Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Putin's Osotogari

George Friedman, the chairmain of the global intelligence think tank Stratfor comes to some predictable conclusions in his latest op-ed (Syria, America and Putin’s Bluff, 10/9/2013). Almost from the moment that the Syrian foreign minister announced in Moscow on Monday that his government welcomes the Russian proposal, the reactions in the US were either excessively skeptical or outright negative. From the president’s understated “potentially positive development” (which was really should have been a “potentially the solution to the crisis”) to the CNN cynical panels whose members see the Russian proposal to transfer the barbaric weapons under international as a “sham” or a “ploy” or, perhaps most bizzarely, a stalling tactic.  I say bizzarely because had Obama been resolute in his conviction that Assad’s action merited at least 200 tomahawks, the Syrian dictator would have been by now scrambling to find some of his command posts and airfields in a hopeless rubble.  So the last thing one would want to do here is to accuse the Russians of seeking to delay the overt act of war. Unless of course, one likes to parade one’s lack of smarts. No, the Russians are not playing for time. They simply saw in Kerry’s letting the cat out of the bag an opportunity and acted on it. Swiftly. Decisively.   

       Friedman believes Putin is motivated by a desire to punch above his weight, insinuating that Russia is a world-power capable of brokering a political solution to the Syrian crisis.   In his analysis, Friedman sees Kremlin acting out a revenge against the US for the humiliation of its traditional ally Serbia, in chasing Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999 and making the historical cradle of Serbia independent. Likewise, Putin is said to be  incensed by what he perceives as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs by the western-financed NGOs.  The encroachment on a Russian sphere of influence, both in the Balkans and in Ukraine little later created a deep sense of resentment, he argues. Friedman believes – not without justification – that Putin took his due on Kosovo in the Georgia conflict of summer 2008.  He smashed the US-trained military of Georgia and liberated the former ethnic enclaves annexed to Georgia during the Soviet days as a payback for the unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence that year.  Since then, the theory goes,  Putin wants to present Russia as a world-power, restoring its Soviet-era ties with Cuba and cozying to the leftist regimes in South America.   All of this projects to Russia’s attitude toward Syria, a Soviet client since 1970. Putin is trying to deny Obama a payback for beating up on “a US client” Georgia in 2008. He has resolved to keep Assad in power. It is a “core issue” for him to maintain the illusion of Russia as a world power.    What can one say about all of this ?  The Stratfor chief may have some points right but the overall analysis is poor and for all intents and purposes useless. In truth it is not as much an analysis as it is a statement of Friedman’s own perception of the US – Russian relationship as the continuation of the Cold War “zero sum” game. 

      The Stratfor chief is far from Metternich’s perception of Russia as a potentially key player in the “global concert” and very close to the traditional paranoid British view of Russia as the vicious bear wont to claw its way into the honeycombs of  its world Empire.  Both views, the latter infecting the US cold-war view of Russia, are deficient. Russia’s traditional preoccupations with stability and outward unity make it predisposed to reactionary backwardness. This may have been no problem for Metternich, whom was no apostle of progress and modernity. But it certainly will cause frictions with cultures and economies which are more dynamic, who will eventually see Russia’s water-wheel as one running on backwater.   The pro-western politicians in Russia itself (the last of whom is Medvedev) know this and seek to change the MO on which Russians operate.  Putin himself, despite Brzezinski’s perception of him as a Mussolini wannabe, attempts to straddle the traditional opposing forces in Russia.  He oscillates between pragmatism needed to make Russia  an economically viable modern power and traditional Russian patriotism rooted in a sense of the country’s special mission which formed with the fall of the Greek Christian Byzantium as Russia’s guide and spiritual protector.  There is, consequently, somewhat of an inner struggle within Vladimir Vladimirovich, which gets played out in his dealings with the West.   To his fans, his perhaps most endearing personal trait is what the Russians call ‘bodrostj’, a cheerful self-confidence and unabashed sincerity. I think this was picked up on by George W. Bush, who shares with Putin certain charming naivete. He certainly did not see in Putin a poseur in search of an empire,  someone overwhelmed by the designs of history and his own place in them.     

       Russia’s foreign policy post-Yeltsin seems to reflect Putin’s personal struggles.  One thing that makes the Russian president an attractive partner to the West is that his (and Medvedev’s) focus is unhesitantingly on internal development of Russia, its economy and prosperity. He is not an ideologue, a crypto-communist,  despite the remark that the Soviet Union downfall was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, he made in addressing the Duma in 2005.  

      The remark was badly misinterpreted by Brzezinski and others. It reflects the patriotic, not the ideological side of Putin. He believes that the USSR for all its faults offered a sense of security and belonging to Russians.  He refuses to throw away the collective experience of suffering and the heroism of the Russian people in the Second World War (which in Russian has an internal marker, dating from Hitler’s attack in 1941 to his expulsion late in 1944, called the ‘Great Patriotic War’).  In the breakup and economic restructuring, tens of millions lost their livelihood, many among the Russian brightest and best educated reduced to the most horribly undignified existence. The remarks were also to convey Putin’s deepest concerns for the twenty-five-or-so million Russians caught during the breakup outside the borders of the Russian Federation. They were scapegoated by the new authorities for the ills of the Soviet system, denied citizenship, social services and schooling in Russian, equal access to justice, sometimes denied the right to practice Christian religion (in Islamic Central Asia). In addition to these, Russians were the victims of  violence at the hands of criminal gangs and nationalist paramilitaries. Hundreds of thousands of Russian ex-pats were expulsed or forced to emigrate by intolerable conditions.  Thousands were killed. The suffering of non-Russian ethnics in the breakup was even more intense and widespread as ancient national and religious animosities flared up in many places of the former Union.  It may not have been the greatest geopolitical catastrophe, certainly not greater than the world wars, but it was a huge social and humanitarian catastrophe, no doubt.  The civilizational collapse and widespread lawlessness that characterized the breakup of the USSR no doubt also figures hugely in Putin’s reading the situation in Syria and his estimates of what Syria post-Assad would look like.

     Unlike George Friedman, I observe that Putin is free of the pomposity and bluster that was so characteristic of the Soviet leaders after Stalin. Quite to the contrary: he seems to thrive on underplaying Russia’s power. It has been now fourteen years that Russia has belonged to Putin. During this time, there has been not a single instance on the international scene where Putin overplayed his hand, although opportunities there were plenty.  He could have, through his proxies crushed the Orange revolution in the Ukraine. He did not do that – preferring to let the anti-Russian rivals destroy themselves through internal fighting.  He could have attempted to force Poland and the Czechs out of the “shield” business making it simply too costly for them. He could have been much more forceful  the over the treatment of ethnic Russians when dealing with Estonia and Moldova. He could have walked into Tbilisi and forced Saakashvili to flee (which he was on his way to do, anyway). The American could not have done a thing, mired not just Iraq and Afghanistan, as Friedman notes, but in the midst of the biggest financial collapse since 1929. He didn’t.  But even before that, in the second war in Chechnya in 1999, as Yeltsin’s right hand,  Putin showed remarkable restraint. He  prevailed on the military not to use ham-handed frontal assaults like Grachev on Grozny in 1995 but instead profit from the superior numbers to deny the Chechen warlords lines of communication. The Russian army took their bastion, Gudermes, without nearly any fighting giving the jihadis a narrow corridor to escape.  This is not a behaviour of an self-obsessed satrap who imagines himself on the top of the world.  Stratfor analysts would do well to read some of Putin’s speeches in the parliament when he was prime minister fighting with the likes of Zhirinovski or Zyuganov.  He, unlike professional political idiots like McCain and Graham, knows where Russia stands among the economic powers and does not have any illusions about it.  Again, I am hard pressed to see grandiose master plan in what Putin does, or for that matter, any reasonable politician in Russia wants to do. As for Russia’s friendly relations with some of the leftist regimes I would not read anything more to that than Russia exercising its global options and searching for new markets.

      Russia’s policy toward Syria has been remarkably consistent, as it was during the Libyan crisis. For reasons explained above Putin abhors the kind of chaos created by a forceful removal of dictator. From his point of view, bad as Ghaddafi was, he posed no danger to anyone (any more). His misrule was preferable to a state of lawless anarchy and formation of another focal base of terrorist operations in the region.  Same as in Syria, except Russia has some strategic interests in Syria given its proximity to Caucasus and Russia energy supplies and routes. Her Islamic “problem” in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan is exclusively Sunni militancy, specifically Wahhabism that overshadowed in 1990’s the native mild forms of Sufism and Shiite practice (mostly in Azerbaijan) in the region. US anti-Assad alliance with Turkey and the Gulf states directly threatens vital Russia’s interests both political and economic. Russians  worked diligently to kill the Nabucco project and would not want to see it resuscitated or replaced by another “alternate” supply route that competes with Gazprom’s. Politically, Putin has pretty much cleaned up the North Caucasus of the dangerous militancy and has no intention to have another war there. Especially not now, when Kadyrov has built in Chechnya a working model of cooperation between the Federation and an Islamic state within its borders.  The Chechen autonomous republic has become one of the fastest growing regions in Russia.  

      Is there a Putin’s  “bluff” in Syria ?  I don’t think so.  Russia wants to have enough influence in the region to assure its baseline requirements for stability and prosperity. Despite the western media’s protestations, its foreign policy  is not welded to Assad’s regime, and there have been noises coming out of the Kremlin that Russia would like to see him go.  It is just that Putin does not want his departure to precipitate chaos and inter-communal mayhem that would surely follow, if he were to abdicate now. The danger seems even greater because the US State Department insists on a narrative that is simply not reflective of the current reality.  Even if the secularists among the armed rebels were numerically stronger, and this is far from certain now than it was eighteen months ago, the units and brigades are uncoordinated, led by commanders who are often at cross-purposes and, something that does not get much play time at CNN but is an ever-increasing part of the picture, often degenerate into criminal gangs bent on looting and taking hostages for profit.  The islamist rebel groups are often  enlarged by young men disillusioned by the lack of dedication of the more secular FSA units to the “cause”. 

    Putin understands that the chemical attack east of Damascus, whether hatched by the lower ranks within Assad’s military or as a provocation by the rebels, was a pretext for the US to tip the balance of power on the ground in favour of the regime opponents, now in retreat.  This is why Kerry’s “offhanded” remark in London basically shot that plan in the leg.  The Russians quickly prevailed on the Syrians to give up the chemical arsenal as they are strategically useless. Their existence can only be used to legitimize external aggression toward Syria. This was a masterful osotogari by Putin, effectively denying the military option to Obama as politically unsustainable.

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