The Irish Times view: Trump has given a great Christmas gift to Putin

US president’s withdrawal of troops from Syria shows his abdication of global leadership

Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned that the world was now entering a new arms race with the unravelling of Cold War-era nuclear missile treaties. Photograph: Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned that the world was now entering a new arms race with the unravelling of Cold War-era nuclear missile treaties. Photograph: Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

 

Christmas came early this year for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and in the seasonally appropriate form of good news from the Middle East.

President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw US troops from Syria wrong-footed the Pentagon and outraged Kurdish-led militia that have relied on Washington’s support in their struggle with Islamic State (Isis).

It also will have alarmed countries as far apart as Japan and Ukraine, which depend on US backing to face down aggressive neighbours like China and Russia and have good reason to fear Trump’s unpredictability and “America first” isolationism. “Donald is right, I agree with him,” Putin said during his annual televised press conference yesterday, when asked about Trump’s declaration that Isis had been beaten in Syria.

Trump’s announcement confirms Washington’s retreat from the Middle East and its willingness to cede influence to Putin, whose deployment of Russian forces to Syria in 2015 tipped its war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad and contrasted starkly with the indecision of Barack Obama’s White House. Putin was careful not to gloat over this apparent geopolitical gift in Syria, however, having seen Trump’s stated desire for a rapprochement with Russia repeatedly stymied by other branches of the US administration.

“If the US made that decision then it’s the right one,” Putin said. “The US has been in Afghanistan for 17 years already and almost every year they say that they’re pulling their troops out - but they’re still there.”

Over nearly four hours, Putin portrayed Russia as a peaceful nation seeking simply to return to its rightful place as a world power, while being attacked from all sides by a hostile West. Almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – when Putin was working for the KGB in East Germany – he warned that the world was now entering a new arms race with the unravelling of cold war-era nuclear missile treaties.

This is Washington’s fault, he insisted, just as Kiev is to blame for the war in eastern Ukraine and Britain is behind the poisoning in Salisbury of former double agent Sergei Skripal. Putin’s depiction of Russia as perpetual victim is absurd, but while giving way to the Kremlin in Syria, Trump is also forfeiting the high ground from which the US sought to speak to authoritarians on human rights issues.

As Putin implied, Washington’s moral authority has been battered by Trump’s inaction over the murder in a Saudi consulate of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, handing another gift to the Kremlin and other regimes that accuse the West of applying double standards on matters of ethics. Trump’s abdication of US leadership in world affairs is his greatest gift to Putin – and a sobering Christmas message for Washington’s allies.

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