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.