Is Putin winning?

But suppose we judge Putin’s maneuvers by a different standard: Not whether they’re delivering ever-greater-influence to Moscow, but whether they’re weakening the Pax Americana and the major institutions (NATO, the E.U.) of the post-Cold War West.

On this metric, the Russian leader is having more success. His annexation of Crimea, for instance, saddled Moscow with all kinds of near-term and long-term problems. But it established a meaningful precedent regarding the limits of American and Western power, a kind of counterexample to the first gulf war, by proving that recognized borders can still be redrawn by military force.

His Syrian machinations, similarly, haven’t restored the Assad regime’s control of that unhappy country. But they have helped prove that America’s “Assad must go” line is just empty bluster, and that a regime can cross Washington’s red lines and endure. So too with the new bombing campaign: Without necessarily winning anything beyond Assad’s continued survival, it’s breaking NATO’s interventionist monopoly and giving the region’s powers someone new to play off against the West.

Putin’s gambits have also had second-order consequences for the fraying, fractious European project.