By James Kirchick
To best understand Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach to foreign policy, envision the world as a global protection racket.
From the Scottish borderlands of the 16th century to the American urban areas of the mid and late 20th, powerful clans have extorted weaker actors for “protection.” What these poor farmers or shop owners needed “protection” from were the purported guardians themselves: the raiders and mafia dons who threatened to steal and wreak violence unless tribute was promptly paid.
Russia behaves much the same way, creating problems where they previously didn’t exist, and then offering itself as indispensable to their resolution.
Take Ukraine. In the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan Revolution ousting pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the vast majority of Ukrainians supported a united country and opposed any Russian intervention in their domestic affairs. Broadcasting false reports of impending “genocide” against Russian speakers by a Ukrainian “fascist” “junta,” Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula using military forces without insignia. Soon thereafter, it began shipping weapons to “separatist” proxies in the country’s East, and, on the cusp of defeat by the Ukrainian military in the summer of 2014, inserted regular Russian forces into the country.
Today, while continuing to deny its blatant invasion of Ukraine, Russia has weaseled its way into the diplomatic negotiations established to decide the country’s fate. Along with France, Germany and Ukraine, Russia is a member of the “Normandy Format,” the quadripartite diplomatic initiative convened in June 2014 to resolve the crisis in Ukraine – a crisis entirely of Russia’s making.
And now Russia seeks to do the same in Syria, where its longtime client Bashar al-Assad is fighting for his life. Weeks after dispatching military equipment and personnel to the war-torn Levant, American administration officials, according to Politico, “still haven’t figured out” what Russia is up to in the Middle East. “The reality is we need to know more about what their intentions are,” a senior administration official is quoted as saying. The answer, however, couldn’t be clearer.
“That’s a nice country you’ve got there,” Putin is essentially telling the world. “Shame if something nasty was to happen to it.”
In his interview over the weekend with 60 Minutes and his speech Monday before the United Nations General Assembly, Putin laid out a tantalizing offer. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” the Russian president declared at the U.N. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
Likewise, Putin told Charlie Rose that, “more than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria” battling on behalf of the Islamic State. Russia and the West, Putin says, have a shared interest in propping up Assad as a means of defeating our mutual enemies in ISIS.
What Putin didn’t mention is the report from Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent Russian news sources, relating how “Russian special services have controlled” the transit of these Chechen fighters into Syria. Setting up these “ratlines,” similar to the escape routes that spirited Nazis out of Europe to South America after World War II, Moscow has redirected its own domestic jihadist threat to the Eastern Mediterranean charnel house.
And here is where everything circles back to Ukraine. Europeans weary of protracted conflict with Russia and eager to drop the sanctions imposed for its annexation of Crimea and warmongering in Donbas will argue that the common peril of ISIS poses a greater threat to the continent’s security than a frozen conflict in far-off Eastern Europe. Working with Putin to settle Syria, they imagine, will have the added benefit of stemming the flow of refugees overrunning Europe’s borders (never mind that the vast majority of fleeing Syrians say that they are running from Assad, not ISIS). Already German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have expressed interest in cooperating with Putin in the Middle East.
This would not be the first time the Russian president has swooped in to save the day. Recall in 2013, when Assad’s violation of President Barack Obama’s “red line” regarding the use of chemical weapons confronted the West with the thorny question of how it would respond. Putin offered the president a deal: work with the Assad regime to remove its chemical weapons stockpiles while refraining from taking military action against it. Three years later, a much-ballyhooed U.N. weapons inspection effort failed to eliminate Assad’s poison stores, and the Syrian dictator, having killed far more of his own people with conventional weapons anyway, remains in power.
We’ve seen this show before. Cooperating with Vladimir Putin in Syria would be like awarding an arsonist a job as a firefighter.