After 13 years at the apex of power in Russia, Vladimir Putin can still deliver surprises. Since announcing his plan to bring the Assad regime's chemical weapons under international control last week, the Russian president has stolen the initiative on Syria from the United States and its European allies. Although it is too early to say whether the Russian plan will succeed in removing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons, it has already achieved one concrete result: Assad's first acknowledgment that a weapons stockpile exists.
Given Putin's earlier dismissal as "utter nonsense" reports that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, his plan to persuade Assad to give up his arsenal took Washington by surprise. Despite being gazumped by Putin, the Obama administration has put its plans for military strikes on hold and backed Russian attempts to find a negotiated settlement. Even if the U.S. ultimately rejects the Russian-led plan in favor of military action, Putin's volte-face on Syria's chemical weapons represents a remarkable shift, not only in Russia's policy on the Syrian conflict, but also in Russian relations with the U.S.
In the past week, Putin has shown more cooperation with Washington than during the whole 18 months since he was re-elected as Russian presidency in March 2012. Putin has multiple motives for his change of tack, combining domestic and international considerations. The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron's parliamentary motion on military action, followed by U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for any U.S. strikes against the Assad regime, showed division between the U.S. and Europe on how to deal with Syria.