Vladimir Putin’s highly unusual and razor-edged comment piece setting out his views on the Syria crisis, addressed directly to the American people and published by the New York Times, is a mixture of closely argued policy points and breathtaking political effrontery.
Even as he appears to offer the hand of friendship and co-operation to Barack Obama, the Russian leader repeatedly plunges the knife into the president's wounds, not just on Syria but on a range of other sore points, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the UN and terrorism.
In bearding the US president on his home ground, Putin—who encourages an off-duty image of himself as a bare-chested, fearless tough-guy hunter and outdoorsman—seems to be trying to add Obama to his trophy bag, while simultaneously presenting himself as an altruistic global statesman.
Putin says: “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 authorisation.”
Translation: we are not going to stand back and let Syria become another Iraq (when US-led military action was taken without UN authority). Putin implies that by its principled stance, Russia has become the chief defender of the UN system and international law. This is an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy, given that Russia has blocked effective UN action on Syria for two years and is bound, for example, like the US, to uphold the international chemical weapons convention.
Putin says: “The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders.”
Translation: Putin raises the spectre of a wider Middle East conflagration without acknowledging that, if it happened, Russia's policy so far will have made this outcome more likely, and that Moscow would be deeply involved in any conflict through proxy forces and arms sales. This is real Orwellian double-speak.
But he delivers a powerful poke in the eye for Obama when he suggests US action in Syria could torpedo the Israel-Palestine peace process, which the US is trying to revive, and make it harder to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear programme.
That the man responsible for appalling past violence in Chechnya should summon the pope as an ally is extraordinary. And the idea that he really cares about “innocent victims” in Syria is sickening.
Putin says: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
Translation: on the day after the 9/11 anniversary, Putin suggests he knows better than Obama, the man who has effectively crushed the leadership of Al Qaeda and killed Osama bin Laden, about the perils posed by jihadism.
But he speaks for many in the west when he argues that mercenaries fighting in Syria, and armed by US allies, could one day move their operations to other countries, as happened in Libya-Mali, and most famously in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Reminding Obama how the US helped create the Taliban is a low blow.
Putin says: “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.”
Translation: the claim that the rebels, not the government, have used chemical weapons to trick the US into intervening is not new, but by recycling it, Putin further muddies the waters. The reference to a possible CW attack on Israel is a masterstroke, given the sensitivity of the Democratic administration and its backers to all matters affecting the Jewish state.
Putin says: “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you're either with us or against us'.”
Translation: another canny blow delivered to the American solar plexus. Putin is echoing many people in the US who oppose their country's activities as self-appointed global policeman and believe its values have been severely compromised in the post-9/11 years. By offering a resumed diplomatic dialogue as the way out of the Syrian morass, Putin is attempting to seize and hold the moral high ground and assert Russian leadership amid the evident confusion in Washington. If his initiative ultimately prevents US action, he expects to be seen as a hero in many parts of the world.
Putin says: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Translation: this passage takes the biscuit for sheer chutzpah. Referring directly to Obama's depiction this week of America as an exceptional nation called to do great things in the world, Putin invokes God Almighty, democracy, and the American constitution in one breath to suggest Obama is a menace to global society. You can almost hear the cynical laughter in the Kremlin. It is hard to remember that Putin is the man, more than any other, who has made a mockery of democracy in Russia.
By arrangement with the Guardian