Last week, Pope Francis seemed to have launched a bit of a trend when he sent a letter from the Vatican to the Kremlin showering his blessings upon the G-20 summit and praying for “a peaceful resolution” to the Syrian Civil War. Yesterday, as busy diplomats in the White House corridors hustled and debated lobbying strategies to push for Congress to validate a military mandate in Syria, jaws dropped when the postman delivered the morning papers. Vladimir Putin had addressed an open letter to the American people in The New York Times in which he presented Russia as a guardian of international law and argued that intervention would not be in the long-term interests of the United States as people across the world would no longer see Uncle Sam as a model of democracy. As baffled US diplomats still scratch their heads and wonder where that one came from, be assured the banter has started flowing along with the vodka in Moscow.
President Putin seems to have cultivated an acquired pleasure in destabilising his US counterparts over the years and perhaps a glimpse at what lies behind his shoulders might inform us why. A KGB officer for over sixteen years, he tellingly once called the fall of the Soviet Bloc “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century.” His assertion may not have been without foundation.
After the collapse, Russia plunged into one of the most torrid times of its modern history. As America celebrated the beginning of its unchecked elevation to hegemony, Russians began to feel the cold winters at the dawn of what Francis Fukuyama would call The End of History. The titan of the East saw its GDP shrink as each year passed, hitting a tragic -14.5% in 1992. Between 1996 and 1998, unemployment crawled from 9% to an agonising 14%.
On the international stage, Russia was a reflection of its then-president. Boris Yeltsin had a merry end to his life, more akin to that of a harlequin fit for dramatic interludes than to the president of a country of over 140 million inhabitants. Among his numerous drunken episodes, he was once found dressed only in his underpants outside the White House “because he wanted some pizza.” That he could have been that drunk in Washington speaks volumes of the kind power-relationship the two states shared then.
Today, in Putin’s third term as president, his country has at the very least regained some geopolitical clout and a fair share of it has to be attributed to his incorrigible habit of opposing the actions of the United States. And yet, this still cannot be the only reason for going through such pains to defend the vile Mr Al-Assad in this tragic Syrian affair. The profit derived from selling arms to the Syrian regime remains marginal and naval access to the Russian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean is strategically dispensable (at least for the short term). So what does Russia gain from siding with Syria?
Fiona Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, argued on Foreign Affairs back in March that Mr Putin remained consumed by an ingrained fear that the collapse of Syria would create another Chechnya, a breeding-ground for separatist movements and terrorism. That Mr Putin cited “mercenaries from Arab countries fighting (in Syria) and hundreds of militants from Western countries” who might return to fight in their home states as the first reason for opposing intervention in yesterday’s letter (before international law or civilian collateral damage) suggests she was spot-on. The Russian president does not necessarily support the current regime, but he has a great deal to lose from an unstable Syria. Think about it: for all they quarrelled, Putin and Bush always agreed on the common agenda surrounding fighting global terrorism. Oh, speaking of Monsieur Bush…
On Sunday, Mr Putin sent a ‘Get Well Soon’ telegram (it seems e-mails are now a thing of the past) to his former counterpart after the latter had to undergo a heart-surgery. It is possible that the former KGB officer was genuinely concerned about his old foe’s health on that day but the odds are that he more likely sent it as a passing quip to President Obama, who had just cancelled their highly-anticipated joint meeting a day earlier. You see, some old feuding habits will simply not vanish.
Some days before the meeting was called off, President Obama likened his Russian counterpart to “a bored kid at the back of the classroom.” Analysts including Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre (another think-tank) were quick to highlight the spat as a new low for the relationship between the two superpowers. The Economist jumped on the bandwagon to morbidly conclude that things had not been that bad since the end of the Cold War. A singularly imaginative and entertaining piece on this very same forum page stretched even further to claim that the Syrian quandary could be “paving the way for a Second Cold War of sorts.” Luckily, Mr Putin’s letter shows the at times deafening alarm-bells had been somewhat premature. He had simply been biding his time to unleash his most ingenuous jibe yet. And the timing could scarce have been better.
Polls generally indicate that people tend to be peace-loving and non-interventionist. Hence, it was announced on Monday that the US president would make no less than six appearances on TV this week to convince Americans that bombing Damascus would be the right thing to do. By placing himself on the peoples’ side and restating that “God created us all equal” in a letter to the most religiose nation on earth, Mr Putin will have stirred quite a few Americans against their own president’s rhetoric. He also did a decent job at preaching from a moral high-ground as a defender of international law and of the lives of innocent civilians (naturally omitting to mention the inconvenient episode of Russia’s unauthorised 2008 invasion of Georgia).
In the present rhetorical arm-wrestling match over Syria opposing the two presidents, it is the man with the stripes and stars on his lapel who has started sweating first. The Russian president, through what many have been unwise to discredit as ‘antics’ in the past, is achieving three of his objectives. His country is no longer the slumbering colossus it was under Yeltsin. He has, albeit with obvious irony, somehow managed to portray Russia as a shield against international law violations. Most impressively, he has artfully led President Obama to start dancing an awkward waltz at the edge of a steep political precipice. Vladimir Putin is not a bored child at the rear of the classroom. He is a weathered statesman with years of experience in knocking blows past U.S presidents and he has just dealt his current counterpart a particularly painful one. Welcome to diplomacy, Russian-style.