Arguing with President Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin published an opinion piece in the New York Times on Wednesday. Here is my attempt at refutation of some of the things he said.

Putin begins by emphasizing that the US in the period after 1945 acquiesced in the idea that the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council would have a veto. He then goes on to criticize President Obama’s consideration of unilateral US military action against Syria, as the sort of thing that might break the organization.

But is it equally true that Russian refusal to allow an explicit UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for using heavy military weapons against civilian non-combatants (which is how the protests were turned into a civil war) poses dangers to the credibility of the United Nations.

Putin is correct that a US missile attack on Syria could have unpredictable effects.

He then says that there are few champions of democracy in Syria, depicting the struggle as one between the ‘government’ and al-Qaeda extremists. He does not characterize the ‘government’ but surely it should have been termed a one-party dictatorship with a brutal and vicious secret police. Given that Putin sided with Boris Yeltsin against the Communists in the early 1990s, you would think he’d be a little more sympathetic to Syrians desiring the end of their own police state. The ways in which Putin himself has cracked down on press freedom and moved away from democracy make one suspicious about his inability to see Syrian democrats. He doesn’t seem able to see Russian ones either.

Putin is wrong that there are no democrats involved in the struggle. Most Syrian oppositionists support a move of the country to free and fair parliamentary elections. It is true that Jabhat al-Nusra and a few other extremist organizations favor Muslim theocratic dictatorship, and they have had the big victories on the battlefield. But that doesn’t make them representative of the opposition. They just have more battle experience (many fought US troops in Iraq). By erasing the democratic opposition, Putin has done away with perhaps a majority of Syrians, and made it easy for his readers to side with a brutal secular government against a brutal set of al-Qaeda affiliates. It is a false choice.

It wasn’t the ‘extremists’ who moved to Mali after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. It was Gaddafi’s Tuareg mercenaries. Gaddafi’s cultivation of armed mercenaries from northern Mali rather resembles the al-Assad regime’s deployment of ‘Ghost Brigades’ (Shabiha), Alawite paramilitaries, who could end up having to flee to Lebanon or Iraq where they might become a source of disorder.

Putin is right that Russia has urged negotiation on the parties, but elides the ways in which it has configured the negotiating process to favor the survival of the regime and of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The Russian President damages his credibility by continuing to retail the crackpot conspiracy theory that the rebels gassed their own supporters and relatives in Ghuta east of Damascus in a false flag attack designed to embarrass the regime.

Putin is correct that US military intervention in Iraq did not go well. But as for Afghanistan, it was the Soviet invasion and occupation of that country that destabilized it in the first place. Putin’s old organization, the KGB, was hardly blameless in such actions.

Russia’s initiative to avoid a US military action by sequestering Syria’s toxic gas stockpiles is admirable if Moscow follows through on it and ensures that the regime does not again deploy these weapons against its own citizens.

And, Putin’s rebuke of President Obama for using the language of American exceptionalism is just. But the Russian president seems too quick to forget Russia’s own episodes of exceptionalism in modern history, from the Tsarist empire in Muslim Central Asia to Stalinism and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia to stop ‘revanchism’. Indeed, Putin’s own strong support for the vile Baath regime in Syria is itself a kind of exceptionalism, an announcement that Russia’s strategic interests trump human rights concerns and efforts at democratization. The opposite of exceptionalism is not, as he suggests, the equality of nations. It is the humility of nations, something Russia can take as many lessons on as the US.

Posted in Russia,Syria | 42 Responses | Print |

42 Responses

  1. I hope that the press picks up this response, Professor. The world could use a healthy, scientific debate based on truth. I doubt that will happen, but one can always dream.

  2. “…But is it equally true that Russian refusal to allow an explicit UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for using heavy military weapons against civilian non-combatants (which is how the protests were turned into a civil war) poses dangers to the credibility of the United Nations…”

    Just like U.S automatic and systematic veto of any resolution that might inconvenience Israel. And we all know the U.S make by far the most frequent use of their veto. So, we can’t reasonably blame the weakening of U.N’s credibility on Russia.

  3. Rather odd of Dr Cole not to address Putin’s most compelling argument–the need for international law and the consequences to world order when it is not followed. Also, the fact that the US by not adhering to international law has destabilized the the world. Finally, to say that disagreeing with the US’s take on the chemical weapons attacks is succumb crackpot conspiracy theories, is, given what we know, a big stretch.

  4. Surely the continuous US vetoes to any resolution against “Israel” poses quite as much or more dangers to the credibility of the United Nations than the 2 or 3 on Syria that Russia is blocking? Or am I wrong and not enough one sided?

  5. A fair assessment, IMO.
    It’s interesting to note that the actions of the American Empire have opened it up to many valid criticisms by the very ones like Putin; war crimes among the more egregious points.
    Psychopathy (or at least sociopathy) seems to rule among the more aggressive world leaders and politicians.

  6. Wow ! What an anti-Russia anti-Putin diatribe !

    A few remarks :

    1) The main UN goal, its founding principle, is to prevent aggression between states, it isn’t really to meddle in internal politics.

    2) Putin is absolutely right concerning the way Americans are decredibilizing the UN. This is nothing new and what the neocons have continually and explicitly done since at least the first Bush election. Obamma in his first presidential campaign and right after he was elected pretended he would like to restore the role of international organizations and favor multilateral actions, but in fact he has just continued the Bush foreign policy.

    2) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, I don’t think that the Russian have done anything to hurt the UN credibility, on the contrary this is mainly the fact of the US. How can you compare the Russian refusal to allow strikes on Syria with the readiness of Obamma to agress military a country that isn’t threatening the US in any way without a UNSC resolution ? Especially if you agree yourself that striking Syria is a bad idea ?

    3) There is a fight for influence between the US who wants to control all the Middle East and those who wants to balance the US power in that region. Russia stands now at the forefront, but do you think that China would be happy if the Middle East was totally controlled by the US ? All the BRICS countries are in agreement opposing the US strikes; there is not only Russia.

    4) I very much doubt that the US is actively supporting the Syrian rebels only out of democratic and humanitarian noble principles. US past support of many dictatorial regimes is well known : US hides behind those great principles only when it fits its own strategical goals. They were supporting Pakistan and Egypt dictators not so long ago and are still not explicitly admitting that a military coup has put a free elected government down in Egypt this very year. The way the Syrian case was presented in the western medias was really smelling the same way as when the US mounted its WMD case against Iraq. Aka some covert agencies were preparing the public opinion for war, without giving any proves, just repeating the same mantra over and over again; you know, Goebbels saying : when a lie is repeated often enough, it will become truth. However we still don’t know for sure who launched the chemical attacks.

  7. Patrick Witty of TIME has a pictorial article about the cruelty of the rebels. Here is a part of his account.

    At the moment of execution the rebels grasped his throat. The young man put up a struggle. Three or four rebels pinned him down. The man tried to protect his throat with his hands, which were still tied together. He tried to resist but they were stronger than he was and they cut his throat. They raised his head into the air. People waved their guns and cheered. Everyone was happy that the execution had gone ahead.

    Read more: link to

  8. I read on one side that the Syrian gov’t unequivocally gassed its citizens; on the other I read that the opposition gassed its own supporters as part of a strategy to provoke US intervention. Is there perhaps a third plausible narrative? … like this one:
    The sarin gas was purportedly released by untrained members of the Jabhut al-Nusar militia in the town of Ghouta Sham. This allegation has been substantiated by Doctors without Borders who treated the injured survivors, including injured Jabhut militia members who complained that they had not been properly trained in the use of the gas weapons they had transported into Syria from Iraq.
    However, this should all be moot now that an agreement has allegedly been entered into to account for and eventually destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, right? Then why are the rebels allegedly against said agreement? it doesn’t make sense. No wonder people are skeptical about any kind of intervention in Syria’s affairs.

    • A few people are saying the rebels are against the chemical weapons deal made this week. I haven’t seen one new article that says that, just an ambiguous quote from one of the rebels. Please supply a legitimate link if you are real.

      • He did… or CBS is now not a legitimate link?

        First paragraph

        The military wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella opposition group fighting against President Bashar Assad, has flatly rejected a proposal by Russia which would see the regime hand over control of its vast chemical weapons stockpiles to international control to avoid U.S. military strikes.

  9. There are repetitive fringe reports that the Ghouta gas attack was the result of mishandling gas weapons supplied by Saudi Arabian intelligence to rebels. The reports seem to emanate from Jordan-based BBC stringer Dale Gavlak. Have you or any other investigator examined the report, and refuted it?

  10. “…criticize President Obama’s consideration of unilateral US military action against Syria, as the sort of thing that might break the organization.

    But is it equally true that Russian refusal to allow an explicit UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for using heavy military weapons against civilian non-combatants (which is how the protests were turned into a civil war) poses dangers to the credibility of the United Nations.”

    Just as the United States prevents a resolution condemning Israel for attacking Lebanon in 2007.

    There is a very large difference between statements of opinion by the UN and actual conduct of war by UN members without UN approval. The UN was not founded to make or not make statements, it was founded to prevent war, and Putin’s point is that if one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is starting wars without UN sanction the UN can fall apart. It is a perfectly valid statement and is not countered by Russia’s use of the veto any more than it is countered by the US’s use of the veto.

    • We don’t have time to address the meat of the issue, my good man. Haven’t you heard? Russia banned pride parades and their president worked for the KGB, which is oh so much more insidious than the CIA.

  11. +1 for “crackpot conspiracy theory”

    Putin has a lot of nerve bringing up the failure of the League of Nations. It didn’t fail because someone acted to address a problem without going through the League. It failed because Haille Salessie went the League, begging it to live up to its duty to do something about the Italian chemical warfare attacks on his country, and the League did nothing – which is exactly what Putin has been using his Security Council veto to replicate in Syria.

    • I look forward to your vigorous support for military strikes against Israel when it next bombs or invades Gaza or Lebanon.

  12. “But is it equally true that Russian refusal to allow an explicit UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for using heavy military weapons against civilian non-combatants (which is how the protests were turned into a civil war) poses dangers to the credibility of the United Nations.”

    Since UN has never had any such credibility it can’t be damaged. It was clear from the start that the permanent members could prevent any too hard criticism of themselves or their friends. USA has done the same countless time with respect to Israel.

  13. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, penetrating analysis and wisdom (I write this even though I am quite a bit older than you).

  14. Great post as usual! I agree with all of your points except the final one regarding Putin’s criticising of American exceptionalism. I think Dana Milbank put it well in his recent op-ed responding to Putin that exceptionalism doesn’t necessarily mean better (save in regards to Canada) but only different.

    link to

  15. Prof. Cole, I have three observations:

    1. The credibility of the UNSC was shot down a long time ago, with all the vetos by US in support of Israel; why is it more insidious when it comes to others when they use the tool for their strategic interests.

    2. Prof. Cole unless have you have seen more evidence of the gas attack (and you may have)the current evidence does not prove that it was the regime that did it. Honestly, with a heavy heart I challenge you to show some OBJECTIVE evidence. Calling it a crackpot theory (without real evidence) is not a scholarly statement!

    3. INMHO, you come across as an apologist for the current administration and the US record, and I know that was not your intent!

    • 1. Nobody, esp. Cole, said using the veto was more incidious when it was used by another country. If you are new to this post, I’d urge u to go back to Cole’s others posts on the Middle East, UN, etc. Otherwise your charge is silly.
      2. The Syrian government is the most likely user of the chemical weapons. This is a judegement call.
      3. INMMHO (sic), you come across as an apologist for the Syrian government, and I knowl that might have been your intent.

      • RBTL,
        I think you err when you say that Spiral comes across as an apologist for the Syrian government.
        Perhaps you were taking some license ?

  16. “Putin is correct that US military intervention in Iraq did not go well. But as for Afghanistan, it was the Soviet invasion and occupation of that country that destabilized it in the first place.”

    It appears that the United States through the efforts of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter were instrumental in encouraging the Russian invasion of Afghanistan – link to

  17. If we only look at the words written by President Putin and forget about the caveats behind the curtain revealed by Professor Cole, there is much to be said for the op-ed, and if it set John McCain off on another rant there must have been some virtue in it.

    The truly admirable Uri Avnery sees Putin coming to Obama’s rescue – link to

  18. It also seems likely that Putin and the Russians are concerned that if Assad falls, chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the Al Qaeda types. It certainly would be a lot easier to transport those weapons up to Russia than it would be to the US. And there are a lot of radicalized Chechens who would like to have some.

  19. Arguing With Juan Cole

    Without the credible threat of serious force, we would not be reading this headline in the UK Guardian today:

    Syria’s Assad ‘committed many crimes against humanity’ Ban says – live

    Live• UN head expects report to show chemical weapons use
    • UN accuses regime of ‘war crimes’ for bombing hospitals

    • “Without the credible threat of serious force, we would not be reading this headline in the UK Guardian today:”

      Without the use of so much actual force we might not have created so many enemies in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

  20. P.S. Juan,

    “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough”
    – Barack Obama

    • Unless they are Palestinian children eh Barak? Then they don’t even get statements of condemnation. Scumbag.

  21. In all of the worlds hot spots,there are zero governments with clean hands…it is all action and reaction…every nation looks to gain an edge on each other…however it sees to me that America at least since the 1930s ,with some obvious exceptions,has really tried to do the right thing, although failing in a few places…she deserves more credit then shown by the followers of prof. Coles most pertinent and educational blog

  22. Most Americans who use the term “exceptional” take it to mean both unique and better.

  23. Putin sure seems to have hit a raw nerve judging by the emotional responses from the US. He has challenged a central tenet of American identity – the notion of exceptionalism, that the US stands alone as a shining city on a hill, a moral beacon for the rest of humanity, and that its sacred goal is to lead ‘coalitions of the willing’ in forcing other nations to be more like America.

    In this view of the world, America can do no evil but can always be relied on to point out the this year’s evil dictator while glossing over the actions of its friend of the moment. Perhaps the definition of evil changes – the KGB’s all pervading spying on citizens and holding people for years without trial used to be regarded as human rights abuses when the Russkies did it but turned out to be just good practice for any responsible government. Torture as carried out by the Assads and Gaddafis of the world used to be evil as well, until the US started waterboarding and even sending prisoners off to Syria and Libya to be tortured by true experts. An attack on the city of Falujah using tanks, aircraft, attack helicopters and white phosphorus shells was an exercise of US restraint where civilian deaths – if caused by US bombs – was dismissed as ‘collateral damage’. The Western press, embedded and censored within the military, never showed a child’s corpse in Iraq or Afghanistan but now compete to show rows of bodies in Syria.

    The Nobel Peace Prize Winner has been shown that not every problem can be solved by bombing it. The vote by the UK parliament may be seen in the future as a watershed moment – even the US’s closest ally no longer automatically backs the moral judgements of the US and its violations of International Law on aggression.

  24. Putin is 100% correct to insist that a consensus of major powers is necessary to justify war in cases other than self-defense.

    Different countries have different laws, different governments, and different histories.

    The whole point of having a separate country is to have one’s own stupid laws. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive. In Russia, pussies can’t riot. In the USA and many other countries, the hemp plant can get you thrown in jail for years on end. In Egypt, if your political party won a landslide at the polls, the police will beat you up. In Canada, there are regions where one cannot put up a sign in English. In Singapore, you get flogged for the crime of walking while chewing gum.

    There are hundreds of reasons to intervene in the affairs of dozens of countries. If we allow some countries to unilaterally and peremptorily intervene in the internal affairs of others, we will inevitably witness a cycle of wars.

    The incoherent policy of liberal interventionism could be feasible only while the USA and its allies were the only powers capable of acting around the world. If multiple countries begin to intervene around the world on various pretexts, it will mean the rising possibility of general war–to say nothing of arms races or rampant nuclear proliferation.

    Less Bosnia, less Libya, more Switzerland.

  25. I think the rigid opposition to a strike on Assad is all because of Russian interests in Syria.A naval port, gas pipelines running to Europe and ever closer coming missiles of the defense shield…Russia obviously has a lot to be worried of.Russia allowed the invasion of Afghanistan out of sweet revenge from both the Taliban as well as USA because the present day scenario was very well predictive to them after having suffered themselves.the Iraq war benefited the Iranians and Russia is a strong supporter.Libya was a blow to Russian businesses with Gaddafi.Now Russia is talking and saying it is enough.they have signaled their stand on the issue by bringing in their naval ships near to the battle zone, showing clear indications of their intent.And America has picked the signal.the final agreement to hand over chemical weapons is a consolation prize for Obama who made a fool of himself by drawing an imaginary red line earlier.he is lucky that the US constitution does not allow him to campaign for a third term.the Syrian crisis has divided the world into two zones now…Russia and China in the east block are going to challenge the ever fighting and now drained west block in middle east.the rest of the world will go by their economic interests which obviously depend on stability in the sandy oil fields.the power of nukes on hair trigger alert has spoken in favor of the principle of nuclear deterrence and avoided an indirect conventional conflict but not an impossible direct nuclear war, nevertheless dragging the arch foes into a more obvious cold war for the time being.

  26. yes whatever you say don’t mention Israel and the Palestinians and the UN. that’s not pertinent to the argument here from those who care more for Israel than the Palestinians right to live. Israelis are obviously worth more than the Palestinians, at least if the US vetoes at the UN are to be compared to the latest issue of killing Syrians.

    we can see some people are more valuable than others, i.e., like Israelis seem to be first and foremost the only people the US bothers to defend at the UN. watching the fancy footwork of those just itching to kill more “Brown Muslims” who are sitting on our oil, actions speak louder than any Chemical Weapons by this or that bad guy the US opposes.

    but no one said the world was a fair and just place. power goes to those who use it. and the US uses it on a regular basis to defend “Our Oil” in the Middle East and our proxy Israel, which gets all our NSA info unfettered! the next action is Iran, which has the audacity to exist in the same neighborhood as Israel. will America attack Iran next? now that Syria is getting too “complicated” to attack?

    the vargaries of power! while us little people watch our “elites’ send ud/the poor for their own amusement and profit.

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