Argument

Public Editing Putin

Never was so much B.S. presented to so many people in such a short text.

Vladimir Putin wants Americans to give peace a chance.

Bequeathed prime op-ed real estate in Thursday's New York Times, the Russian president has issued a "plea for caution" about the situation in Syria. Acknowledging the "insufficient communication between our societies," Putin makes an appeal to the Russian-American alliance against the Nazis during World War II to suggest that the two countries can work together to solve international problems. For a leader who has inundated his country with virulent anti-American and anti-Western propaganda, such a plea to historic common interest fall flat in a piece chock full of hypocrisies, deceptions, and outright lies. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never was so much bullshit presented to so many people in such a short text.

According to Putin, any American involvement in the Syrian conflict, and in particular military strikes, would violate the sanctity of international law. Putin also writes that the conflict is being "fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition." He would have his American audience believe that Russia is just a disinterested observer in the Syrian mess, writing, "We are not protecting the Syrian government." This is rich coming from a man whose government has heavily funded and backed one side of the conflict -- the murderous Syrian government -- to the tune of $550 million worth of attack jets, 20,000 Kalashnikovs, and 20 million rounds of ammunition. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2008 to 2012, Russia provided 71 percent of Syria's foreign arms imports.

The threat of America further weakening international law, Putin tells us, is so dangerous because nations are turning toward other, potentially destabilizing means of ensuring their national security in the absence of respected global norms to protect their interests. "[A] growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction," he writes. "We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded."

Putin is absolutely right that nonproliferation is being eroded; he just fails to acknowledge that his government is among those doing the eroding. Russia has repeatedly blocked or criticized attempts to sanction Iran for its illicit nuclear weapons program. As recently as last month, the Russians were protesting a bill passed by the U.S. House implementing tougher sanctions against Iran, with a Kremlin spokesman complaining, "Any additional sanctions are actually aimed at the economic strangulation of Iran, but not at solving the problem of non-proliferation."

Also disingenuous are Putin's appeals to multilateralism. Russia has resisted even mild rebukes of the Assad regime, repeatedly vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning the violence. According to Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., "This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use."

It's no wonder that the Russian president extols the "consensus" system of the Security Council, for the veto has repeatedly allowed Russia and China to block any productive diplomatic action whatsoever over the course of the bloody conflict. (In warning that "[n]o one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," Putin neglects to mention that the League expelled the Soviet Union over its invasion of Finland in 1939.)

Putin also insists that it might not have been the Syrian government that used poison gas on its citizens: "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." Such a claim, however, flies in the face of not only investigations carried out by the United States and allied intelligence agencies, but also journalistic accounts and independent bodies such as Human Rights Watch, which recently issued a report stating that "alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks" are "lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene." According to Foreign Policy's own Colum Lynch, a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team will soon make a "strong circumstantial case" that the regime was behind the attacks.

An expert manipulator, Putin knows how to play upon the deep wells of anti-Americanism that exist all over the globe. But regardless of what one thinks about U.S. behavior on the world stage, Putin is the last person who should be faulting America for alleged unilateralism and failure to heed the norm of international consensus. He bemoans that "military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States." It is incredible that a man who, in 2008, invaded Russia's tiny neighbor of Georgia -- 20 percent of whose territory Russia continues to maintain troops in -- could write this sentence.

Furthermore, Putin argues against American military intervention by arguing, "No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect." Such worry for the safety of Syria's most vulnerable might strike a note of sincerity if it came from anyone other than the man in charge of Russia during the indiscriminate shelling and leveling of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where Russia waged a brutal war in 1999-2000. Freedom House's Freedom in the World report for the year 2002 detailed "deliberate and indiscriminate bomb attacks on civilian targets [that] caused some 200,000 people to flee Chechnya" and "security sweeps in which civilians were regularly beaten, raped or killed."

The most infuriating of Putin's arguments, however, is when, in his final paragraph, he takes a swipe at President Obama's contention that feeling a need to respond to "children being gassed to death... makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional." According to Putin, the notion that America, or any nation for that matter, is "exceptional" is an "extremely dangerous notion."

This is a point that will no doubt earn Putin plaudits with a segment of the American and international left that contends any claim to a unique American mission in the world is imperialistic and a sign of hubris. But, among other problems, such criticism of American exceptionalism neglects Putin's own promulgation of a cynical Russian exceptionalism, not least his claims to be implementing a system of "sovereign democracy" -- where respect for the rule of law, free speech and association, an independent judiciary, and open elections is nonexistent. In 2008, Russia also announced that it possessed a "sphere of privileged interest" in the nations of the former Soviet Union, an artful term for neo-colonialism.

Putin leaves his readers with the admonition, "we must not forget that God created us equal." This from a man who has signed into law draconian measures that render public discussion of homosexuality illegal and ban gay couples from adopting children, and who has permitted the flourishing of an environment of violent homophobia whereby thugs assault gay people on the street with impunity and post videos on the internet of gay teenagers being tortured. Putin has also presided over his country as it has detained thousands of immigrants and considered mandated deportations.

Reading Vladimir Putin's "plea" to the American people, I could not help but think of the writer Mary McCarthy's observation about an earlier admirer of the Soviet Union, the playwright Lillian Hellman. "Every word she writes is a lie -- including 'and' and 'the.'"

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

How Putin Turned Moscow Back Into a Middle East Powerhouse

It took a mix of religion, guile, and a stumbling Obama to pull it off.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Arab Spring, from the viewpoint of the Kremlin, has been one prolonged headache. Russia has sustained a battering across the Middle East: It was unable to stop the 2011 NATO intervention that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi, and it has been excoriated by its former friends in the Arab world for its continuing military support of President Bashar al-Assad, even after more than 120,000 people have lost their lives in Syria.

But today, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can celebrate the end of their best week in the Middle East in the past two and a half years. Rather than being dismissed as irrelevant or supporters of the region's most brutal dictators, they're being described with a different sobriquet -- statesmen.

The proximate reasons for this change, of course, lie with a Russian-brokered proposal that would see Assad relinquish his chemical weapons. But Moscow has been quietly building support from Cairo to Beirut to Damascus -- putting Putin in a position to pounce.

In one fell swoop, Putin shielded Assad from a U.S. military strike, and presented himself as the sole figure on the international stage who could achieve a breakthrough in the region's most intractable crisis. The Russian leader has also been helped by President Barack Obama's stumbles: Observers in Moscow believe the president trapped himself by committing to military strikes that neither Congress nor the American public really wanted -- giving Putin the opportunity to devise a solution.

"We have an American president who pronounces strong words, but his face says 'What am I doing?'" said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. "The Russian success will be primarily the manifestation of Western failure."

It's not only in Syria that Russia has capitalized on anger toward the United States. In Egypt, where the military-backed government has accused Washington of sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, some protesters have hailed Putin as a potential diplomatic counterbalance to the United States. Pro-military demonstrators have even drawn parallels between the former KGB operative and their own strongman: During a July protest in the city of Alexandria, pro-military demonstrators unveiled a large poster of the Russian president wearing a naval uniform beside that of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, bearing the inscription "Bye bye, America."

In Lebanon, too, Russia has strategically built ties with the country's Greek Orthodox community, which maintains ties to the Russian Orthodox church. Moscow's Amb. Alexander Zasypkin regularly attends Greek Orthodox political and religious gatherings, asserting that "we have a special relationship" with the community. And it appears to be working: As one Lebanese politician put it, when Zasypkin visits Greek Orthodox communities, "they greet him like when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Akkar [a north Lebanon district with a large Sunni population] a few years ago."

But it's Syria that will make or break Russian ambitions in the Middle East. The initiative to remove Assad's chemical weapons was greeted as a rare diplomatic win-win scenario: It provided Obama with a graceful way to avoid launching military strikes that remain deeply unpopular among the American public, and provided both Washington and Moscow with a path to achieve their shared goal of limiting the spread of chemical weapons.

"This should be seen not only as a win for Putin, but also for Obama," said Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert in Russian politics at the Center for Naval Analyses. "Everyone has latched onto it because it seems like a way out for Western countries that want to be seen as doing something, but were finding a lot of domestic resistance toward actual intervention."

The benefit for Putin in cutting this deal, multiple analysts say, is not only that it protects Assad from American military might -- Moscow also hopes that it will strengthen a norm against unilateral intervention. Russia aims to delegitimize military strikes not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and fears that this principle was badly eroded by the NATO campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the Libya campaign more recently. Putin harped on this point in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, where he argued that Moscow was "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law," which was one of the only tools to "keep international relations from sliding into chaos."

The chemical weapons deal, therefore, provided Putin with an opportunity "to make sure that the U.S. is more firmly embedded in international institutions," according to Gorenburg. "They are the weaker power, and throughout history weaker powers have tried to use international powers to constrain stronger powers."

The Russian resurgence carries echoes, in some ways, of the dynamics of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union enjoyed strong influence with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad's Syria. As Lavrov told Foreign Policy earlier this year, "Russia feels more assertive" than it has since the Soviet collapse, and "can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests."

But it's still far too early to talk about Moscow's return to the influence it had under the Soviet Union. While Putin has had a good week, there is no guarantee that his luck will continue in the months ahead. There are legions of challenges in destroying Assad's chemical weapons: His arsenal has been spread across the country in as many as 50 sites, the United States is not sure it knows where all the stockpiles are, and destroying such toxic agents is an expensive and time-consuming effort even in peacetime. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear yesterday, military intervention is still on the table if diplomacy fails.

At the moment, however, things are looking up for the Kremlin. Putin's support for Assad, which has brought him so many problems in the Arab world, is even earning him the grudging admiration of critics tired of the fickleness of U.S. policy in the region.

"Here's what I heard from many people, [who are] not very sympathetic with the Russian position: OK, the Russian line is horrible -- but at least Russia has one. Compared to Europe, compared to America, compared to all the rest," said Lukyanov. "And in a way, this didn't give more popularity and more sympathy to Russia in the Arab world, but it produced a certain respect. Russia at least knows what it wants."

Mikhail Kireev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images