The Russian three-star general arrived at the door of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Sept. 30 with a stern warning: Moscow would be launching warplanes to attack targets in Syria in an hour–stay away. In response, the U.S. directed its own aircraft, which have been bombing ISIS targets inside Syria since September 2014, to steer clear of the Russian jets. With the skies wide open, Moscow’s air force has been focusing most of its firepower not on ISIS but on the CIA-backed rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Russian ally–and someone President Obama has repeatedly insisted must relinquish power to end the Syrian civil war.
The U.S. taking orders from Russia? “I can’t recall anything like it,” says retired Army general Jack Keane.
It’s a new world–albeit one with a Cold War ring. Beginning in March 2014 with his seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been deftly moving his military forces around the global chessboard, raising alarms inside the Pentagon. After taking the Crimean Peninsula, he reinforced Russian-speaking separatists’ hold on eastern Ukraine, undaunted by clear evidence that those forces used Russian hardware to down a Malaysia Airlines jet in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. In September, Putin dispatched warplanes and arms to Syria, attacking Assad’s foes not only from the sky but also with cruise missiles launched from Russian naval vessels 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea.
The same month, Putin struck an accord to share intelligence on ISIS with Iran, Iraq and Syria, but not the U.S. Putin is peddling arms to Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Afghanistan is seeking Russian artillery and helicopter gunships, even as Obama recently decided to slow the withdrawal of the 9,800 U.S. troops still in the country. Putin’s navy has been poking around undersea Internet cables, raising concerns that the Russians might one day cut them amid heightened global tensions, derailing $10 trillion in daily commerce and possibly affecting U.S. military communications.
But Kremlinologists are most worried about the Middle East. Syria represents Moscow’s first military campaign outside Soviet borders in nearly 30 years. As the U.S. seems to be withdrawing from the Middle East, Russia is taking its place. “For nearly seven years, the Administration has tried to extract America from the Middle East,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, scolded Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Oct. 27. That has created a vacuum into which, McCain noted, “has stepped Vladimir Putin.”
Americans are weary of war, and Moscow is taking advantage of the sentiment, probing for soft spots where there is little chance of U.S. retaliation. These relatively modest incursions–no big ground forces are involved–pack a disproportionate punch on the world stage. They loom especially large given the U.S. failure to train anti-ISIS Syrian rebels and its inaction after Assad crossed the “red line” laid down by Obama by using chemical weapons against his own citizens.
While Putin has doubled spending on his armed forces since 2005, the U.S. still spends 10 times as much and sails 10 aircraft carriers to Moscow’s one. But Russia has shown it can field a good ground-based fighting force with improving air and naval assets. Putin’s ego and unpredictability, combined with his nation’s weakening economy and atomic arsenal, make Russia the most volatile near-term threat to the U.S.–unlike China, whose projected future growth allows it to take a more confident long view. “President Putin is a man in a hurry,” U.S. foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute warned a Senate panel on Oct. 22. “It’s not that you ignore [Putin] or cast him off as a megalomaniac,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the U.S., told a Washington audience on Oct. 23. “He has a vision of the world and a strategy to put that vision in place.”
That’s in stark contrast to Obama, who, according to critics, tends to react to events overseas rather than shaping them by seizing the initiative. “I don’t see an overreaching or overriding strategy on the part of the United States,” Robert Gates, Obama’s first Defense Secretary, recently told Congress. “We’re thinking strictly in sort of month-to-month terms.”
Pentagon officials fear that Russia is creating a third defensive “bubble” in Syria, like the zones it already has near the Baltics and over the Black Sea. These “anti-access/area denial” zones in what Russia calls its “near abroad” usually consist of missile systems designed to keep potential foes away. It’s a tactic increasingly used by nations like China interested in keeping the U.S. military at bay but unable to match it plane for plane or ship for ship. Think of it as a 21st century moat.
It’s important to keep Moscow’s moves in perspective. Its Syrian venture is as much a reflection of Assad’s weak hold on power as Moscow’s regional strength. The Syrian city of Tartus hosts the Russian navy’s lone Mediterranean base–losing control of it would make it difficult for Russia to sustain its presence there. And Islamic extremism is a bigger concern for Moscow, which has seen some 2,500 of its citizens join ISIS, than it is for Washington. “Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling,” Obama said in October.
Frustrated over the stalemate with ISIS, Obama is weighing a Pentagon recommendation that would put U.S. troops inside Syria and closer to the front lines in Iraq. Retired Army general Keane believes the U.S. should have “been given the mission to retaliate” against Russia’s move when it happened. Options would have included bombing Syrian runways, wiping out Assad’s helicopter fleet–and warning Russia to steer clear of U.S. warplanes, instead of the other way around. That, of course, would be a roll of the dice that could lead to another, far bloodier war. Most Americans, and their President, show no desire to make that bet.
This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.