More than 100,000 dead in Syria—a figure growing by 5,000 or so deaths every month. Millions more displaced. Chemical weapons used. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the offensive. The United States humiliated and powerless on the sidelines. The situation in Syria is about as grim as you can imagine—and Vladimir Putin is loving every minute of it. That impression comes across very strongly in his New York Times op-ed today in which he takes a typically brazen victory lap after having wrestled global leadership, at least temporarily, away from a confused and hesitant American president.
As usual with Putin, he overdoes it—the man who parades around bare-chested to show off his pecs does not know the meaning of “subtlety.” Putin begins by claiming that only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force. Funny, I don’t remember the UN resolutions justifying Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008 or his homicidal campaign in Chechnya which has killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.
He warns specifically that a U.S. strike on Syria “could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.” No doubt Russian arms deliveries to Syria and Iran—including Russian help with Iran’s nuclear program and the rumored sale of a sophisticated air-defense system to Tehran—have been big factors in enhancing Middle Eastern stability.
Putin, moreover, claims: “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.” Uh, right: That’s why the Russian government is not willing to go along with a UN Security Council resolution threatening Assad with force for failing to disarm—it’s not because Russia is Assad’s ally, it’s because of Putin’s boundless respect for international law! There is, of course, no mention of Assad’s many violations of international law in his war against his own people.
Putin slides from the ridiculous to the comic when he next claims: “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.” Actually, I think it’s safe to say that Putin and his minions are the only people who claim to believe that sarin was used by the rebels, not the government—and even the Russians can’t possibly believe that: it’s another convenient lie.
As if to rub salt into the wound, Putin ends with a pious denunciation of Americans who might claim that our country is 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. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Sure, there are countries such as Russia where the unelected leaders oppress their own people and jail anyone who speaks out against them; then there are countries such as the United States where liberal democratic norms prevail, human rights are respected, and the rule of law is followed. But in Putin’s upside-down moral universe there is no difference between the two—in his relativist telling, they are simply differently democratic.
There is nothing especially surprising about the cynical worldview of this old KGB apparatchik. The only thing dismaying is that President Obama, through his failure of leadership, has allowed this malevolent troublemaker to usurp America’s leadership role in the Middle East and indeed the world. And Putin isn’t about to let us forget it.