With President Obama's credibility on the line and congressional votes for a military strike in Syria diminishing by the day, a possible escape hatch materialized this week from the unlikeliest of places: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Out of nowhere, Russia came running to Obama’s rescue, offering to have Syria turn control of its chemical weapons to international monitors and quickly getting Damascus on board to avert a threatened U.S. strike.
Putin, Syrian leader Bashar Assad's top backer, had spent months blocking action against Damascus. And with relations between Putin and Obama at rock bottom, the White House is rightfully wary Russia’s proposal could turn out to be booby-trapped.
On Tuesday, Putin said a deal would only work if the U.S. called off a strike, raising doubts about whether Moscow and Washington could reach a solution.
While unresolved, the Kremlin's offer to broker a negotiated resolution to the Syrian standoff is only the latest jolt from Putin, who has consistently thwarted Obama on the world stage.
The plan may give Obama an exit from his Syrian impasse, but Putin also slowed the president’s push to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and undermined his leverage with Congress amid a full court press to rally support for a strike. And as Obama vowed to take a “hard look” at the proposal, some critics bemoaned another delay in following through on his “red line” pledge against chemical weapons.
Lawmakers and the media quickly seized on the Russian offer with few details.
“I've heard of leading from behind, but did you ever think you would see Putin bailing out President Obama?” Newt Gingrich asked Monday on CNN's “Crossfire.”
At the beginning of last week's G-20 summit, Obama flashed a broad smile and Putin a more tight-lipped grin for the cameras, but the tension between the two leaders was obvious amid disagreements over leaker Edward Snowden, Syria and Russia’s new anti-gay rights laws.
The differences between the two leaders are deeply personal after their diverging agendas undermined the “reset” of relations that Obama engineered with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev early in his first term.
“There's a certain kind of obsession among Obama's national security team with Putin – they hate that guy for grabbing what was supposed to be a great prize – the reset with Medvedev,” said Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Not one to back down from a brawl, Putin has used his experience as a former KGB agent to engage in psychological warfare on team Obama, said Gaddy.
“He knows how to provoke them and get them to take the bait, and he steps back and says, ‘What are you talking about?’ It's a childish game to watch on both sides.”
Their relationship hit a new low when Russia gave Snowden asylum last month.
Obama responded by canceling planned one-on-one talks with Putin during the summit.
Outside of the talks, Obama met with representatives of Russian LGBT groups and other civil society activists – a step experts say was designed to annoy Putin over Russia's controversial anti-gay rights laws.
Obama also needled the Russian leader, saying he acted like a “bored” schoolboy during their previous sit-down at the June G-8 summit. Putin was reportedly infuriated by the comment.
Syria though has given the Russian president a big opening to retaliate. As Obama tries to rally support for military action, Putin has staunchly defended Damascus and repeatedly taunted the president.
He called U.S. charges that Assad used chemical weapons “completely ridiculous” and mocked Obama’s status as a Nobel laureate.
Little wonder that Obama appeared cautious when he first heard of Russia’s offer.
In a bind, and without the votes to back his plan for military strikes, Obama in an address to the nation Tuesday said he preferred “peaceful solutions” and would give diplomacy time to work.
“It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama added.
Putin’s proposal though will likely keep the Russian leader at center stage in the Syria debate and as a thorn in Obama’s side.