Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times is an attempt to talk to the American people over the heads of its elected representatives. For a Russian foreign policy practitioner, it is also an act of information warfare. After all, Russia views the United States as a strategic competitor, if not an outright foe, in the battle of geopolitical influence in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.
And it is a pity that the Cold War stereotypes still inform Putin’s thinking 24 years after the Berlin Wall came down.
In such a glum worldview, U.S. public opinion is a top-priority target in the decades-long conflict between Moscow and Washington. So is the opinion of the world’s public, which is already applauding Putin and booing Obama’s inept management of the Syrian crisis.
Putin’s case for non-intervention with Syria earned him kudos in the comments section of the Times and put him squarely in the limelight of the world’s attention. It puts President Obama on the defensive and further shakes the already shaky domestic support of the President’s intention to conduct operations in Syria. This is exactly where Putin wants the U.S. to be.
The op-ed is a the second blow of the one-two punch of Putins’s chemical weapons disarmament plan for Syria. He is boxing the U.S. into a corner, undermining American leadership, and questioning our international bona fides.
Putin further lectures on the how the military force cannot be used with a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which Russia could veto. However, he neglects Russia’s massive assistance to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime—including weapons sales—as well as Iranian interference in Syria using its Quds Force and Hezbollah.
It is not the just the internal Syrian conflict that is threatening to blow up the Middle East but Russia’s studied inaction backed up by a battery of UNSC vetoes and a stream of Moscow-supplied materiel.
Moscow’s unholy de facto alliance with Iranian ayatollahs and the brutal Assad regime may be an attempt to stem the rise of Sunni extremism, which threatens Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus. However, it is also an attempt to maintain a sphere of influence in the Middle East, support Russian naval facilities in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakiya, expand a permanent presence of the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, and get back at America’s allies in the region.
Russia’s dogged pursuit of a confrontation around Syria is also the case of “best defense is an offense.” It is preferable to engage thousands of miles away from home than defend one’s unenviable domestic track record.
As long as Obama is focused on the Butcher of Damascus, he will not harass Putin with questions about the battery of oppressive laws passed by the Duma. These include a ban on adoption of Russian babies, cutoff of U.S. support to Russian nongovernmental organizations, draconian laws limiting freedom of speech and freedom of religion, abuse of peaceful demonstrators, keeping Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners in jail, and threatening whistleblower and politician Alexei Navalny with a five-year prison term.
Americans are now discussing Putin’s plan for Syria and his hectoring about how America is not exceptional. This is what Obama’s policy of “reset” has achieved.
While the Obama Administration may pursue the Russian proposition to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control, it needs to do so soberly. A necessary condition for such an operation should be a UNSC resolution threatening the use of force under Article 7 of the U.N. Charter if Assad does not comply.
Otherwise, the exercise to disarm Assad from chemical weapons would be yet another chess move by Russia on the geopolitical chessboard of the world—a game in which Putin so far has beaten Obama.