The US and Russia have, for what is nearly 70 years, not been on the best of terms. Whilst being best pals during the Second World War, things turned frosty, as I am quite sure you are well aware of. Currently, the main source of contention is (which I’m also sure you’ll also be aware of if you watch the news, which you should) of course Syria. Obama wants to go in all missiles blazing, Cameron wanted to but can’t, Holland is game for a fight, Merkel is dubious. And then there’s Putin…
Whilst not immediately the figure you’d expect to attribute the virtues of patience, caution and respect for international law (after all, Chechnya is a thing), that is exactly what the Russian President is advocating in this article in the New York Times. And Putin’s attempt at remedying the “insufficient communication between our societies” makes for some interesting reading. Putin expresses a need for international cooperation and consensus, fear of unilateral decisions, a realistic view of the Syrian situation and a look back at some of America’s greatest intervention hits. The first topic Putin goes into is the issue of the UN and international law, where Putin defends Russia’s motives and actions in regards to their vetoing every Syria resolution that comes within sight of the UN Security Council. It is this that there is little debate upon; the US blithely going into Syria would, in terms of International Law (as well as loads of other terms, but we’ll get there in a bit), would be a pretty bad thing to happen. Primarily, it completely disregards the UN, which is especially bad when the UN’s purpose is to help deal with this kind of thing. The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations failed because nobody took it especially seriously. The UN was moderately effective during the Cold War, states wanted to be seen as having legitimacy in their actions. Now that the US has emerged on top, they have, with stunning regularity, completely ignored it when convenient. Whilst the assertion that the UN will be completely scrapped because it’s usually something of an afterthought is a tad on the hyperbolic side, it’s true that less and less states will take it seriously. Additionally, the point that a damned large number of states are pretty against military intervention will only exacerbate the dwindling faith in the purpose of the UN. If the world wants to follow peaceful means, the US doesn’t and then there is military intervention, what really is the point? Especially as the US can suffer no dire repercussions.
By now, it is a sure thing that chemical weapons, specifically Sarin Gas, have been used. But in terms of legality, Putin raises the point that many people have previously been making: sure Chemical Weapons are now definitely considered to have been used, but by who? There is evidence, certainly, but much is circumstantial. What do we know for sure? That chemical weapons were used to attack territory held by the opposition. That is, by and large, the extent of confirmed fact. As far as intervention goes, we’re going to need a lot more substantial proof than mere conjecture and assumption. The US has claimed that it has evidence that it was definitely the Syrian army, but is rather reluctant to show it; not really the sort of thing that would stand up in court is it? Whilst it does border on the conspiratorial, Putin puts forward the suggestion that others have previously suggested, that it was the Opposition in Syria that committed the chemical attack. Obviously it is a much more far fetched idea, but they potentially stand to gain a substantial amount through the undivided attention of the international community. The Syrian conflict has been ongoing for a number of years now, but the sudden use of chemical weapons has stirred up substantial international attention, especially from the West.
Again, Putin’s analysis of US foreign policy is unsettling in how accurate it appears to be. His approach is two-fold, first exploring the potential outcomes from intervention in Syria and secondly the poor record that US military intervention has had. He correctly asserts that Syria is in a similar vein as other revolutions experienced in the Middle-East, democracy is not the objective. What people have been fighting for is for food, for ending extremely dire economic circumstances that have been exacerbated by corruption and poor management in government. So what might happen if Assad’s Ba’athist regime is toppled by the rebels? It seems quite likely that Syria will closely resemble Libya; those fighting the Syrian government are not a cohesive movement. Many, many groups of rebels are fighting the government. And when they’re not, they’re fighting each other. As Putin correctly notes, some of the rebels have been designated by the US as to be terrorist organisations. The rebels are a dissolute assortment of violent people who oppose the government. As Putin notes, this is no battle for democracy. Taking down a government with no agenda for afterwards is potentially the worst thing to happen to Syria. Forcing a compromise? Yes, absolutely. But military intervention won’t help achieve that. It’ll help the rebels win, just like Libya. Leaving Syria, when the conflict ends, what happens to the violent groups in Syria? Groups, lest we forget, that feature people who cut out eat other people’s hearts. With Libya these militant groups and mercenaries leave for ventures new, namely Mali, where they caused no end of trouble. It is this that we need to consider when dealing with the Syrian issue. Peaceful compromise is the best way forward, not launching missiles. Putin, to his credit, acknowledges this; not only is a peaceful solution the best for international community, but also Syria itself. As for the past failures of military intervention, by the US, this is just a matter of history. Over the last 12 years, the US has failed spectacularly; Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. As a consequence of using blind force, Putin notes how states have been forced to seek weapons of mass destruction to defend themselves, in doing so de-stabilising the world. Whilst obviously not the most objective point of view, there is a faint, unpleasant stench of the truth to Putin’s words.
Putin has for years been a world leader of the same ilk as Silvio Berlusconi; vaguely Bond villain-esque in nature, the sort of figure you’d appreciate going “hey, remember when that guy was in charge in that place, what a lark” but the actual thought of them wielding power now is mildly terrifying. So how do we take this Op-Ed from the Russian President? Certainly it raises a lot of valid points; the consequences of military action, the belligerency of US foreign policy, the need for exorcising US-exceptional-ism and the benefits of peaceful solutions. For how decidedly anti-US the article is, there has naturally been a significant backlash against it. Especially, it would appear, from Americans, though that is naturally to be expected. Putin’s essay is far from perfect, of course, and there is no small amount of hypocrisy over the comments by Putin. In regards to the UN, it has been Russia itself who have blocked a number of resolutions. In regards to using violence, i will say again, Chechnya. But hypocrisy doesn’t necessarily detract away from the points Putin makes. By and large, Syria is the best thing to happen to Russia in the world stage for a long time. Whilst the US is chomping at the bit to launch a few missiles at Syria, Russia and Putin are patiently waiting at the side, urging caution and making enough suggestions that don’t involve shooting people to come across as the good guys. The suggestion of simply having Assad hand over his Chemical Arsenal, with Russia as a mediator, was a political master stroke. Any suggestion as to solving the Chemical issue without using brute force, which is rapidly becoming America’s only tactic, immediately makes Russia look the sort of state that cares for the well-being of the world. Pushing for peace talks and offering to remove chemical weapons looks a darn sight better than raining death from above.
Russia’s plan might not work, it might never happen, it might simply be a ruse by the Russians to make the US look worse than it’s already making itself look. But it’s smart. This article by Putin is testament to the same thinking. Sure the hypocrisy of the article does reek somewhat, but he is simultaneously discrediting Obama’s foreign policy (and Bush’s policies before him) whilst attempting to exonerate Russia of any wrong doing and portraying them as the global good guys. Whilst it is easy enough to see it for the blatantly partisan political message that it is, the average, open minded reader does end up feeling slightly more sympathetic to Putin than he has any right to deserve.