The Pentagon, the CIA, and the Saudis vs. Vladimir Putin

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Bakı, 26 fevral 2016 –

By Stephen Sestanovich

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, last week was one of the best in a very long time. He got an agreement with Saudi Arabia to freeze oil production at current levels, and he got an agreement with the U.S., largely on his terms, for a "cessation of hostilities'' in Syria.

Then came this week. On both energy prices and the Syrian civil war, Mr. Putin has been reminded of how fleeting policy success can be. The Wall Street Journal’s front page Wednesday told the bad news.

An energy setback was, of course, predictable. Russia’s understanding with Saudi Arabia had to be accepted by other producers, and when Iran’s oil minister called the idea of a production freeze "ridiculous,'' prices resumed their downward slide. What Mr. Putin probably didn’t expect was how tough the Saudi response would be. Within hours, Ali al-Naimi, the kingdom’s petroleum minister, warned publicly that his country was ready to let the price of oil sink to $20 a barrel if necessary to put high-cost energy producers out of business. It would be hard to imagine worse news for Russia than oil at $20.

The second bit of bad news had to be even more of a surprise for Mr. Putin. While he has had his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, negotiating a Syria cease-fire with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. military and intelligence leaders have been telling the White House that they don’t like the deal. Defense Secretary Ash Carter thinks it is a "ruse,” a senior administration official told The Journal. Mr. Carter, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director John Brennan have told the president that such an agreement with Russia threatens U.S. alliances in the region. Their proposals include more economic sanctions and more support for Syrian anti-government forces – even, perhaps, if a cease-fire takes hold.

Mr. Putin has shown himself ready for a long, bloody, and costly campaign to keep the Syrian government in place. And he surely hopes that Barack Obama and John Kerry will continue to limit any efforts to thwart Russian policy. But the Journal story is a warning that Moscow may have made permanent enemies in the U.S. national security leadership. They view Mr. Putin as a disruptive regional force, not a credible negotiating partner. According to The Journal (quoting a senior administration official), they are developing proposals to "inflict real pain on the Russians.''

The Pentagon, the CIA, and the Saudi oil ministry may not achieve their goals. But it is bad news for Vladimir Putin that they want to try.

Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of ''Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.''

The Wall Street Journal

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