Dan Drezner makes an important and often overlooked point:
One could counter that Putin’s geopolitical grabs in Ukraine and Syria show his increasing influence — except that it’s worth remembering that in 2008, Putin had stable, loyal cronies in charge of both countries. He’s now lost Ukraine, and Syria is a war zone. That’s still a net loss of Russian influence [bold mine-DL].
The conventional story that hawks have liked telling in the last few years is that Russia has been making huge gains abroad, and they insist that these are being made at our expense. As Drezner points out, exactly the reverse is true. That is why Russia has had to resort to risky and costly military interventions that it has usually avoided since the end of the Cold War. Yet it is the costly military interventions that tend to impress hawkish observers so much. This is why there has been so much talk about Putin’s supposed “strength” among people that generally have nothing but contempt and hostility for Russia. They don’t like Russian policies as such, but they generally like the sort of things that Russia has done over the last few years and only wish that our government was the one doing it. This is what comes from defining “strength” and “leadership” in terms of decisiveness and action without regard for the consequences of the decisions and actions taken. In that sense, Obama’s hawkish critics (including many of Trump’s loudest detractors) think that Putin has been “stronger” than Obama, and they say this as a way of denouncing Obama for his supposed “weakness” (i.e., not getting the U.S. even deeper into foreign conflicts than he already has). Claiming to be impressed with Putin’s “strength” is just the latest version of the “why won’t Obama lead?” complaint, and it is usually intended as an insult to Obama rather than praise for the Russian president.
Since there is a powerful bias towards action (and military action at that) in our foreign policy debates, many pundits and politicians tend to treat action–even foolhardy or illegal action–as obviously preferable, and to the extent that Putin is or seems to be more activist abroad he is credited with being a more “effective” leader even though the net result is diminished Russian influence and significant costs for the country. That is what almost everyone means when they refer to Putin’s “strength,” and it is a reflection of the warped understanding that many Americans have of what constitutes “strength” in foreign policy. Any reasonably impartial observer could acknowledge that Putin has presided over four years of setbacks and losses. If he were an American president, the same record would be greeted with an endless series of “who lost [fill in the blank]?” hand-wringing editorials, but . In the upside-down fantasy world of many pundits and politicians, he has been going from strength to strength. It is not a coincidence that most of the same people perceive Obama as engaged in “retreat” around the world when no such thing has occurred. Some of this is a willful misreading of the international scene for partisan or ideological reasons, and some of it is just staggeringly bad analysis, but it all relies heavily on treating meddling in foreign countries as proof of “leadership” and “strength.”