Throughout the entire Cold War, the Soviet Union was unable to match the U.S.'s role as lead player in the international arena. After the fall of the Soviet bloc, the U.S. enjoyed exclusivity as the world's sole superpower, and its uncontested control looked to be unassailable. "The End of History," as renowned economist Francis Fukuyama put it in his famous book.
And now, 14 years after his rise to power, Vladimir Putin managed to do what none of his predecessors in the Soviet Union or Russian Federation managed to do -- position himself, at least temporarily, as the world's boldest leader, and the main player in the international arena. He did not do it with military might -- Russia's strength pales in comparison to the U.S. He did not do it with economic strength -- here too there is no comparing (the U.S.'s actual economic threats being China and India). He did it using two variables: himself, and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Between the two, Putin came off as more intelligent, stronger, more determined, more consistent and cooler under pressure. For years, as a result of his consistency and determination, he improved his standing in his country and his country's standing in the world. And he made sure to leverage each one of Obama's many mistakes. And thus, as Obama stood before the most important test of his leadership -- the Syrian crisis -- Putin utilized Obama's hesitation and his weakness, and at a time most convenient to him, pulled the rug from under Obama's feet.
The defining moment in Obama's foreign policy was turning his back on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Pitted with a popular revolt throughout Egypt against Mubarak, Obama had no chance of preventing his fall even if he wanted to. As the leader of the greatest democracy in the world, it was hard for Obama to go against such a popular revolution. Yet in politics, including the international arena -- image and symbolism are important, sometimes even more than facts. Obama's image became that of someone who turns his back on an ally when the going gets tough. The damage done to his credibility was irreversible.
Putin presented himself as the yin to Obama's yang. His unwavering support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite his crimes against his people and humanity, and even when it seemed that Assad's fall was a matter of days or at most weeks, was meant to show the world that unlike Obama, Putin is loyal to his allies, and being under his protection pays off. Obama has come off in the past weeks as someone who wields the power of the world's strongest military and threatens to use it as a supercop, and yet says "hold me back." When he set red lines and then hesitated to stand behind them as required, Putin emerged as the responsible adult, the experienced statesman who seemingly prevented a useless war that could have ignited the region as a whole.
Today, Putin is the world's strongman and its most influential person. That is bad news. While Putin's Russia is not a Soviet totalitarian dictatorship, it is still a far cry from being a democracy. Putin is a cynical leader, driven only by his desire to strengthen Russia and its position in the world, as well as himself. This is bad news for Israel as well. Putin does not have any of the ideological hostility to Israel that the USSR did, but he remained a steadfast ally to the axis of evil that includes Israel's archenemies Iran and Syria.