Russia’s thinking on Syria has the luxury of simplicity. Support Assad and be done with it. Beat the rebels, beat ISIS and Al Nusra, and in exchange for help, make Assad eat some concessions. The costs of the Syrian civil war are no longer just being paid in blood by countless Syrians. The refugee crisis now threatens Europe’s reigning political parties and even the very political arrangements that define the European project.
In any case, it is striking how Obama and Putin in 2015 merely magnify differences that were present in the days and weeks just after 9/11. Yes, Putin reached out to George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath. At the time, Michael McFaul, who would later become ambassador to Russia under Obama, called Putin’s welcoming of troops in Central Asia “the boldest decision of his short tenure,” which represented a “risky Westward turn.” Putin actually referred to the 9/11 attacks as a “global Chechnya.”
But you could also see the divergence. For Bush, the war on terrorism was a conflict with between “good and evil,” or between democracy and the authoritarianism that engendered terrorism. Putin and his foreign ministers repeatedly framed the conflict with Islamic terrorism as one between the civilized world and barbarians. In other words, between order and criminality.