The New Statesman
It is probably embarrassing for many. It could even be as if someone has, by mistake, entered a parallel universe, where Russia sounds incredibly more nuanced and mature than the global superpower, the United States of America on a pressing international crisis. But unfortunately, sounding saner than the US has been the blighted plight of many, if not most nations, on a number of issues for a long time now. And that outflanking the current US president, a Nobel Peace Laureate to boot, has been the prerogative of the Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, is a scathing indictment of not only the pseudo-morality play that the US foreign policy has metamorphosed into over time, but also a tell tale sign that the world order might be on the brink of some serious change.
It was an exercise in unimaginable irony, perhaps. But Vladimir Putin’s positioning of himself as a global pacifist, a peacenik who understands realpolitik and can teach the ‘rudderless and outplayed’ Barack Obama a lesson or two in diplomacy and foreign policy, is both a shocker and a relief. For once, even those who loathe the homophobic, civil rights-mocking, bloodsport-loving Russian premier (who would perchance compare love to an escaped tiger from a zoo that must be brought under control with a shot of a tranquiliser dart), had no way but to agree with all the points put forward by the man in his The New York Times op-ed. Putin turned columnist and took to the pen to bring down the metaphorical sword, as it were, of Obama’s dipped-in-bogus-ethics plan to carry out a unilateral, UN-unapproved, ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Syria, a ‘limited strike’ in the claptrap of US military parlance.
‘The world knows that Vladimir Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize,’ rebuked Fox News commentator KT McFarland, going gaga over VlaPu’s proposal of peace and his effective insistence on withdrawing Obama’s aggressive, arms lobby-appeasing plan to strike Syria. Putin is an unlikely peacenik, even though rightwingers might agree with his domestic policies that reek of rampant human rights abuse and extreme authoritarianism. How to reconcile these two clashing, conflicting images of the same man? Well, just the way the mind behind Obamacare and staunch criticism of Iraq War is the same which had been pressing for strikes on Syria, echoing its antithesis George W Bush while warning that ‘inaction over Syria would remain in our conscience.’
BIRTH OF A PEACE SALESMAN
The spectacle unfolding on the world stage is a classic case of what the ancient Greek theatre termed peripetia, or a sudden and unexpected shift in fortunes. With the body-building wrestler, a former KGB guy, having a recent high-profile divorce under his kitty, thoroughly upstaging the quintessentially cerebral, master orator, Harvard-educated, former professor of constitutional law, not once but twice in a row, something must be not quite right, or not quite usual, in the scheme of things.
Let’s quickly trace the chain of events that created this intriguing and unlikely situation. The usual UN Security Council disagreements over Iran’s nuclear enrichment, Middle East unrest and sovereignty, etc., notwithstanding, what really set the ball rolling for Putin was the case of Edward Snowden. When it was revealed that the former CIA analyst turned ‘rogue whistleblower’, having pulled the plug on the American National Security Agency’s universal surveillance programmes (that spared no one, absolutely no one in the world, through its unscrupulous tie-ups with the nine biggest Internet giants, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and AOL) had managed to miraculously skirt the US authorities and resurface at a Moscow airport, Putin saw what others didn’t.
The Russian Machiavelli grabbed the first opportunity that presented itself and granted Snowden a one-year asylum, much to the US chagrin and international kudos. Moreover, when the Snowden affair worked out, and when the snooping controversy rocked the world, with ripples of that anti-US rage surge being felt to this date (for example, the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s cancelling the US trip for UN General Assembly meet starting 24 September in New York over evidence of her personal computers being hacked by the NSA), Putin realised the iron was hot enough for a second strike, in case a chance cropped up.
By the time the Snowden saga wrapped up, Putin had already entered the strange zone of international confusion and awe over his strong will to safeguard a ‘champion’ of civil liberty, freedom of expression and right to privacy, a cyber warrior, in other words, a hacktivist. This was in utter irony since tales of Putin’s merciless crackdowns on bloggers, opposition intellectuals and leaders, such as his earlier treatment of Gary Kasparov, and the recent political challenger Alexei Navalny, have been the stuff of modern lore. But resounding paradoxes aside, Putin was fast becoming an ace player in the game of chess that is peace diplomacy, and he was practically an autodidact in this matter.
A CHEMICAL ROMANCE
On 21 August, what made the international headlines the world over was that chemical weapon had been used in Syria, near a site in Damascus, killing about 1,300 people, including women and children. While conflicting reports of whether the nerve gas sarin had been used by the Syrian regime (the US claim) or the rebels (Russian, Chinese, Iranian claim) started pouring, US president Barack Obama started pushing for a military strike to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria, which in any case had been embroiled in a protracted civil war for over two years now, became the potential site for an Iraq redux.
However, sense prevailed over both the US Congress and the UK House of Parliament, as both the legislative bodies shot down the proposal, handing out resounding defeats to Obama in America and David Cameron in Britain. And this is exactly the time when Putin upped his ante. Not only did he thoroughly oppose the option to carry out drone attacks in Syria, in fact, Putin also managed to strike a deal with al-Assad for a phased handover of the chemical stockpile (majority of which, especially the nerve gas sarin, was imported from UK) to Russian authorities, aiming at a chemical disarmament of Syria. Thus, not only did the Russian premier avert a humanitarian crisis of gargantuan order, he also achieved through sound negotiations what could only be Obama’s wildest fantasy – Syria’s giving up of chemical weapons.
In a strange twist of fate, the wily old villain upstaged the dashing hero, became a champion of global peace and averted an international disaster. Moreover, the Russian leader’s elaborate plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles (themselves a legacy of the biggest exporters of arms, US & UK) under transnational control did manage to show the light at the end of the tunnel, and perhaps might even turn out to be the ultimate solution to the Damascus impasse, thoroughly discrediting the John Stuart Mill-inspired philosophy of ‘ethical intervention’ that fuses world politics with a personalised good versus bad debate. But what got Obama’s goat was when Putin, in his op-ed in NYT – perhaps a sanctimonious stretch too far, perhaps a masterstroke of supranational statesmanship – chided Obama for bullishly pressing for the war game, like boys with toys.
THE POWER OF PEN
Vladimir Putin’s article calmly laid out what most Americans and denizens of the world have come to understand – that war (even a morality-led military intervention) is good for no one except those who make pots of money buying and selling arms. The Russian president underscored that even a limited strike could result in ‘more innocent victims and escalation … increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism,’ and that ‘true inncocents’ in a civil war could still be found, especially where there are ‘few champions of democracy.’
Putin’s argument firmly puts under spotlight what has been the crux of America’s post-Cold War identity – a values-based foreign policy, immersed in the politics of good and evil. Unlike the US, Putin showed that there was no black and white in international relations, even though the US, undoubtedly the biggest perpetrator of extraterritorial violence, would like to project a there’s-no-grey-zone-in-foreign-policy-debates image. Clearly, the face of the former ‘evil empire’, Putin of Russia – who has his oligarch compatriots at his beck and call, and whose hands are after all bloodied from the brutal repression of rebellion in Chechnya, and whose track record is sullied by his meddling in internal affairs of neighbouring Georgia and Moldovia – casts an unlikely figure to preach from the pulpit lessons of peace and harmony. Moreover, this is the same Putin who had written another op-ed column in Times in 1999, that time in defence of strikes aimed at Dagestan. But a decade and half later, Putin is convinced that ‘no matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.’
THE MASTER STRATEGIST
It is obvious that Putin’s intentions behind the peace proposal had not only been about straightening out his prospects as a global statesman, an international pacifist, excuse the irony, but also of bailing out a significant ally of Kremlin in the Middle East. As NYT’s Bill Keller notes, passing the buck to the UN Security Council, where US, UK and France are offset by China and Russia, is actually a strategic victory for Putin, that underlines that Syrian crisis is not a battle for democracy but a civil war between an elected government and rebel factions.
So, along with the Snowden affair, Putin’s scoring over Obama on the Syrian crisis underlines the flowering of a new and unlikely statesman, whose clarity of thought and grounded, focused approach to things are a far cry from the confused desperation of the US president to walk a tightrope, bringing about civil liberties for racial and sexual minorities in his home country, while advocating bombing of another. Clearly, Putin is the new international heavyweight whom Obama better keep happy, even if simply to avoid being ridiculously outplayed again.