I was seated at the same dinner table as a couple of Russian émigrés two years ago. The couple, an engineer and a physician, had emigrated from Russia to Israel, and after a few years there, had moved to Canada. I know politics is a topic to be avoided at the dinner table, but I wanted to learn what Russians, and not just Western political pundits, thought of Vladimir Putin, and so I asked the engineer. I was struck by his favourable view of the Russian president. “He is a strong leader,” I remember his saying, approvingly. Putin is a strong leader, indeed, as events of the last few days have proven, and a shrewd one, too. The Russian president was watching as the US President and his Secretary of State dithered and stumbled, repeatedly. The former KGB officer saw a leadership vacuum, and made his move.
The Obama team has displayed a certain naïveté in regard to Russia from the get-go. Take Hillary Clinton’s cringe-inducing gift of a mock reset button, which looks even “cheesier” now than it did at the time. Back in March 2009, then US Secretary of State Clinton presented Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov with a green box tied up with a green ribbon. Inside was a red reset button bearing the Russian word peregruzka, meaning, ‘reset’–or that was what Clinton and her aides believed. The gift, a beaming Clinton told Lavrov, “represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is, ‘We want to reset our relationship.’ And so we will do it together.” She went on, “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” I can’t even begin to imagine Clinton’s embarrassment when Lavrov replied with undiplomatic forthrightness, “You got it wrong. This says ‘peregruzka’, which means ‘overcharged.’” Clinton’s mock reset button should have read instead perezagruzka. Her aide called the error a ‘typo’. Lavrov said he would put it on his desk, where it has no doubt generated a lot of commentary and laughter since.
Observing Vladimir Putin’s actions of late, one can only conclude that the Russian president has “pressed the reset button.” Putin has undergone a breath-taking transformation, from supporter of a brutal dictator to statesman. He has enhanced Russia’s standing in the world and challenged the US’s position as sole superpower, a position held since the collapse of the USSR. With the framing of the Russian-initiated agreement that would see Syria’s chemical weapons placed under international control, Russia has re-emerged on to the world stage. The Russian bear is back!
But it’s a gentler sort of bear now, a bear that writes and submits op-eds to newspapers. In his 12 September op-ed to The New York Times, Putin reminds American readers that “we are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (But God does not bless all people and all actions equally, Putin forget to mention.) I guess I get a little suspicious when I hear religious language coming from a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, from a man who joined the Communist party in his university days and remained a member until it was disbanded in 1991.
The Russian peace initiative agreed upon by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry on 14 September (on Yom Kippur, interestingly) would see Syria get rid of its chemical weapon arsenal while the US, in return, would stop arming the Syrian rebels, and retract its threat of a military strike. Putin, the peacemaker, has averted a war, true, but it is he and his client Bashar al-Assad who are the clear winners in all this. It’s difficult not to be cynical, given that Russia has been the Assad regime’s enabler, supplying it with weapons, and protecting it from military action by means of its veto power on the Security Council. So, thanks to the Russian-initiated agreement, Assad stays in power, Russia keeps its naval base at Tartus, the Shiite-bloc remains intact, and the fighting continues. The American president is a winner by default, helped out of a tough political fix of his own making.
What have the innocent civilians of Syria gained–the children and women, the elderly and infirm–gained from the Russian initiative? The knowledge that they will be maimed and killed in future days, not by sarin gas, but by conventional weapons only. Supporters of the Russia-US agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons see the agreement as a possible “stepping stone” to further peace negotiations. Let’s hope so, for the sake of the Syrian people.