Ariel Cohen gets things half-right when he writes this:
Putin has demonstrated that he is capable of stopping the world’s only superpower from using force—making him “the go to” man, to whom many on the U.S. blacklist will run to seek protection.
Putin will also have demonstrated that Russia, despite being seven times smaller than the U.S. economically, and weaker militarily, is capable of gaining impressive geopolitical results even when dealt a poor hand.
It’s partly true that Putin has played his “hand” well in Syria in that Russia has emerged from this latest episode as one of the perceived “winners,” but that is mainly because Russian goals have been quite limited all along. Moscow wants to preserve as much of the old status quo in Syria as possible, and it wants to block Western intervention in the conflict. The “results” that Russia has gained are defined by what won’t happen: there won’t be U.S. attacks on the Syrian government for the foreseeable future, and that makes it somewhat less likely that Assad will be driven from power.
Compared to every other Russian effort to block U.S. military action over the last twenty years, this may count as impressive, but it “worked” in this case because there was substantial domestic and international opposition to what the U.S. was preparing to do. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about Russia’s “win” is the assumption that it was acting from a weaker political position than the U.S. There was virtually no support for an attack on Syria anywhere, and Moscow took advantage of that.
Does this mean that Russia will be able to block U.S. military action in the future? Not very likely. Pariah regimes may seek Russian “protection” from U.S. attack in the future, but Moscow’s record of success in preventing those attacks will hardly be encouraging for them. If the administration hadn’t made chemical weapons use the main justification for the attack, it is hard to see how any deal could have been offered. It was that and the extraordinary political weakness of Obama’s position last week that made this outcome possible.