Putin’s Geopolitical Realism on Syria

[/caption]

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a foreign policy speech to Russia’s ambassadors and Foreign Ministry officials that is very much worth reading in context of his dispatch to Syria of a fleet of warships, including a battleship, to the modest Russian naval base in Tartus. Under Putin’s hand, Russian support for the bloody regime of Bashar Assad has consistently been more about safeguarding and expanding Russia’s strategic place in world than about Syria:

….We are forced to admit that no reliable solution for overcoming the global economic crisis has been found yet. Indeed, the prospects are looking more and more worrying. The debt problems in the Eurozone and its slide towards recession are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the global economy’s unresolved structural problems go. The traditional powerhouses of global development – the USA, the EU, and Japan – are seeing their leadership erode, but the absence of new development models is putting a brake on global growth. There is increasing competition for access to resources, and this provokes abnormal fluctuations on the raw materials and energy markets. The traditional Western economic powers are being weakened by the crisis, which has exacerbated social and economic problems in the developed economies, and by the multi-vector nature of global development today. We can already see this for a fact now.

Colleagues, this is no cause for joy. We should not take delight in this turn of events, and much less feel malicious glee. On the contrary, we cannot but worry over these developments, because the consequences of these tectonic shifts in the global economy are not yet clear, nor are the inevitable shifts in the international balance of power and in global policy that will follow.

We are all the more worried when we see attempts by some actors in international relations to maintain their traditional influence, often by resorting to unilateral action that runs counter to the principles of international law. We see evidence of this in so-called ‘humanitarian operations’, the export of bomb and missile diplomacy, and intervention in internal conflicts.

We see how contradictory and unbalanced the reform process is in North Africa and the Middle East, and I am sure that many of you still have the tragic events in Libya before your eyes. We cannot allow a repeat of such scenarios in other countries, in Syria, for example. I believe that we must do everything possible to press the parties in this conflict into negotiating a peaceful political solution to all issues of dispute. We must do all we can to facilitate such a dialogue. Of course this is a more complex and subtle undertaking than intervention using brute force from outside, but only this process can guarantee a lasting settlement and future stable development in the region, and in Syria’s case, in the country itself….

It would be harder for Putin to have been more clear about what his priorities were, or that for Russia, R2P as a doctrine has no standing whatsoever in international law [ incidentally, he’s correct on that point] and Syria is not going to be allowed to go the way of Libya, if the Kremlin can prevent it.

Generally, the media reported this speech, highly misleadingly, as Putin’s prediction of “Western decline” when the message was Russia’s opposition to Western military intervention in Syria to remove Assad from power. Putin neither overestimates the means at Russia’s disposal to accomplish his limited objective (blocking intervention) nor inflates his objective to an unrealizable, vaguely defined, abstraction.

Contrast, with the speech on Syria made recently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Here is a snippet that gives the tenor of her remarks:

….What was accomplished in Geneva by the action group was, for the very first time, to enlist not only all five permanent members of the Security Council including Russia and China, but also important leaders in the region and in the Arab League in support of such a transition. The issue now is to determine how best to put into action what was accomplished there and is continuing here. And I really hope everyone reads the communique from Geneva, because for example, one of the earlier speakers from Syria expressed concern there was nothing about political prisoners. Well, indeed there is. And a call for the release from detention. So it would be very helpful to get everybody on the same page if we’re going to work together about what we have already done and what we need to be doing as we move forward.

Under the Geneva communique, the opposition is for the first time put on an even basis with the government. They are given equal power in constituting the transition governing entity that will have, as we just heard, full executive authority. That could not have been imagined three months ago, let alone a year ago.

So although none of us here is satisfied or comfortable with what is still going on inside of Syria, because it is against every norm of international law and human decency for a government to be murdering its own people, there has been in the last several months, starting in Tunisia, a steady, inexorable march toward ending this regime. What we need to do is to follow through on what each of us can contribute to the end of the Assad regime and the beginning of a new day for Syria.

….Now what can every nation and group represented here do? I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge, but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People, because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress – blockading it – that is no longer tolerable.

First of all, the Secretary of State needs a more effective speechwriter. Period.

Secondly, there is a substantive problem here with an obsession on the minutia of process, possibly because the legal principle behind American policy on Syria is a novelty of intellectuals and is not accepted by two veto-wielding great powers that sit on the UN Security Council. Moreover this focus on minutia of process obstructs clear thinking in regard to the larger geopolitical picture and the ways to get to the end in mind – the removal of Assad’s regime – or the consequences for opposing American policy. Russia and China are told their continued support for the Assad regime, which they see as being in their own interests, is “intolerable” – an outburst of unseemly frustration as we have no stick to threaten them with and strangely offer no carrots for these states to change their positions. Instead we choose to moralize  in public, a diplomatic technique with a long pedigree of failure.

The comparison of statecraft between Russia and the United States is unflattering. Russia has vastly fewer cards to play, but because  Putin has grounded his policy in an assessment the realities of power, has limited his objectives to those within Russia’s means and related those to a larger diplomatic context that would appeal to other powers, he has played those cards well. Moreover, Putin has positioned Russia to be an indispensable party in a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria at very little cost, as Secretary Clinton herself has admitted and capped it off with a naval show of force in the eastern Mediterranean.

We, who have a wealth of resources to employ, have squandered them ineffectively and navigate the ship of state with our heads in the clouds. We forced a vote in the UNSC on Syria, ignoring all signals that the end result would be failure. Syria shoots down a Turkish warplane intruding in it’s airspace (likely at our request) and we had no plan to capitalize on the incident. We gratuitously leak information or disinformation about covert operations that serves more to make us look amateurish than to intimidate our opponents. We do not even appear to be well-informed about the Syrian opposition we are aiding inside Syria, as opposed to expatriate organizations. Some of the fighters in the opposition are as morally objectionable as Assad’s militia thugs and secret police killers.

We play at tactical geopolitics while the Russians do strategy.