That Op-Ed by Putin: Where Is He Right, and Where Is He Wrong?

By Erica Chenoweth, The Monkey Cage Sep 13, 2013, 7:23 AM 

Here’s my quick and dirty run-down of Putin’s op-ed published in yesterday’s New York Times. In some places, I assess whether his statements are accurate in terms of what political science research has said. In other places, I just look at it from a logic perspective. His statements are in quotes, and my responses are below.


A Plea for Caution from Russia, by V. Putin (published in the print edition of the NYT on September 12, 2013, page A31).“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. 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.”

MEH. This is an oversimplification of the League’s collapse and the UN’s role in world politics. Arguably its collapse began when countries initiated wars of aggression—particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, during which the Italians used mustard gas on civilians. Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Abyssinia, came before the League to issue an emotional appeal for action to roll back Italian aggression, but none was forthcoming. This effectively killed the foundational doctrine of the League—collective security—where aggression was supposedly outlawed and theoretically deterred through universal military response to the aggressor. Ironically, then, the UN is in a bit of a paradox. The UN is concerned with two levels of peace—inter-state peace, which Putin references above, and intra-state peace, which he summarily ignores. Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine). This means that the UN is in a bind. Its presence as a force to check aggression against ones own people is thwarted by Russia’s insistence on placing the legality of UNSC’s veto player doctrine above the legality of punishing leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

“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.”

PROBABLY TRUE. Research is all over the map on the question of how limited military actions affect humanitarian conditions and escalation of conflicts. However, I am more persuaded by prior studies that show that on average, military interventions actually exacerbate killings (at least in the short term), lengthen “spells” of repression, and often lengthen civil wars themselves. Extremely robust multilateral interventions—involving boots on the ground and multidimensional efforts to reform political, economic, and social conditions—can halt these killings. But that’s not what the Obama administration is considering, nor is it plausible in this case given Russia and China’s objections.

“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

PROBABLY. Previous research shows that weaker states often use asymmetric capabilities to attack their more powerful rivals, and this often occurs in direct retaliation for military actions. Weaker powers know that they cannot confront stronger powers using conventional military force. However, weaker powers also know that sponsoring terror attacks is relatively cheap and low-risk (since they can always deny it), that stronger powers cannot prevent every terror attack, and that stronger powers tend to overreact to terror attacks, which can ultimately weaken them. Think about the series of events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing—Libya’s retaliation for Reagan’s strikes on Benghazi and Tripoli (which was, by the way, retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror attack on American officers in a German nightclub).

“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.”

QUITE LIKELY. My thought here isn’t based on research as much as my sense that a strike on Syria would preclude any chance for us to work with the Iranians or the Russians on anything in the near future. Part of the reason Putin has been so unrelenting on Syria is his displeasure with UNSC Resolution 1973. With its aftermath, the Russians felt they were felt tricked into withholding their veto and the result was a back-door regime change campaign in Libya. The Iranians have been launching one hell of a PR campaign lately, but a strike in Syria would probably heighten their security concerns rather than diminishing them. Moreover, Assad has repeatedly invoked threats to the Israeli-Palestinians peace process as something of a deterrent against a US strike, implying that if the US does strike, his regional allies will retaliate against Israel. If this happened, it could certainly be quite the distraction from the peace process.

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

GIVE ME A BREAK. First of all, it depends on which laws you’re talking about (see my discussion above). Assad has broken a considerable number of international laws—as has Russia—over the course of this crisis. And second, the international order is based on the balance of power in the system, which seems to be quite stable at the moment. Although the United States has not been taking a forward military posture in the Middle East lately, objectively its hard power assets remain considerable. If there is one stable rule in international politics, it’s the one Thucydides wrote about in 431 BC: Great powers do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. If anyone knows that, it’s Putin.

“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.

IT DEPENDS. There are plenty of people there still fighting for democracy—some still using nonviolent means, believe it or not!—while armed rebel groups there are doing what armed rebel groups do pretty much everywhere else. Most civil wars of this nature don’t wind up as democracies regardless of who wins, but that’s besides the point. The most pressing concern is to stop the killing. Actually no one has a very good sense of who the “good guys” are in Syria these days. Putin certainly doesn’t know who the good guys are, given that he has supported the first side to commit indiscriminate murder from the very beginning.

“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.”

YES, BUT SO WHAT? The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.

“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

UM…How about all of those foreign weapons supplied to the regime? When states fund incumbent regimes, the likelihood that the rebels receive state support goes up dramatically. C’mon, Putin. Don’t you remember the Cold War? It’s true, though, that external support generally increases incentives for rebel groups to emerge, while increasing the likelihood that they abuse civilians.

“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.”

YEP. It’s a problem. There are no easy, short-term solutions, though, and Putin is being disingenuous here when he implies that a U.S. strike (or lack thereof) will alter this situation.

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

BLAH BLAH BLAH. Russia’s attempt to push for “peaceful dialogue” occurred while Russia was sending arms to Assad and blocking the all of the UN’s attempts to resolve the conflict. Syria is on trial now for its own violation of international law. Again, see above.

“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. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

THAT IS TRUE. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, a U.S. military strike would be illegal.

“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.”

FEW ARE BUYING THIS. In fact, there is every indication that the UN—the law-enforcing body Putin so clearly respects—will point the finger at Assad’s government in the report it will release on Monday.

“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

I DOUBT IT, on two fronts. First, Putin seems to be conflating militants here. There are Al Qaeda types in Syria, who seem to be preoccupied with Assad at the moment. Then there are Al Qaeda types in Lebanon, who recently fired rockets into Israel. Second, if such an attack is in the works, I highly doubt that Israel is “ignoring” it.

“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.”’

IT DEPENDS. Pew polls suggest that people still have fairly favorable views of the American government, although some see it as something of a bully (this is especially true in the Muslim world). On the other hand, Putin doesn’t really seem to care much about how “millions around the world” view it either. Global popularity may help a country get what it wants, but it is not a vital interest.

“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.”

KINDA. Although major military adventures weren’t too successful in the end, some have argued that special operations missions and targeted killings of Al Qaeda affiliates have been quite effective, actually.

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

MUCH OF THIS IS TRUE. No military strikes, regardless of how “surgical”, can avoid collateral damage. It’s important to keep in mind that even when we’re talking about “humanitarian interventions,” we are talking about killing other people. Unfortunately systematic research on precisely how many people die in such strikes is hard to come by. Why? Because governments don’t keep track of how many civilians die in such strikes.

“The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”

AND WE’RE BACK TO IRAN. It’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on in Iranian leaders’ minds at the moment. But working together on nonproliferation—including the Iranian issue—will be difficult if Putin withdraws his cooperation from U.S. efforts. I do think that the claim that inaction in Syria will embolden Iran is overstated, though. The U.S. has been much more considered and consistent as to its interests regarding the Iranian nuclear program than Obama has been vis-à-vis Syria.

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

A WELCOME IDEA INDEED…if Putin is sincere, that is.

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

TOTALLY. To me this is the most promising aspect of the current negotiations. If the US and Russia can work together on this problem and find a way to get to common ground, it may build trust and provide opportunities to do more together—both on Syria and elsewhere.

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And 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. 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.”

WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory. I don’t know of any studies that argue that self-congratulatory nationalism alone leads to violence.

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”


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