In a stern, moralizing New York Times Op-Ed, Russian President Vladmir Putin claimed to be speaking “directly to the American people and their political leaders” in warning against military intervention in Syria and urging caution.
Once again, in this epoque of Cold War-style political jockeying between the Kremlin and the White House, Putin’s push for diplomacy as opposed to military intervention in Syria conjures the Russian leader as a dove to the Obama administration’s hawkishness. Taking to the pages of the U.S.’s “Paper of Record” with a plea for caution is a bold piece of propaganda. The Russian president seems to be leveraging all the political capital possible after enjoying praise for his diplomatic efforts in regards to Syria in recent weeks. This is Putin playing the good guy.
While President Obama has deemed the Russian proposal to avoid strikes if Assad hands over his entire chemical weapons arsenal a diplomatic “breakthrough,” it was Secretary of State John Kerry who first publicly let the idea slip out, but called it “impossible.” Certainly, the U.S. war drum has not been silenced.
Putin stressed the risks of a military intervention:
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. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
The Russian president spoke against the international community consensus that the Syrian regime used sarin gas against its own people, suggesting that it was in fact rebels who carried out the chemical attacks. The main undercurrent of his argument, however, was to decry the U.S. tendency to act as the world’s police and its repeated efforts to spin narratives of global goodies and baddies, “with us or against us” (a geopolitical game the Kremlin has happily played, it must be noted):
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. 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.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
With his closing paragraph, Putin took direct aim at the language of American exceptionalism employed by the Obama administration to suggest that U.S. “credibility” is on the line if there is inaction over Syria. Putin wrote:
I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.
And while his push for a diplomatic approach to Syria is preferable to U.S. war cries, the Russian president framed the complex geopolitical quagmire with the same moral absolutism and platitudes that have informed U.S. leaders’ language on Syria. “God created us equal,” ended Putin’s Op-Ed, while God’s chosen side remains (as ever) undetermined.