By Patricia H Kushlis
Recent events have demonstrated yet again that Russians are
Russians whether in charge of the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. Whether the Obama administration inadvertently
stumbled onto this fact of life or not, Americans and others who worked on
Soviet affairs during the Cold War could have told you that it takes a show of grit
and demonstrated resolve to go up to and sometimes over the brink as the single
way to bring the Russian government around and to the negotiating table.
In my experience near the end of the Brezhnev era, this also
often required a show of irrefutable evidence and a demonstration of high drama combined with the
threat of force, whisper of potential public embarrassment, imposition of a boycott or cancelation
of an agreement the Soviets really wanted to induce them to change their
position. It’s not that the Soviets were
just being irrationally stubborn; it’s simply the way they operated in the
international arena: push the opponent to the limit – then when it was made clear
the red line had been crossed, back down.
In my view, the Russians have long been the underdog in the
global power game but they have often played a weak hand to the maximum as I
think they did and are doing in this latest skirmish over Syria’s chemical
weapons. Vladimir Putin’s Op Ed in The
New York Times on Wednesday – thanks in good measure, by the by, to
Ketchum, an American public relations firm under contract to sell Russian
government policies to Americans – is just the latest example. But to what end? What’s in it for the Putin government?
A page from the history books
In 1990, the Bush 41 administration understood this. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state,
worked assiduously over a period of months to assemble a coordinated,
calculated, UN approved, measured military response against Saddam Hussein’s
invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
Bush and Baker brought the Soviets into the picture early
on: I still vividly remember the nearly
impromptu Summit between Bush and Gorbachev held in Helsinki in
September 1990 – the weekend after Labor Day.
I had just returned from a first ever visit to Tallinn where I had
learned about the upcoming meeting on the Estonian evening news. I was – unsurprisingly – handed, upon returning
to Finland a message to report to work (nonstop) until that Summit was over.
Fortunately, the Embassy had hosted a Presidential visit by
Ronald Reagan in 1988, the Finns were not only Summit-hardened but also enjoyed
hosting high level visitors and as a consequence we – praise the lord and pass
the ammunition – had excellent support and did not have to reinvent any
logistical wheel. Besides, we wouldn’t have had time to do so. This also saved
us with having to deal with all but a few of the usual phalanx of political hangers-on
invited by the White House to “ride along for the advance or pre-advance – and
help out.” Help out? Yeah right.
Please, no. Far better: Stay home and watch events unfold in the media.
And today? Russia’s
Only Client State in the Middle East?
What I find now, however, most intriguing is the Russian
government’s seemingly singular ability to deliver – as it were – the Assad
regime – something the Soviets and the Russian Federation were unable to do
with Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the Assads
learned something from that individual’s unhappy demise.
In a discussion last year with a veteran American analyst on
Russia, I asked for an explanation of the rationale for Russian support for
Assad. Was it primarily geopolitical, e.g.
the desire to retain access to Targus, the Syrian naval base on the
Mediterranean? To increase influence in
the Middle East in a country on the opposite side of Turkey – a major regional rival
of Russia for centuries? His response
was, on the contrary, that the Russian position on Syria had to do with the
country’s waning international prestige – and the Russian desire to still be
counted as the other major power in determining events in the Middle East and
Maybe the Russians have finally woken up to the fact that since
“most of Syria’s chemical weapons are Russian made” and their use against innocent
Syrian civilians by their Middle Eastern client does nothing to enhance either Russian
international popularity or prestige – that they could, rather, result in a
military strike by the US that would degrade Syria’s overall military capabilities. Replacement would be costly to the Russian government which has fewer
resources to burn since the price of oil and gas has fallen on international markets in recent years.
Furthermore, it would become a tragedy – not to mention an act of colossal irresponsibility
and embarrassment – for CW from Syria to show up in Chechnya, the North Caucasus
or elsewhere if and when Syria disintegrated and the regime’s poison gas depots
were left unguarded – as the Poles and others have pointed out. Just think of the upcoming Sochi Olympics as one nightmare of a potential disaster.
Syrian President Assad has finally publicly admitted that his
government has chemical weapons – after bombarding the international and social
media with disinformation stories for weeks that claimed innocence and that the
chemical attacks had come from the rebels. I suspect the Russians and perhaps
the Iranians have also had their fingers in those disinformation efforts.
UN CW inspectors are supposed to come out with a report in the coming days
confirming that CW (likely sarin gas) was used August 21 killing about 1,400 Syrian
civilians, but not formally identifying the most likely culprits.
Vladimir Putin has yet to be as forthcoming as Assad, although
both still cling to the fiction that the rebels let loose the chemicals – but
at least, in a quick turnaround following Obama’s threatened military strikes, the
Russians pressured their Syrian ally to agree to open its chemical weapons depots to international inspectors, to agree to sign on to the CW treaty and to the
destruction of those poisonous weapons by an international team under UN
auspices. This will take time especially
the corralling, safe-guarding and destruction of the country’s reportedly massive CW stocks
but it can be done.
I have to wonder if the sharing of some US intelligence –
either by the US government, through access to Edward Snowden’s not so secret cache
of secrets, garnered through open source surveillance, or even Wikileaks cables
– may also have helped inspire the Russian policy change of heart. That the US is as wary of a Syria controlled
by Salafists and is looking for a negotiated settlement among the parties and a
country not ruled by Islamic extremists likely also helped.
As I wrote previously, “as UN and Arab League
Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi observed earlier last week, Obama is
not the trigger-happy George W Bush who led the US and its allies down the
garden path in 2003 using WMD as a pretext for invading Iraq and overturning
Saddam Hussein. In fact, of course, American inspectors in the aftermath found
no WMD.” Unfortunately, that colossal error in judgment
and intentional misinformation now hangs over the Obama administration’s charges
against Assad like an enormous black cloud over America’s image at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, both the Russians and the US
still have a long way to go in helping to resolve the two year old Syrian civil
war. Even without targeted US air strikes designed to degrade the Assad
regime’s military power, the path forward will be neither cheap nor certain. But we wouldn’t be there now without the Obama
administration’s willingness to have upped the ante in this great power game of
international politics. It looks like
progress is finally beginning to have been made.