In one day, with one simply stated proposal, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned a losing position into a winning one.
The Russians had been throwing everything they had into the arguments against military intervention in Syria. They questioned the lack of concrete evidence, and the United States and its allies countered that logic alone made the case. The Russians noted their investigation into a March chemical weapons case had laid responsibility on the rebels, and the United States pushed past without so much as a glance. Putin’s people emphasized the importance of the United Nations and the Security Council, and President Barack Obama’s administration dismissed their need.
And then on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry, in what most interpreted at the time as an almost flippant response, answered a reporter’s question by saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad could avoid a military attack by handing his chemical stockpiles over to the United Nations for destruction. Hours later, the Russians said they’d made that proposal to Syria, and by Tuesday morning the Russian proposal appeared to have headed off a U.S.-led military strike.
Beyond halting the rush to punish the Syrian government for the alleged use of chemical weapons, the development cast Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as a global peacemaker and – experts say this is not to be overlooked – embarrassed an American administration.
Marcel de Haas, a Russia expert at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, said the importance of this week’s diplomatic coup will last beyond the Syrian crisis.
“The Russians were on the sidelines,” he said. “The Kerry statement didn’t just get them back in the game, it brought them back in a position of strength. Why did Putin push so hard for matters to be determined in the United Nations Security Council? Because there alone, two decades after the collapse of his Soviet Union, was he still a superpower.”
New York Times columnist Bill Keller noted the irony on his blog this week. Through the chemical weapons proposal Putin “has recast Russia – whose military helped the Assad dynasty create its chemical weapons program in the first place – as the global peacemaker.”
It’s a moment Putin has been waiting on for a while. The former head of the Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB, Putin in 2005 famously declared that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Those who study him believe he’s been looking for a way to re-establish his country’s former level of influence and power ever since. He stood in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. He’s openly opposed NATO expansion. Old Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, have accused him of attempting to topple their Western-friendly governments. He’s taught lessons to Europe through the years by briefly cutting natural gas supplies, even during cold snaps.
Through it all, as oil and gas prices have flowed upward, Putin’s Russia has become much wealthier than the broken shell of an empire left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“Until now, he’s been cast in the role of the villain, and he’s tired of playing the villain,” noted University of Richmond Russia expert Stephen Long. “Russia was Syria’s biggest ally and an international obstructionist. And now they’re not.”
Long noted that Obama has now stated both what seemed to be an absolutist moral case against the Syrian regime and a willingness to negotiate with that regime. The reason, he says, appears to be a deft Russian reaction in crafting a proposal that made opposition look war hungry, but which will be both slow and extremely difficult to act upon.
Haas of the Netherlands stated: “Russia looks like a peacemaker, but Assad will certainly continue his civil war. It’s just that he will butcher his people conventionally, and the world won’t care.”
And, by pushing the Syrian war from crisis to diplomatic breakthrough, Putin’s reduced the pressure, probably ended the threat of an international military effort against Syria for the near future, and ensured the matter stays in the United Nations, where Russia has a veto.
Internationally, the reaction has been largely positive. The French have suggested the Russian position is impossible without caveats such as the continued threat of military action and punishment for those guilty of the Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. In that attack, which Russians have insisted has not been shown to be the work of the Assad regime, estimates of the dead range from 281 to 1,429.
The German magazine Der Spiegel said that Chancellor Angela Merkel “is likely breathing a sigh of relief” over the Russian plan, as it takes an unpopular potential military action off the table in the middle of what should be a victory for her in national elections this month.
The German business newspaper Handelsblatt, however, noted that “the zig-zagging on display from the international community, and particularly here in the West, when it comes to Syria is astounding.”
Still, while Israel was among those most supportive of a military strike on Syria – and some Israeli politicians have already voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of Russia’s proposal – there are signs that even it is generally pleased with the emerging deal.
Israeli media quoted anonymous officials as saying the potential deal sends a strong message about dealing with Iran – that only a credible military option truly deters bad actors. Israel hopes that just as Syria folded when faced with military might, so will Iran, ultimately abandoning its nuclear program.
David Shain, an expert in international relations who specializes in Iran, wrote Tuesday in the Maariv daily that for Israel, the main benefit of the potential Russia-U.S. deal is that Assad’s chemical weapons will no longer be a threat. “The only ones who won’t be happy about accepting the Russian proposal are the citizens of Syria,” he wrote. “It’s clear to everyone that accepting the proposal will mean more of the brutal Syrian civil war.”
McClatchy special correspondent Mel Frykberg contributed to this report from Jerusalem.