By Patricia H Kushlis
Recent events have demonstrated yet again that Russians are Russians whether in charge of the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. Whether the Obama administration inadvertently stumbled onto this fact of life or not, Americans and others who worked on Soviet affairs during the Cold War could have told you that it takes a show of grit and demonstrated resolve to go up to and sometimes over the brink as the single way to bring the Russian government around and to the negotiating table.
In my experience near the end of the Brezhnev era, this also often required a show of irrefutable evidence and a demonstration of high drama combined with the threat of force, whisper of potential public embarrassment, imposition of a boycott or cancelation of an agreement the Soviets really wanted to induce them to change their position. It’s not that the Soviets were just being irrationally stubborn; it’s simply the way they operated in the international arena: push the opponent to the limit - then when it was made clear the red line had been crossed, back down.
In my view, the Russians have long been the underdog in the global power game but they have often played a weak hand to the maximum as I think they did and are doing in this latest skirmish over Syria’s chemical weapons. Vladimir Putin’s Op Ed in The New York Times on Wednesday – thanks in good measure, by the by, to Ketchum, an American public relations firm under contract to sell Russian government policies to Americans - is just the latest example. But to what end? What’s in it for the Putin government?
A page from the history books
In 1990, the Bush 41 administration understood this. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, worked assiduously over a period of months to assemble a coordinated, calculated, UN approved, measured military response against Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
Bush and Baker brought the Soviets into the picture early on: I still vividly remember the nearly impromptu Summit between Bush and Gorbachev held in Helsinki in September 1990 - the weekend after Labor Day. I had just returned from a first ever visit to Tallinn where I had learned about the upcoming meeting on the Estonian evening news. I was - unsurprisingly - handed, upon returning to Finland a message to report to work (nonstop) until that Summit was over.
Fortunately, the Embassy had hosted a Presidential visit by Ronald Reagan in 1988, the Finns were not only Summit-hardened but also enjoyed hosting high level visitors and as a consequence we – praise the lord and pass the ammunition – had excellent support and did not have to reinvent any logistical wheel. Besides, we wouldn’t have had time to do so. This also saved us with having to deal with all but a few of the usual phalanx of political hangers-on invited by the White House to “ride along for the advance or pre-advance – and help out.” Help out? Yeah right. Please, no. Far better: Stay home and watch events unfold in the media.
And today? Russia’s Only Client State in the Middle East?
What I find now, however, most intriguing is the Russian government’s seemingly singular ability to deliver – as it were – the Assad regime - something the Soviets and the Russian Federation were unable to do with Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the Assads learned something from that individual’s unhappy demise.
Maybe the Russians have finally woken up to the fact that since “most of Syria’s chemical weapons are Russian made” and their use against innocent Syrian civilians by their Middle Eastern client does nothing to enhance either Russian international popularity or prestige – that they could, rather, result in a military strike by the US that would degrade Syria’s overall military capabilities. Replacement would be costly to the Russian government which has fewer resources to burn since the price of oil and gas has fallen on international markets in recent years.
Furthermore, it would become a tragedy - not to mention an act of colossal irresponsibility and embarrassment - for CW from Syria to show up in Chechnya, the North Caucasus or elsewhere if and when Syria disintegrated and the regime’s poison gas depots were left unguarded – as the Poles and others have pointed out. Just think of the upcoming Sochi Olympics as one nightmare of a potential disaster.Syrian President Assad has finally publicly admitted that his government has chemical weapons – after bombarding the international and social media with disinformation stories for weeks that claimed innocence and that the chemical attacks had come from the rebels. I suspect the Russians and perhaps the Iranians have also had their fingers in those disinformation efforts.
The UN CW inspectors are supposed to come out with a report in the coming days confirming that CW (likely sarin gas) was used August 21 killing about 1,400 Syrian civilians, but not formally identifying the most likely culprits.
Vladimir Putin has yet to be as forthcoming as Assad, although both still cling to the fiction that the rebels let loose the chemicals – but at least, in a quick turnaround following Obama’s threatened military strikes, the Russians pressured their Syrian ally to agree to open its chemical weapons depots to international inspectors, to agree to sign on to the CW treaty and to the destruction of those poisonous weapons by an international team under UN auspices. This will take time especially the corralling, safe-guarding and destruction of the country’s reportedly massive CW stocks but it can be done.
I have to wonder if the sharing of some US intelligence – either by the US government, through access to Edward Snowden’s not so secret cache of secrets, garnered through open source surveillance, or even Wikileaks cables – may also have helped inspire the Russian policy change of heart. That the US is as wary of a Syria controlled by Salafists and is looking for a negotiated settlement among the parties and a country not ruled by Islamic extremists likely also helped.
As I wrote previously, “as UN and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi observed earlier last week, Obama is not the trigger-happy George W Bush who led the US and its allies down the garden path in 2003 using WMD as a pretext for invading Iraq and overturning Saddam Hussein. In fact, of course, American inspectors in the aftermath found no WMD.” Unfortunately, that colossal error in judgment and intentional misinformation now hangs over the Obama administration’s charges against Assad like an enormous black cloud over America's image at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, both the Russians and the US still have a long way to go in helping to resolve the two year old Syrian civil war. Even without targeted US air strikes designed to degrade the Assad regime’s military power, the path forward will be neither cheap nor certain. But we wouldn’t be there now without the Obama administration’s willingness to have upped the ante in this great power game of international politics. It looks like progress is finally beginning to have been made.