Russia’s surprise announcement earlier this month that it would drawback from Syria was lauded both in the West and at home as a tactical (if not strategic) masterstroke. Other leaders might hesitate, but not Vladimir Putin, who always seems 'one step ahead'. Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been revealed to be cautious and nuanced, a lead-from-behind restraint that his detractors say contrasts poorly with his counterpart in Moscow. Syria is chalked up as Putin’s 'coup'.
 

Or so the story goes. Perhaps we should wait to see how things turn out in Syria longer term. After all, Russia’s pullout is partial and possibly temporary. Putin declares his main objectives to be accomplished, although most observers judge them to be quite different from Russia’s original stated mission to help fight Islamic State. Namely, by shoring up his ally Assad, Putin was able successfully to demonstrate Russia’s standing as a geopolitical peer of the United States, prove some new weapons systems, sow chaos in Europe, and then get the hell out before the 'quagmire'  predicted by Obama sets in. Admittedly he has left behind ongoing civil strife and misery, a seething feud with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and probably an energized Sunni diaspora eager to exact revenge back home in Russia. But for now, the narrative of Russia outfoxing the West prevails.

This is especially true in an important market for Russian propaganda, China, where a quarter of the population views Moscow as its foremost ally. China's party-surnamed media is strident in its admiration for Putin’s Syrian adventure. Here is a typical editorial comment:

Russia has also emerged with a new regional and international stature. The US and its allies dithered over Syria, seeking Assad’s removal, yet unwilling to commit militarily to the task. They similarly lacked the resolve to take on IS. Putin grasped the initiative and Russia is now the dominant player. 

Ignoring the small oversight that Russia barely targeted IS, this is revealing. Aside from the vicarious pleasure of watching Russia’s ‘dominance’ over the hapless West, what inspires Chinese editors is ‘commitment’, ‘initiative’ and ‘resolve’ — which happen to be the defining characteristics of modern Chinese military doctrine. Roger Cliff in a new book summarises a 1999 PLA document:

All instruments of national power, including diplomacy, economics, and international public opinion, would be brought to bear in a conflict… Because the political and economic factors constraining a conflict could change, China had to seek to achieve its political goals quickly, before those factors changed… to seek to achieve a temporary, localized military advantage and bring the conflict to a conclusion before the adversary could marshal all of its capabilities. 

[This] implied an emphasis on offensive operations, even in an essentially defensive war. It also implied… the principle of preemption. The best way to seize the initiative would be to initiate combat operations before the adversary had completed its preparations. Another principle implied by the importance of seizing the initiative early in a conflict was the principle of surprise. One of the best ways of seizing the initiative was said to be to conduct a significant surprise operation that the adversary would have to react to and thereby cede the initiative.'

In light of this doctrine, China’s furtive burst of geo-engineering in the South China Sea probably shouldn’t have caught the world offguard. Nonetheless both the stunning purposefulness and secrecy of the enterprise are perceptively highlighted by Ron Huisken:

The Politburo was attracted to a spectacular blizzard of island building as the transformative development… The apparent objective of a political ambush was achieved. Secrecy about the Politburo decision, and preparations to implement that decision, was absolute. No one in the CCP, the legal profession, the media or the National People’s Congress breathed a word, not even to pose a question about the political wisdom, legality or cost of what the Politburo had in mind.

It was, as Huisken says, an ambush. It is also effectively a fait accompli, because those new ‘islands’ won’t be unbuilt. In short, this outcome is exactly what a resurgent authoritarian superpower might want. Democracies may indeed plod their way to dumb decisions, as the critics say, but they do so with some degree of transparency and communication to outsiders. And they do eventually react to events. Sure enough, last weekend,  after a long public legislative process the Philippines agreed to five new locations for US allied forces. And the American military may be capable of sprouting more, deeper and cheaper sites than every new sandbar that China can dredge up. 

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. If politically closed countries like Russia and China feel the urge to take precipitate actions under-the-radar, there is little others can do to stop them. They can only react. But the leaders in Moscow and especially Beijing should ask whether aggressive, secret and surprise actions by superpowers are a sound underpinning for the international political order they want to shape. Meanwhile, the rest of the world must await their next 'decisive' action.

Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images