In Background, Russia

By James Carden, The Nation, Sept 30, 2015

The opening of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on Monday featured major addresses by, among others, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The speeches showcased the stark, seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two world leaders over the fate of the Assad regime in Syria.

Presidents Putin and Obama at the UN in New York on Sept 29, 2015

Presidents Putin and Obama at the UN in New York on Sept 29, 2015

Later in the day, to the surprise of absolutely no one, a much-anticipated meeting between Putin and Obama produced little in the way of agreement. The AP pool reporter covering the meeting called it “95 minutes of Nyet.”

This would come as no shock to those who tuned in to Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview with the Russian president. Facing off against Charlie Rose, Putin was upfront about what he sees as a sacrosanct principle in the conduct of foreign affairs: respect for national sovereignty. In one of the only important exchanges during the mostly lackluster conversation, Putin stated, “We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions.”

With regard to Syria, it must be recognized that Putin’s plan to buttress Assad via airpower, if history is any guide, is doomed to fail. Insurgencies are rarely, if ever, beaten back by air power alone (and please spare me the Kosovo precedent, the settlement of which had far more to do with Russian diplomacy vis-à-vis the Serbs than with Wesley Clark’s inept and immoral aerial-bombing campaign).

If Putin is serious about saving Assad’s skin, and his call at the UN for a broad international coalition to combat ISIS indicates he is, then he will need to contemplate the use of Russian ground forces, which, if our own Middle Eastern experiences are anything to go by, would lead to disaster. And Putin seems to realize this, telling Rose that “Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now.”

And yet circumstances (which Edmund Burke sagely noted “are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind”) are different for Russia than they are for the United States. It simply boils down to geography. Whether ISIS runs roughshod over large segments of the Levant is–in terms of overall U.S. security posture–negligible.

Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and the vicious yet obscenely wealthy Gulf state tyrannies all have the wherewithal, should they decide to act, either alone or in concert, to quash ISIS’s Islamic fundamentalist hordes. At the UN on Monday, in a direct challenge to President Obama’s refusal to even consider supporting Assad, Putin was blunt: “We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.”

Russia, unlike the United States, borders the Middle East and, as such, has legitimate national security interests in the region. Further, Russia has a population of 15 to 20 million Muslims, perhaps tens of thousands of whom make up a sizable and restive contingent in the North Caucasus. According to Putin, “More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us.” He added that “in general, we want the situation in the region to stabilize.”

And here we get to a second leitmotif of Russian foreign policy under Putin: the quest for regional and global stability.

In his UN address, Obama noted, “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.” The irony is that this formulation came from the mouth of an American president who has bragged about bombing no fewer than seven countries in six years. The problem is that the United States, far from “standing by” when threats to sovereignty materialize, actually produces the very instability it proclaims to abhor because of its dangerously naive belief in the efficacy of military might when conjoined with the ideology of democracy promotion.

As opposed to Obama’s confident assertions that the nebulous “international community” led, of course, by the United States, can and should bend the arc of history to its will, Putin expressed a humility born of failure. As Putin told the UN Assembly: “We also remember certain episodes from the history of the Soviet Union. Social experiments for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”

That is only too true. And Putin’s frank admission should (but likely will not) spur American leaders to pose similar questions with regard to our own “social experiments for export.” Might we benefit from asking whether it was Russia or the United States who aided and abetted the “color revolutions” in the Caucasus and Ukraine? Was Ambassador Robert Ford the representative of the American or the Russian government when he was lending encouragement to the Syrian opposition prior to Assad’s violent crackdown?

The point of Russia’s foray into Syria, much like its foray into the the Ukrainian Donbas, is, given its geography, driven by a desire and a need for stability. As Putin put the question to the UN Assembly with regard to longstanding Western support for the anti-Assad forces, “I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done?”

If reports of the Obama-Putin meeting are anything to go by, the answer, sadly, is apparently not.

And so, the idea that Putin’s foray into Syria is little more than one of a series “imperial gambles” is to grossly misunderstand the Russian president’s motives, to say nothing of the multiple foreign-policy dilemmas facing the Russian state.


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