While Vladimir Putin’s op-ed article in the New York Times has generated a wave of applause from Russia, it has led to irritated comments from U.S. politicians still in favor of military intervention.
Vladimir Putin. Photo: ITAR-TASS
Vladimir Putin’s op-ed article in The New York Times is remarkable for a number of reasons. For the first time in recent memory, Moscow is undertaking an attempt at proactive public diplomacy. Whatever the reason for that – the emergence of new and yet unknown young personalities on the foreign policy team, the decision to turn things over to professional political consultants, or simply the luck and creativity of the PR team – this week can obviously be called the Kremlin’s triumph on the global arena.
Russia’s ability to catch a stray remark from Secretary Kerry and translate it into a policy proposal, as well as its ability to sense the hesitation of the Obama Administration and its desire to find a face-saving formula with respect to Syria, has led to incredible results. Moscow has managed to transform all of its arguments into a coherent foreign policy initiative that has postponed the war against Syria. Moreover, the Kremlin did not stop with that – it followed that up with efforts to win over international public opinion and weaken the positions of the U.S. hawks in their own backyard – in America.
It is clear that the U.S. public is reluctant to approve the strikes against Syria. The weapons of mass destruction (WMD) argument did not work as planned, as there is not yet sufficient evidence to support that argument beyond bold statements that border on propaganda. The new appeal to humanitarian issues, such as the issue of thousands of Syrian refugees flowing to Europe, is not yet touching U.S. hearts either. And even worse – such an argument could prevent the Europeans from any support of the military intervention, as such a course of development would result in new waves of displaced persons at a time when Europe still has to cope with what to do with the Kosovars, Palestinians, and many North Africans on its territory.
The only strong trump card left up the sleeve of the U.S. contingent still pressing for military intervention is an alleged threat of a terrorist attack, presumably on U.S. territory, which would evoke the memory of Sept. 11. Such a scenario could be depicted as yet another instance of Assad’s cruelty. This may account for the appearance of some rumors about the potential assault of hundreds of Syrian special agents in the United States with the sole aim of blowing up the infrastructure of the country. However, so far President Assad refrains from such belligerent statements and gives no pretext for any substantial accusations of this kind.
Thus, Vladimir Putin’s op-ed article adds fuel to the U.S. deliberations. The Russian president chose words calculated to have the greatest psychological impact on the U.S. public. Publishing his article immediately after the anniversary of Sept. 11, he refers to Al Qaeda in the ranks of the Syrian militants and the potential instability that the jihadists could bring anywhere in the world – from Libya and Mali to Afghanistan, and, yes, to the Russian Caucasus.
He emphasizes the failures of previous U.S. attacks – namely Iraq and Libya – which did not help to bring peace. And this failure of previous military interventions is evident to many Americans who voted for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin also raises the specter of nuclear proliferation by invoking U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Much of Putin’s op-ed article also invokes the morality and democratic ideals typically used by the U.S. foreign policy establishment to justify their policies. He points out that the cornerstone of democracy is abiding by the law – and international law is not an exception. He indicates that the Americans can still save the reputation of their country as a protector of democratic ideals. He refers to the statements by the Pope and concludes his op-ed with the mention of God who made all of us equal – a formula understandable to any American voter.
That being said, there are some flaws in the op-ed. Long passages about the significance of the U.N. and the primary role of the Security Council are hardly appealing to the hearts and minds of the U.S. population. The censorship by The New York Times of one phrase (e.g. a phrase about the Boston attacks lost in transition from the Russian text to the English one) stirred up debate in the Russian blogs. And, finally, the use of a PR firm like Ketchum to place the article with the New York Times may be typical in the world of Washington politics, but may ultimately reduce its value if it is seen as just another form of prepaid propaganda.
However, Putin’s op-ed can’t help but strengthen his image as a peacemaker at the global level. The direct appeal to the U.S. public, bypassing all the traditional channels that tend to distort the signals from Moscow, may partly be humiliating for President Obama now, but if it works, may end up saving Obama from a war he may not want.
The Putin op-ed indicates that, despite all criticism, Russia is committed to stopping the war and upholding the fundamental principles of international law. Russia’s stance on Syria is not about Assad or arms sales, but about justice and security, however strange it may sound to the ears of pragmatic U.S. politicians. This article may pave the way for similar types of articles that offer a clear explanation of the Russian position on a major foreign policy issue couched in terms that are understood easily by both American politicians and the American electorate.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.