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Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed, annotated and fact-checked
The Washington Post
Russian President Vladimir Putin has an op-ed in today’s New York Times urging President Obama not to strike Syria. It’s a fascinating document — a very Russian perspective translated into American vernacular, an act of public diplomacy aimed at the American public and the latest chess move in the U.S.-Russia standoff over Syria, one in which we the readers are implicated. Putin does make a number of valid and even compelling points, but there is an undeniable hypocrisy and even some moments of dishonesty between the lines.
Below, I’ve annotated the op-ed, line-by-line, elaborating and translating at some points, fact-checking a bit in others. Putin’s writing is set off in italics and bold; my notes are in plain text.
MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
So far so good, and all true, establishing a baseline of cooperation on shared interests while acknowledging U.S.-Russia tensions.
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
Putin here is implicitly defending Russia’s right to use its veto to block the United Nations from any action on Syria, including simple press releases condemning the use of chemical weapons. The U.N. Security Council veto system, which means that Russia can block any action just because it says so, was not a product of “profound wisdom” as much as profound pragmatism. Countries don’t like to give up their power to other countries. After World War II, getting the world’s five remaining great powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union) to consent to this newfangled United Nations system required granting them veto power so they’d be comfortable with it. This is what it took, but it wasn’t profoundly wise, and both Russia and the United States abuse their veto power plenty.
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 authorization.
It’s true that the League of Nations collapsed because no one took it seriously, including the United States. But the United Nations survived the Cold War, which included lots of non-U.N.-approved military actions from — you guessed it — the United States and the Soviet Union. If the United Nations can survive the unilateral Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, among many other wars large and small, it will survive cruise missile strikes on Syria.
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.
Putin makes some strong arguments here that a U.S. strike on Syria could hurt U.S. interests. Many of his points are defensible and have been made by American analysts, such as the risk to U.S.-Iran negotiations and the fear that strikes would exacerbate extremism. Some of them are disputable — Obama’s proposed strikes would be pretty modest compared to the ongoing violence, a drop in the bucket, and thus unlikely to so dramatically reshape an already war-torn region.
But what rankles many analysts about this paragraph is that it ignores Putin’s own role in enabling the already quite awful violence, as well as the extremism it’s inspired. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed so freely and so wantonly in part because it knows Putin will protect it from international action. Putin has also been supplying Assad with heavy weapons. It’s a bit rich for him to decry violence or outside involvement at this point.
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.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
As above, these are strong arguments against outside involvement in Syria’s civil war, made more than a little hypocritically, given that Putin himself has been actively involved in shaping the conflict and steering it away from peace. Still, the concern about Syria breeding extremist violence is likely an earnest one for Putin, who surely knows that some Chechens have been fighting in Syria and could very plausibly cause trouble back home in Russia.
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future.
Russia has certainly espoused dialogue and a compromise plan, but it has acted instead to stop that from happening, refusing to wield its considerable power to bring this about. There is no one in the world better positioned than Vladimir Putin to force Assad to the negotiating table. Instead, Putin has shown every indication that he wishes for Assad to defeat the rebels totally and outright, as his father Hafez al-Assad did in 1982 when he crushed an uprising in Hama.
We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.
Putin is couching his support for Assad as simple fealty to international law. It’s true that, according to the United Nations charter, almost any U.S. strikes on Syria would be illegal under international law. Still, it’s hard to believe that Putin is motivated by international law, given the lengths he’s gone to prevent the United Nations from protecting other forms of international law when it comes to Syria. Russia has blocked the United Nations from simply condemning Assad’s attacks on civilians or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, much less taking action to punish or stop those crimes.