Thursday, September 12, 2013

Russia switches on the PR

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A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria

VLADIMIR V. PUTIN, New York Times Op-Ed, 11 September 2013

MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
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 world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.
We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.
A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.
I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations.
If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must
Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.

Russian Initiative Offers Hope Of Breakthrough on Syria War

Just a few days ago, Russian–US relations were seen as hopeless, but it was these two countries that were capable of coming up with an out-of-the-box idea for dealing with the Syrian problem. Russia proposed that Damascus put its chemical weapons under international control, and the Syrian government immediately agreed. At first this seemed to be an ad lib, but the notion had already come up in talks between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama and later between Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry.
Russia and America have a good history of working together to counteract weapons of mass destruction in other countries. Back in the days of the Cold War, despite their adversarial relationship, the Soviet intelligence services informed their American colleagues of South Africa’s nuclear program, and through joint efforts, the West and the USSR successfully pressured Pretoria to discontinue the program. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States helped Russia organize the work — at first on a political and diplomatic level, and then on a technical level — to move the nuclear arsenals from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan into Russian territory. In 2002, Russian and American specialists moved weapons-grade plutonium to Russia from Yugoslavia, where it had remained since the time of Josip Broz Tito’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. If they can reach agreement now on joint actions to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons capability, it would be serious evidence that Moscow and Washington are still responsible leaders on the issue of dealing with weapons of mass destruction left over from the days of the Cold War.

The move involving international control over Syria’s chemical weapons refocuses the debate away from the pointless argument over who used the poison gas, since there is not and will not be incontrovertible proof. There can be no objection to the core idea of this solution. If Syria signs the Chemical Weapons Convention and gives up its dangerous arsenal, that would be an unqualified blessing. The proposal could be implemented only cooperatively, through coordinated efforts by Russia, the United States, the United Nations, countries respected for their neutrality (Sweden and Switzerland come to mind) and the Syrian government.
Ultimately, everyone saves face, which is extremely important in big-time politics. Obama and the United States would have a way to avoid an unpopular war with unpredictable results. And they could claim that it was the threat of a military strike that forced Damascus to agree to give up its chemical weapons, and therefore the American policy succeeded. Russia would finally reap the fruits of its consistent position — Bashar al-Assad could agree only to a proposal from Moscow, which he trusts. Damascus would avoid a military strike from outside by sacrificing weapons that practically cannot be used without fatal consequences.

What are the main obstacles? Removing and destroying the Syrian arsenal would be a big and risky job, requiring a long time and a predictable situation on the ground. The rebels, of course, would not want it to succeed. They are relishing the prospect of serious foreign military assistance, on the pretext of solving the chemical weapons problem, which would change the balance of power. And the opposition, primarily the more radical groups, has an incentive to interfere with the implementation of the plan to relinquish chemical weapons.
The key to the success of the plan would be to draft the right UN Security Council resolution. From Russia’s perspective, the resolution could not take the form of an ultimatum to the Syrian government, authorizing military intervention in the event of non-compliance. The resolution should establish the legal basis for the process of neutralizing chemical weapons rather than identifying those guilty of using them, especially since this is impossible to prove. In this sense, Russia’s position would still not change — throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia has prevented the Security Council from adopting documents that could be interpreted as sanctioning the use of force. This reflects both Russia’s general approach to international law — an extremely cautious attitude toward interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states — and the lessons learned from the Libyan campaign. At the time, it was widely believed in Russia that Moscow’s goodwill in not blocking military intervention to protect the civilian population was used in order to legitimize regime change.
Of course, Moscow cannot be certain of Assad’s complete sincerity. But in this case, there is reason to believe that cooperation on chemical weapons is in his interest. First, it would actually eliminate the most obvious rationale for an attack. Second, it would allow Assad to look like a responsible head of state and burnish his image. Surely, in order for this to succeed, Russia will have to constantly remind the regime in Damascus that this is the last opportunity to avoid the use of force, and if it is lost, there will be nothing more that Moscow can do. This is also important to Russia, because only a political solution will vindicate the policy that the Kremlin has been pursuing for two and a half years.
The crucial factor for success is that, in tandem with the resolution of the chemical weapons crisis, efforts are undertaken to resolve the conflict overall. Syria’s problem is not chemical weapons, but rather the vicious conflict between various ethnic and sectarian groups in the country and throughout the Middle East. In effect, Syria needs a new model for a political system that reflects the interests of all segments of society, without excluding anyone.

For two years, the Syrian crisis has demonstrated the dysfunction of all international institutions and the powerlessness of the world community. For the first time, there is an opportunity not just to find a way out of this deadlock, but also to lay the foundation for constructive efforts to resolve similar regional conflicts, the number of which is likely to grow.
Over a year ago, on July 16, 2012, Foreign Minister Lavrov made an important statement that provides the key to understanding Russia’s position on Syria: “The model for how the international community responds to civil wars in the future will largely depend on the way the Syrian crisis is resolved.” Syria was called upon not to let the “international community” entrench the Libyan example as the model for future conflicts. From the perspective of Russian strategists, the Libyan model consists of this: In an internecine conflict, outside forces choose the “right” side and, by intervening, help it come to power. In Syria, as we can see, this approach has screeched to a halt. But this new initiative may become the prototype of a new cooperative model. 

Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs.

Putin: US on Dangerous Course In Syria

A pattern is emerging: The country holding the presidency of the G20 or the G8 carefully prepares an agenda, discusses it with its partners and puts together a program for the forum. Then something happens that either destroys the plans entirely or, at the least, fouls them up and forces an urgent discussion of the immediate crisis. Lebanon, Greece, Greece again, Libya, Cyprus and now Syria. In the modern world, nothing can be planned. Everything has to be done ad hoc, frantically reacting to events in hopes of guessing right.
Just two months ago, some looked forward to the summit in St. Petersburg mainly as an opportunity to open a new chapter in Russian-US relations. To some extent it was, but in the opposite direction. Instead of a pragmatic attempt to move toward a set of topics for dialogue, firm confirmation arrived that no dialogue exists or is foreseeable. The appearance of Edward Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor, forced President Barack Obama to cancel a separate trip to Moscow on the eve of the summit, and the scandal involving the use of chemical weapons in Syria made it pointless to even have a private conversation at the G20 meeting.
Obama will arrive at the forum having announced in advance that a strike will be launched regardless of the position of the UN Security Council and the objections of other countries. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which the US president would take back these words in response to the arguments made by leaders who disagree. Politically, this is simply unthinkable and produces an absurd conversation in which everyone knows there is no chance of changing anyone's mind. So why waste the time?
From Russia’s perspective, everything happening around Syria today is a grandiose propaganda campaign with an incomprehensible purpose, because anyone can tell by looking at Obama how much he does not want to get drawn into another military action in the Middle East. Concepts are being blatantly manipulated: Chemical weapons were used in Syria (which is probably true), so the “red line” has been crossed and therefore a strike must be launched against the regime. It is taken for granted that only the government side could use chemical weapons.
One can assume so, but it would be nice to have even a little evidence. The body of evidence cited by the United States amounts to nothing more than a mantra: We have no doubt that it was Assad. We have incontrovertible evidence. The evidence is secret, of course, but we have it, believe us.
If not for Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN Security Council and Prime Minister Tony Blair before the Parliament 10 years ago, it would be possible to cite “perfectly reliable” intelligence. After the Iraq precedent, however, this no longer works. Of course, every intelligence service has information that it cannot disclose, but to justify a war, one must provide something, at least the recording of the conversation in which Assad’s officers supposedly discuss the attack. Let the public hear it. There is still nothing but statements, even if they are absolutely definitive and permit no doubt about the regime’s guilt.

Until the last few days, Russia’s reaction to the growing American campaign was relatively soft, much softer than was to be expected given the general state of the relationship. In an interview on the eve of the summit, Putin spoke calmly and even positively about Obama, and with regard to the plans in Syria, he said that Russia might even support strong measures if there is incontrovertible evidence of the Syrian army’s guilt. Of course, this means nothing, because almost any evidence can be seen as controvertible, but still. However, the more the conflict intensifies and moves closer to a war that clearly raises doubts even among many US allies, the more the American political machine will operate in a straightforward and linear way. Public opinion in America and the world must be quickly prepared for the campaign, so the propaganda push will intensify, including accusations that Russia cynically supports the bloody dictator. An explanation is needed for bypassing the UN Security Council.
For its part, Russia will likely turn up the heat of criticism and attacks on the US policy, trying to mobilize important countries – its BRICS and SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, counterparts — that share its view. After the US attack, the political process to organize the Geneva II conference will probably stop, first, because its consequences are unclear and time is needed to evaluate the situation, and second, because Moscow’s desire to work with Washington will rapidly cool.
In Russia, many people are pointing out the surprising shift in the dispute over the legitimacy of using force. Moscow is taking the traditional position — without sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, it is an aggression. Ten years ago, the United States had bypassed the Security Council in putting together its “coalition of the willing,” but the George W. Bush administration did not pretend that the Iraq War was legal from the perspective of international law.
Now Obama is announcing to the world that he will seek legitimacy for military action not from the international institution, but from his own country’s legislature. In other words, he is treating international and domestic legitimacy as equal, and the vote of the Congress will be seen as an absolutely lawful basis for action. This triumph of unilateralism will happen not under the neo-conservative Bush, but under the liberal left Obama, who has always insisted on the need for joint action in the world arena.

What does all this mean for US-Russian relations? The relationship is going through a strange phase. It is not hostility in the classical sense of a military or political rivalry or an ideological conflict. There is, instead, a growing alienation, a gulf in mutual understanding. In the United States, it seems that almost no one can understand why Russia and President Vladimir Putin have latched on to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and thus have tried to find rational explanations, like arms contracts. Explanations involving principles of international relations, noninterference and concerns about making things worse are treated with skepticism. Such can’t be taken seriously.
In Russia, in turn, many people sincerely cannot understand what exactly the United States is doing in the Middle East. What does it hope to achieve? Its actions look contradictory and inconsistent. Obama comes across as either a befuddled simpleton or a cynical manipulator. As the discussions in Mexico and Northern Ireland have demonstrated, personal meetings between leaders do not clarify the situation, but quite the opposite.
In Russia, the United States is seen more and more as a source of global instability, made even more dangerous by the fact that its actions are dictated mainly by domestic political considerations and the alignment of forces between the parties in Congress. This is the reason for the desire to neither cooperate with nor resist the United States, but rather to try somehow to avoid it and minimize the risks from its policy. Until recently, the dominant viewpoint among the Russian public was that the United States always knows what it wants and pursues its goals. The aggrandizement of the American strategy found its apotheosis in the popular notion of “manageable chaos” promoted by conservatives in Russia. Supposedly, the United States is intentionally creating total chaos and turmoil in the Middle East so it will be easier to control everything in the muddy waters of never-ending crisis.
Now, of course, a different opinion is more often heard. The Americans are confused. They do not understand what to do, but they see the use of force as the solution to every problem, even when the consequences are unknown. Russia does not know how to work with such a partner. In any case, Putin seems inclined to this point of view.

Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs.

As Obama Pauses Action, Putin Takes Center Stage

STEVEN LEE MYERS, New York Times, 11 September 2013

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin has been many things to President Obama: a partner at times, an irritant more often, the host of the elusive Edward J. Snowden and “the bored kid in the back of the classroom” who offered so little on the administration’s foreign policy goals that Mr. Obama canceled plans to hold a summit meeting in Moscow last week.
Yet suddenly Mr. Putin has eclipsed Mr. Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis. He is offering a potential, if still highly uncertain, alternative to what he has vocally criticized as America’s militarism and reasserted Russian interests in a region where it had been marginalized since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although circumstances could shift yet again, Mr. Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington’s expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who President Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Mr. Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, to assert American priorities unilaterally.
More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Mr. Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region, even as far as Russia’s own restive Muslim regions, if it is mismanaged. He has boxed Mr. Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are accurate.
“Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday,” Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said in a conference call on Wednesday, “and I suspect he’s enjoying himself right now.”

In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times released on Wednesday, Mr. Putin laid down a strong challenge to Mr. Obama’s vision of how to address the turmoil, arguing that a military strike risked “spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders” and would violate international law, undermining postwar stability.
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States,” Mr. Putin wrote. “Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.”
When Mr. Putin returned to the presidency a year ago, he moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices. He shored up his position at home but, as his government promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, kept providing arms to the Syrian government and ultimately gave refuge to the leaker Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin was increasingly seen in the West as a calloused, out-of-touch modern-day czar.
Now he appears to be relishing a role as a statesman. His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in an interview that the Russian president was not seeking “ownership of the initiative,” but wanted only to promote a political solution to head off a wider military conflict in the Middle East.
“It’s only the beginning of the road,” Mr. Peskov said, “but it’s a very important beginning.”

To get started, Mr. Putin sent his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, to Geneva on Thursday to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, in hopes of hammering out the myriad logistical details of putting a sprawling network of chemical sites under international control in the middle of a deadly civil war.
Even that step was another indication of just how much the circumstances have changed in such a short time. Only a week ago, Mr. Putin was accusing Mr. Kerry of lying to Congress about the presence of militants allied with Al Qaeda in Syria. “He’s lying,” he said in televised remarks. “And he knows he’s lying. It’s sad.”
On Wednesday, when Russia submitted a package of proposals to the Americans and others ahead of that meeting in Geneva, Mr. Peskov again used the opportunity to try to paint Russia as the peacemaker to the United States’ war maker. Mr. Peskov declined to release details of the plan, other than to say Russia’s most important condition was that Syria’s willingness to give up its weapons could only be tested if the United States refrained from the retaliation Mr. Obama has threatened. “Any strike will make this impossible,” Mr. Peskov said.

From the start of the war two and a half years ago, Russia has been Syria’s strongest backer, using its veto repeatedly to block any meaningful action at the Security Council. While Russia has ties to the country dating to the Soviet era, including its only naval base left outside of the former Soviet republics, Mr. Putin’s primary goal is not preserving Mr. Assad’s government — despite arms sales that account for billions of dollars — as much as thwarting what he considers to be unbridled American power to topple governments it opposes.
Mr. Putin’s defense of Syria, including continuing assertions that the rebels, not government forces, had used chemical weapons, has at times made him seem intent on opposing the United States regardless of any contrary facts or evidence. Russia has long had the support of China at the Security Council, but Mr. Putin had won support for his position by exploiting the divisions that appeared between the United States and its allies. That was especially true after Britain’s Parliament refused to endorse military action, a step Mr. Putin described as mature.
He also slyly voiced encouragement when leaders of Russia’s Parliament suggested they go to the United States to lobby Congress to vote against the authorization Mr. Obama sought — something he himself would deride as unacceptable interference if the table were reversed.
Mr. Putin’s palpable hostility to what he views as the supersized influence of the United States around the world explains much of the anti-American sentiment that he and his supporters have stoked since he returned as president last year after serving four years as prime minister under his anointed successor, Dmitri A. Medvedev. It was under Mr. Medvedev that Russia abstained in a Security Council vote to authorize the NATO intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled that country’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Mr. Putin has made it clear that he would not repeat what most here consider a mistake that unleashed a wave of extremism that has spread across the region.

For now, Mr. Putin succeeded in forcing the international debate over Syria back to the Security Council, where Russia’s veto gives it a voice in any international response. With Russia’s relations with Europe increasingly strained over economic pressure and political issues, the Security Council gives Russia a voice in shaping geopolitics.
At the same time, Mr. Putin carries the risk of Russia again having to veto any security resolution that would back up the international control over Syria’s weapons with the threat of force, as France proposed.
Not surprisingly, given the Kremlin’s control over most media here, Mr. Putin’s 11th-hour gambit was nonetheless widely applauded. “The Russian president has become a hero in the world these days,” the newscast of NTV began on Wednesday night before going on to note that Mr. Putin should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize if he averted the American strike.
There was also satisfaction that it was Mr. Putin who gave an American president whom he clearly distrusts a way out of a political and diplomatic crisis of his own making. Aleksei K. Pushkov, the chairman of the lower house of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Obama should gratefully grab Russia’s proposal with “both hands.”
“It gives him a chance not to start another war, not to lose in the Congress and not to become the second Bush,” Mr. Pushkov said.

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