Russia to the Rescue

September 13, 2013

The political analyst Boris Mezhuev writes, in Izvestia, about how President Putin’s initiative influences the world political climate.

Note that Mezhuev implies that it was Western powers that postponed the latest meeting of the United Nations Security Council. In fact, Russia both called for the meeting and then cancelled it in light of demands from France that any efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons include oversight, and consequences should Syria not abide by the agreement. – Ed.

Only recently it seemed as if Russia was defending a hopeless cause in the Syrian conflict, that the positions of all sides had long ago been determined and a new military strike by the USA — and following it, the toppling of the Assad regime — was impossible to avoid. Even about two weeks ago, it was hard to hear a kind word about our country, much less about its leaders, from the representatives of the Washington administration and President Obama himself. Russia was subjected to harsh condemnation for its position on Syria, for its harboring of Snowden, and for “bad” laws on gay propaganda, and the Russian president personally for trying to return to the era of the cold war and keeping a bored expression on his face in meetings with his American colleague. European colleagues of America on the whole shared the outrage about “incorrect” Russia and some particularly active citizens of Europe even demanded from their authorities transfer the winter Olympics to some more politically-correct place.

But from the morning of 10 September, suddenly everything changed, almost like the waving of a magic wand. President Obama, on the previous day in a television interview, had announced that he believed it was possible to review Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, in order to thus prevent Washington’s military action.

Then the bureaucrats of the American administration began to speak in a chorus that Russia’s proposal requires close study. Finally, Obama called for the vote in Congress on the resolution regarding the use of force to be postponed for a time, and in fact precisely in connection with reviewing Russia’s initiative. Then voices of approval were heard on the part of European allies; Angela Merkel shyly characterized the Putin-Lavrov initiative as “interesting”; her British colleague, David Cameron, more definitively called the Russian proposals “a big step forward”; and it would seem that France, the aggressively-minded country of the EU, had in general promised to support the Russian proposal at the UN Security Council.

Suddenly it turned out that everybody needed Russia and without it, it was impossible to move the issue beyond an impasse. In fact, four days after the fateful summit in St. Petersburg, we wrote in Izvestia that for Obama, the best way out of the emerging situation was to appeal to Russia to facilitate this issue. And that a possible scenario might be to have control over the chemical weapons reserves on the part of the country not hostile to the Assad regime. But if the mountain will not go to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain. Putin personally made the proposal to Obama and Obama seemed prepared to accept it, although he continued to speak about the need for a “limited strike” against Syria.

Of course this was a brilliant diplomatic step, immediately resolving an entire number of international conflicts. Obama got the opportunity under a face-saving excuse at once to avoid a military strike as senseless from all points of view, as well as an extremely unpleasant vote in Congress which, judging from the forecasts, did not bode anything well for the president. The Americans got a certain breathing space for the beginning of talks with Iran about the nuclear problem; in the event of a military strike against Syria, such talks would have been impossible. Israel will cease to be afraid both of the uncontrolled spread of chemical weapons in the region as well as the victories of jihadists in a country next door to them. In a way that previously had been inconceivable, Russia returned the international authority to itself.

It was as if in one stroke, world leaders dismissed from the world the prospect of more war in the region. You can imagine the joy of some of the experts and deputies of the State Duma, but it must be soberly understood… that any rejoicing in this situation would look premature. In the first place, the sides have not defined terms in the question as to what “international control” will mean. A meeting of the Security Council, where likely precisely this question should be discussed, was postponed indefinitely – the Western powers were clearly preparing their formulation and we can be one-hundred percent sure that it will differ from the Russian one.

The Gulf monarchs understand perfectly well that they will become the victims of compromise, and have expressed no joy regarding the Russian proposals. The neo-cons have already begun pressuring Obama with their statements that the Russian president has not so much “helped” the American president as much as “beaten” him. Senator John McCain, of course, didn’t wait long to call out Obama for accepting help from the hand of Vladimir Putin.

Thus, to cite [the famous Soviet movie spy hero Stierlitz], nothing is certain yet, and everything is only beginning. Russia will likely have to display a miracle of restraint and patience in order not to allow a virtual occupation of Syria by NATO forces, on the Yugoslav model, under the guise of “international control” over the chemical weapons. And efforts to interpret the initiative of our country in precisely that fashion will undoubtedly be made. With its unexpected move to the center of world politics, Russia today has provoked teeth-gritting on the part of many of its ill-wishers. And it must be a most sophisticated tactician and strategist in order to turn the fruits of peace-making into a long-term political advantage.

Now a great deal depends personally on Barack Obama. Obviously he has no consistent line of behavior regarding Russia because almost all members of his administration except those who prefer to remain silent regard our country without great enthusiasm. And he himself temporarily agreed to this deal clearly not from the good life, but because he was backed into a corner. He will have plenty of advisors who will try to explain to him that it is much more advantageous to strike Syria a few times then raise the status of Russia so significantly. This move in our global chess game can now be forecast with confidence. Now the task of Russian diplomacy consists of getting Obama to disregard these conversations and to simply ignore the usual claims of “dirty tricks” taking advantage of weakness.

What must be done for this? As a minimum, the question has to be raised on a more global plane – to speak not only of the Syrian potentials of chemical weapons, but about the reserves that are kept in other countries, for example in Northern Korea. This separate problem should be taken out to the sphere of “global initiatives” which are more correctly realized not only through government channels but with the help of independent civic organizations.

Thus, Russia’s good diplomatic move is not the end of the Syrian crisis but a reason for the beginning of the major, difficult work in Russia’s winning of world public opinion which cannot be turned around in one stroke. But now we at least know that it is in our powers to change if not everything, a great deal.