From Russia with love – and a finger wag

By J Brooks Spector 13 September 2013

Regular readers of the New York Times who open up that paper as their first dose of the world’s overnight developments – something that almost certainly includes every ambassador to the UN and the US, virtually every US official in Washington, DC, and millions more people with electronic access to the paper’s contents – must have been part of a worldwide, collective double-take while sipping coffee and chewing on a spoonful of cornflakes. There they sat over breakfast, staring at an op-ed column signed by Vladimir V Putin, President of Russia. Really. Right there, amidst the “Good Grey Lady’s” editorials for the day, along and with more quotidian opinion pieces. J. BROOKS SPECTOR dusts off his Russian notebooks.

Actually, this isn’t even the first time Putin has poured his thoughts on world affairs into a column for the Times. The first time was back in 1999 while he was still prime minister. At that time, he had written about Russia’s actions in Chechnya. But rather than an article on a Russian domestic issue with international aspects to it, this time around it was the very hot issue of Syria’s poison gas weapons, the American president’s push to punish Syria for using those weapons on its citizens, and a newly hatched plan to get those weapons under international control.

Whoever – or whatever committee – wrote that column for Putin did a great job of finding the right linguistic texture to appeal to American readers – many of whom are already chaffing at supporting Obama’s putative congressional resolution of support, or are already actively opposed to it. This was obviously the A team, rather than the bunch who scripted such remarks as that “monkey with a hand grenade” remark or who had decided to call Secretary of State John Kerry a liar over Syria.

Putin’s column was designed to drive home the innate reasonableness of the Russian plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under an international regimen and the dangerous adventurism of the Obama administration. Along the way, naturally, Putin’s article elided right around the contradiction at the heart of the Russian and Syrian position – or positions. On the one hand, throughout the time this crisis had been unfolding, the Syrians had been unwilling to admit they even had chemical weapons, let alone had used them. Putin’s column now just shrugs and admits the Syrian government does have a full house of the things, but then blandly asserts it is most likely the chemical gas attacks were by the hand of the insurgents. As Putin had written, “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.” Nicely done, placing the blame for the initial victims on the rebels (even as there is that sideways admission of Syrian government ownership of chemical weapons) and then coming down on the side of protecting the Israelis from the depredations of those desperate insurgents who are even now trying to create a larger war.

At the same time, Putin’s argument is that the United Nations is the logical, natural, most appropriate, and indeed only place for dealing with anything like the Syrian crisis (but not, perhaps, their own military incursion into the Georgian province of Abkhazia). So much for the “right of protection” argument underpinning the US argument for launching a punishment missile strike on its own or with allies.

In this regard, Putin had written, “The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades. No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.” But this, of course, slides around the question of what can or should be done when the UN cannot take action because of deep divisions among the major powers in the Security Council.

Putin goes on to argue, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.” Such arguments also ignore such inconvenient facts as that Russia is the primary armourer of the Syrian military with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sales to that country per year, as well as the reality that Russia’s only Mediterranean Sea naval base is located on the Syrian coast at Tartus and is a facility they desperately wish to preserve into the future. And doing that almost certainly means preserving Bashar al-Assad’s dynastic rule over Syria.

In making his pitch to Americans right in the midst of their breakfast musings, Putin has promoted the primacy of Russia as the kind of country that can get things done, rather than Americans’ own less than cogent Obama administration that has – up until the Russian proposal came onto the scene – been operating like a bull in a china shop – or that this time-unstated metaphor, the monkey with the hand grenade.

Instead, per Putin’s argument, the right approach is for a solution to come from the international community operating smoothly in concert. In saying this, he’s effectively saying Obama has finally come to his senses and elected to take a new, less dangerous path, to have the Putin initiative solve the chemical weapons imbroglio. Or as Putin wrote in his piece, “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement. A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.”

To accomplish this, going forward, Putin then turns to explain that he will emphasize elevating his relationship with Obama into a kind of equal parity, even as he stakes out his opposition to American exceptionalism, that secular credo that lies close to the core of America’s founding myth and that had been emphasized by Obama in his Tuesday evening speech. As Putin said, “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation….”

Still, there are traps for the unwary even in a document crafted as cleverly as this one has been. After reading the piece, White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that Putin had now firmly staked Russia’s prestige to the chemical weapons control plan being bandied about. If things went pear-shaped, it would be clear whose name and nation are associated with its failure. In other words, “you own it now”. Pointing to those serious points of potential danger, the Financial Times argued, “The United States and Russia still disagree about how such a plan should be enforced, with the United States pressing for a resolution at the U.N. Security Council endorsing the use of force if Assad backs out and Russia supporting only a nonbinding statement.”

Even as Putin’s article started as the big story for the day, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov were meeting in Geneva to start to dig into the details. Beyond the two foreign secretaries, the two nations’ technical experts are also going to be talking about the myriad of details any kind of chemical weapons control mechanism for Syria in the midst of its civil war is going to need.

The Financial Times commented, “Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov enter the negotiations with significant differences over how much pressure to put on the Assad regime to comply. Mr Lavrov declared on Monday that the regime must hand over its weapons to an international body and have them destroyed. ‘We don’t want to buy into something that isn’t going to get the job done,’ Mr Kerry said. ‘This has to be transparent, accountable, fully implementable, [and a] clearly verifiable process. But it also has to have consequences if games are played or if somebody tries to undermine this.’ Russia, for its part, has resisted calls for the UN Security Council resolution to threaten ‘serious consequences’ if the Assad regime stalls over destruction of its chemical weapons at a later date.” Still, “Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said: ‘We have seen more co-operation and helpful activity on this matter from the Russians in the last two days than we’ve seen in the last two years.’ ” And that’s definitely not nothing in this big stakes game.

While many commentators are arguing the Russians and Syria have effectively won this first round, as with Steven Lee Myers, writing in the New York Times, who said, “Although circumstances could shift yet again, Mr. Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington’s expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his long-time ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who President Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Mr. Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, to assert American priorities unilaterally. More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Mr. Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region…. He has boxed Mr. Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are accurate.”

Others, such as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have written, “For all you innumerable sceptics of President Obama’s calls for military strikes on Syria, consider this: For decades, Syria has refused to confirm that it has chemical weapons. Now, facing a limited strike, its position abruptly changed to: Oh! We do have them after all! And we want to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention! We want to show them to United Nations inspectors.”

And Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, argued, “Whatever the twisted path, whether by design or accident, the Obama administration has ended up in a better place on Syria than looked possible even days ago. The president was wise to take up and begin to test the Russian offer to remove and possibly destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. In fact, the offer has forced some clarity from a sometimes-muddled U.S. foreign policy. For the president to turn this situation into a foreign policy success, he will have to maintain that clarity.”

Nevertheless, this Syrian project, in all its many parts, is going to have lots of hiccups – and worse – in the coming weeks and months. The Russians will attempt to protect their client (and their interests in Syria); the Western nations will attempt to ensure the chemical weapons control and destruction regime has real teeth and boxes Assad in; the Syrians will attempt to use their weapons as a tool to extract concessions from both sides; and the rebels will naturally look for ways to use the larger process to gain concessions and support from the West in their struggle against the Assad government.

Of course the larger texture of the Syrian civil war will stay on its continuing path of continued death and destruction, with or without a solution to the chemical weapons. Looking at the recent historical record, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the media on Wednesday that the UN’s “collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria over the past two and a half years will remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations and its member states.” And until the war itself gains a political settlement, thousands more Syrians will become casualties to add to the hundred thousand already dead, and still more will join the six million domestic and trans-border refugees who have already fled their homes – all before the guns fall silent in that unhappy place. DM

Read more:

  • Vladimir Putin criticises US on eve of Syria talks at the Financial Times
  • A Plea for Caution From Russia, Vladimir Putin’s column in the New York Times
  • U.N. Leader Admits Failure to Halt Syrian Atrocities at the New York Times
  • Fareed Zakaria: Obama on the path to success in Syria, a column in the Washington Post
  • Obama’s missteps on Syria lead to retreat, a column by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post
  • Are we talking ourselves out of war in Syria?  A column by Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post
  • That Threat Worked, a column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times
  • Solid evidence, little appetite to strike: Obama’s dual-track approach to Syria, a column by Amos Harel in Haaretz (the English edition of the leading Israeli paper)
  • Putin Pens an Op-Ed For the New York Times at Slate
  • Why We Must Act by Vladimir Putin, PM of Russia (on Chechnya) in the New York Times
  • UN report may hint at source of Syria chemical attack at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website
  • U.N. Report Will Point to Assad Regime in Massive Chemical Attack; Key Senator Blasts White House For Mangling Syria Message; Congress Privately Thrilled There’s No Syria Vote at the Foreign website
  • Barack Obama’s address on Syria – Pinpricks and pinheads at the Economist

Photo: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin holds a news conference at the end of a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman


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