediate matters, like what to do about Syria.

When the United States agreed to a Russia-backed plan on getting Syria to destroy its chemical weapons by 2014, in lieu of punitive missile strikes on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, the big question among Western pundits was, can Putin be trusted?

Good question. Inasmuch as Putin is a politician and the leader of a huge country, then no.

But in the case of Syria, Putin has managed to make a lot of non-committal remarks that have confused those trying to understand Russia’s policy on the issue.

First, he’s been adamant about the U.S. not intervening in the conflict, and on some points – like calling U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a “liar” – even abrasive. But then, when pressed on the issue, he concedes that Russia will support military intervention as long as the UN Security Council approves. Which, considering that Russia has veto power there, means nothing whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Russia’s weapons supplies to the Assad regime – which go back well into the Soviet period – land Putin in a pretty unenviable ethical predicament when it comes to arguing against taking sides. It certainly doesn’t help him when he claims, as he did in his New York Times op-ed, that “foreign weapons supplied to the opposition” have “fueled” the “bloodiest [conflict] in the world.”

To alleviate the ethical conundrum, Russia has been bending over backward to continue sounding non-committal. Instead of publicly announcing a halt to weapons shipments – including a 2010 deal to supply Damascus with S-300 missile defense systems and a 2007 deal to ship 12 MiG-29M/M2 jets – Russia’s government quietly delays these shipments citing “technicalities” and Damascus’ inability to pay up.

This is the equivalent of Putin’s eternal “we’ll see” response to the question of another presidential term. But it also reveals an important aspect of how Putin makes decisions when it comes to both foreign and domestic policies.

Why be non-committal? One thing Western observers keep forgetting is that Russia is not the Soviet Union anymore, and Putin doesn’t have as much leverage in the Middle East as they think. He can’t force Assad to do anything, and it’s not like he trusts Assad entirely.

But primarily, if Putin is banking on anything, it’s the utter uncertainty of how things will actually play out in Syria, with or without military intervention. And he’s keeping his options open.

At home, the lack of commitment is the result of weighing way too many conflicting interests and mutually contradicting strategies – from the domestic military-industrial complex to geopolitical security to Russia’s policy toward its own opposition – to make an on-the-spot decision.

In other words, Putin’s not talking like that because he wants to mess with you. He’s talking like that because he wants to make up his mind whenever he wants.

Read more at the Moscow News.