Moscow: President Vladimir Putin has been many things to President Barack Obama: a partner at times, an irritant more often, the host of the elusive Edward J. Snowden and "the bored kid in the back of the classroom" who offered so little on the administration's foreign policy goals that Obama canceled plans to hold a summit meeting in Moscow last week.
Yet suddenly Putin has eclipsed Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis. He is offering a potential, if still highly uncertain, alternative to what he has vocally criticized as America's militarism and reasserted Russian interests in a region where it had been marginalized since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although circumstances could shift yet again, Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington's expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally Bashar Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council - where Russia holds a veto - to assert American priorities unilaterally.
More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region - even as far as Russia's own restive Muslim regions - if it is mismanaged. He has boxed Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are accurate.
"Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday," Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said in a conference call Wednesday, "and I suspect he's enjoying himself right now."
In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times released on Wednesday, Putin laid down a strong challenge to Obama's vision of how to address the turmoil, arguing that a military strike risked "spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders" and would violate international law, undermining postwar stability.
"It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States," Putin wrote. "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it."
When Putin returned to the presidency a year ago, he moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices. He shored up his position at home but, as his government promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed anti-gay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, kept providing arms to the Syrian government and ultimately gave refuge to Snowden, Putin was increasingly seen in the West as a calloused, out-of-touch modern-day czar.
Now he appears to be relishing a role as a statesman. His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in an interview that the Russian president was not seeking "ownership of the initiative," but only wanted to promote a political solution to head off a wider military conflict in the Middle East.
"It's only the beginning of the road," Peskov said, "but it's a very important beginning."
To get started, Putin dispatched his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, to Geneva on Thursday to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, in hopes of hammering out the myriad logistical details of putting a sprawling network of chemical sites under international control in the middle of a deadly civil war.
Even that step was another indication of just how much the circumstances have changed in such a short time. Only a week ago, Putin was accusing Kerry of lying to Congress about the presence of al-Qaida-allied militants in Syria. "He's lying," he said in televised remarks. "And he knows he's lying. It's sad."
On Wednesday, when Russia submitted a package of proposals to the Americans and others ahead of that meeting in Geneva, Peskov again used the opportunity to try to paint Russia as the peacemaker to the United States' war maker. Peskov declined to release details of the plan, other than to say Russia's most important condition was that Syria's willingness to give up its weapons could only be tested if the United States refrained from the retaliation Obama has threatened. "Any strike will make this impossible," Peskov said.
From the start of the war 2 1/2 years ago, Russia has been Syria's strongest backer, using its veto repeatedly to block any meaningful action at the United Nations Security Council. White Russia has ties to the country dating to the Soviet era, including its only naval base left outside the former Soviet republics. Putin's primary goal is not preserving Assad's government - despite arms sales that account for billions of dollars - as much as thwarting what he considers to be unbridled American power to topple governments it opposes.
Putin's defense of Syria - including continuing assertions that the rebels, not government forces, had used chemical weapons - has at times made him seem intent on opposing the United States regardless of any contrary facts or evidence. Russia has long had the support of China at the Security Council, but Putin had won support for his position by exploiting the divisions that appeared between the United States and its allies. That was especially true after Britain's Parliament refused to endorse military action, a step Putin described as mature.
He also slyly voiced encouragement when leaders of Russia's Parliament suggested they go to the United States to lobby Congress to vote against the authorization Obama sought - something he himself would deride as unacceptable interference if the table were reversed.
Putin's palpable hostility to what he views as the supersized influence of the United States around the world explains much of the anti-American sentiment that he and his supporters have stoked since he returned as president last year after serving four years as prime minister under his anointed successor, Dmitry A. Medvedev. It was under Medvedev that Russia abstained in a Security Council vote to authorize the NATO intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled that country's dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Putin has made it clear that he would not repeat what most here consider a mistake that unleashed a wave of extremism that has spread across the region.
For now, Putin succeeded in forcing the international debate over Syria back to the Security Council, where Russia's veto gives it a voice in any international response. With Russia's relations with Europe increasingly strained over economic pressure and political issues, the Security Council gives Russia a voice in shaping geopolitics.
At the same time, Putin carries the risk of Russia again having to veto any security resolution that would back up the international control over Syria's weapons with the threat of force, as France proposed.
Not surprisingly, given the Kremlin's control over most media here, Putin's 11th-hour gambit was nonetheless widely applauded. "The Russian president has become a hero in the world these days," the newscast of NTV began on Wednesday night before going on to note that Putin should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize if he averted the American strike.
There was also satisfaction that it was Putin who gave an American president whom he clearly distrusts a way out of a political and diplomatic crisis of his own making. Alexei K. Pushkov, the chairman of chairman of the lower house of Parliament's foreign affairs committee, wrote on Twitter that Obama should gratefully grab Russia's proposal with "both hands."
"It gives him a chance not to start another war, not to lose in the Congress and not to become the second Bush," Pushkov said.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service