international analysis and commentary

The Syrian “deal” and Russia’s newfound clout


When Vladimir Putin addressed “the American people and their political leaders” on the pages of The New York Times on September 11, 2013 he knew they would listen. While Barack Obama found himself lost in a quagmire of trying to match his usual rhetoric with action, his Russian counterpart was quick to step into the void and fill it with a proposal the US could not reject.

The odd situation, in which Putin appeared to be a mediator with Obama adhering to his solution, has reflected the two states’ divergent political cultures. While Obama had to comply with the Wilsonian idealism entrenched in 20th century American foreign policy tradition, Putin enjoyed more leeway as a “pragmatist with a conservative perspective,” as he recently defined himself in an interview with the Associated Press.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has repeatedly tried to regain its status as a global political power. In the absence of a strong ideological message, it identified itself as the guardian of the letter of international law and used legalistic rhetoric in order to shield the support of its allies. Many times, as with the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia or with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this approach did not work and Russia had to accept the role of a marginal outsider whose voice was heard, but made little impact.

But as the initial enthusiasm of the Arab Spring/revolutions was followed by cycles of Thermidorian Reactions pulling the rug out from under Western pro-democracy rhetoric, Putin found himself in a much stronger position.

In the last few weeks, Obama has vacillated between evaporating support at home and the pledges he made a year ago that the use of chemical weapons will be the “red line” that will not be crossed twice. As it appeared, Obama’s promises circumvented him, leaving little room for maneuver, while Putin was free to step in at the right moment.

Russia, apparently, did not even come up with the idea of controlling chemical weapons in Syria. It was former Senator Richard Lugar (a veteran of US-Russia arms control endeavors) who was ahead of the curve one year ago when he pushed Russia to make Syria dismantle its chemical weapons program. At that time Russia declined.

More recently Lugar, who masterminded Russia’s chemical weapons disarmament in the 1990s, said that without international pressure Syria would never recognize the existence of chemical weapons in its stockpiles, and that it will not be possible to destroy all of them without the incumbent government’s support. Therefore, the Russian diplomatic coup can already be regarded as a success, if we assume that one of Moscow’s goals was precisely to make the Assad regime acceptable again, or rather indispensable.

Now that Russia has signed  on to the new plan, it will now be held responsible whether it fails or succeeds. Putin is now obliged to throw his political weight behind Assad in order to make his government facilitate the endeavor.

The sparkling drama will inevitably make a lasting impact on US-Russian relations, which have recently been damaged by a series of bitter spats over the fate of former NSA leaker Edward Snowden and the discriminatory law that has marginalized sexual minorities in Russia.

Hopefully both sides will recognize that they have fundamental common interests to cooperate on, rather than use each other as scapegoats for internal political and economic failures. While Russia does have many internal problems, including domestic homophobia and the treatment of opposition leaders, it can act as a constructive force abroad.

In addition, while the Syrian crisis has cemented Russia as an indispensable player in world affairs, the shift is even more profound. Russia has demonstrated that pragmatism and caution with the use of force can be more effective than a foreign policy driven by filibuster idealism.

Both Russia and the United States have had contrasting periods of international interventionism and concentration on their own internal development. Prince Alexander Gorchakov in the 19th century was careful to limit Russian military engagements in Europe, which resulted in Russia’s rapid recovery from the damages of the Crimean War. Non-interventionism in the US, first put forward by Thomas Paine, has long been central to the American foreign policy debate. In the late 20th century and early 21st century the US engaged in a number of military actions across the world, most of which yielded questionable results.

In this context, the UN Security Council becomes a viable mechanism for alleviating international grievances. The fact that it often cannot agree only attests to its power – when the Syrian crisis was unfolding Obama was reluctant to push the button immediately, while at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg he looked clearly discouraged while witnessing a lack of universal support for his idea of a “limited strike.” As a result there was time to think and come up with better solutions.

Russia thereafter has been eager to unite other states, especially China and Iran, around the idea of pragmatism and non-interference in international affairs. Recently Putin attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek where he was lauded by the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, for his mediating efforts. Russia can now be regarded by Iran as a credible and forceful ally.

Putin’s comment on The New York Times has produced a wide array of criticism mostly concentrated on the point that Putin, being the “alpha dog” running a “mafia state”, is the last person in the world who should lecture the United States on equality and the “responsibility to protect”. The fact is, however, that for Putin it is more important for people to take him seriously regardless of the tone of reaction. That is why many of the Kremlin-backed PR stunts, such as interviews on the Russia Today TV network, or the op-eds promoted by American Ketchum PR agency are regarded as successful efforts to extend Russia’s clout in the West.

It is true that the result is a paradox – Putin, who in the past wrote a comment on the New York Times  in favor of the use of force in Chechnya in 1999, suddenly found himself lauded as the peacemaker. Meanwhile Obama, who ran for the presidency as someone who would stop ongoing wars and refrain from initiating new ones, appeared to be the one who had to be prevented from taking the decisive step.

Nevertheless, even though some American commentators have already labeled the Syrian chemical weapons deal as “the worst day of Western diplomacy,” we must not see this as a zero-sum game. Russia does need strength and prestige in order to wield its influence in Central Asia, South Caucasus, Ukraine and Belarus. For instance, despite widespread views, Russia does not protect Assad in order to keep another autocrat in power or out of a sense of affinity. It should be remembered that Russia’s North Caucasus is only separated by Turkey and Georgia from the war-torn Syria and Russia has no interest in it becoming another source of Islamic extremism.

But there are also many pending global issues, such as nuclear disarmament and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that Russia and the US can only tackle jointly. Therefore, the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, paradoxically, can become the success story the two powers needed in order to achieve progress that will benefit the world community at large.