Exclusive: Official Washington loves to hate Russian President Putin, especially when he obstructs a neocon “regime change” scheme, with that animus now focused on Putin’s concern that overthrowing Syria’s government would risk a disastrous victory by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, says Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
After delivering arms to Bashar al-Assad’s besieged government in Syria and meeting with the leaders of Turkey, Israel and Palestine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has again made headlines by negotiating an agreement with Iraq, Iran and Syria to share intelligence about the growing threat from the Islamic State.
Washington was taken aback to see the U.S.-installed government in Iraq joining in the initiative. So was The New York Times, which for days had taken part in a White House-orchestrated campaign to poke fun at Putin and to make light of his efforts against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
After a series of increasingly silly articles accusing the Russian leader of “play[ing] the statesman” in order to distract his countrymen from a sinking ruble and acting as a wannabe “man of action” plagued by feelings of “insecurity and fear of displaying weakness,” Michael R. Gordon, the Times’ in-house hawk, was reduced to arguing that Putin’s real goal in Syria is to attack “opposition fighters who are focused on battling Mr. Assad’s government and who are also backed by the United States.”
It was a last-ditch effort to discredit a leader who has convinced three major players in the Middle East that his anti-ISIS credentials are genuine. But since the U.S. is obviously befuddled by Russia’s foray into Middle East politics, it seems appropriate to ask: what is Putin really up to? If he is clearly more than the Russian Walter Mitty that the Times has made him out to be, then what is his real goal in Syria to combat ISIS or something more?
A clue comes from the same Times news analysis depicting Putin as a would-be superhero filled with fear and insecurity. “Although he liked to portray himself as a young tough raised in Leningrad,” reporter Steven Lee Myers wrote in the Sunday Opinion section, “he took up martial arts as a slight boy, by his own account, to protect himself from courtyard bullies.” Whether or not the strategy worked judo’s real-life effectiveness is subject to debate it may provide insight into his diplomatic strategy.
After all, judo rests on the idea that a smaller, weaker person can use his opponent’s size and strength to his own advantage. Although Russia still controls a formidable nuclear arsenal, its power has obviously faded from Soviet days, and it is plainly no match for the U.S., whose military expenditures, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, outrank it by better than seven to one.
So what should Russia do against the world’s sole remaining superpower? The answer is to take a lesson from the judo handbook and wait for the right moment to use America’s clout against it. That moment may be now. Washington has obliged Putin by painting itself into a corner in not just one, but two crisis zones, eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The first is a result of America’s own drang nach osten, the German drive to the east that culminated in Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Decades later, version 2.0 has taken NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep.
As ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has shown the legendary Texas fixer James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that if he said yes to German reunification under NATO auspices, there would be “no expansion of NATO jurisdiction to the east, not one inch.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How NATO Jabs Russia on Ukraine.”]
Yet beginning in 1994, after the Soviet Union had collapsed, Bill Clinton declared that NATO should “should enlarge steadily, deliberately, openly,” while Republicans pushed for an even more aggressive policy. Beginning in 1999, NATO thus signed up a dozen new members, three of them Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania bordering on Russia directly.
Coupled with the unprecedented social and economic collapse under Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s call in his 1997 bestseller The Grand Chessboard for breaking up Russia into three separate parts and surrounding it with a ring of hostile states, the effect was to trigger alarms across the Russian Federation.
But the effect was not only to ratchet up Russian fears, but trigger a nationalist chain reaction across the entire region. At the prodding of super-hawk Sen. John McCain, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched an “ill-planned reconquista” of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which led to a thorough thrashing at the hands of the Russian military.
Plans for Ukraine’s entry into NATO continued apace despite a confidential warning by William J. Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, that “the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”
In December 2013, with Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland bragging that Washington had “invested more than $5 billion” to steer Ukrainian politics in a pro-U.S. direction, the stage was set for the Maidan protests and the country’s final splintering. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons and the Ukraine Coup.”]
Although the Obama administration blamed Russia for the secessionist movements that broke out in the Russian-speaking east, the Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko argued that the rebellions in Crimea and the Donbas were a “mirror image” of the Maidan protests in the west, driven by the same mix “of just causes and irrational fears.”
Putin saw what was happening and took advantage of it by absorbing the Crimea. But if anyone engineered the crisis, it was the U.S., which aggressively encouraged Ukrainian nationalists to press ahead with their coup d’Ã©tat.
In Ukraine, the U.S. has found itself backing a government under growing threat from neo-Nazi forces that had spearheaded the Maidan protests. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, the U.S. found itself grappling with a rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia. Presumably, this is not a position that President Obama wanted to be in, but one from which there was no escape.
Cornered in the Mideast
America’s plight in the Middle East is even worse. There, it finds itself at the mercy of two increasingly troublesome allies. The first is Israel, an “ethno-state” straight out of the strife-torn 1930s, as the historian Tony Judt famously argued, one in which Jewish supremacists rule over an Arab majority in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper.
For a quarter of a century, the U.S. has gone through the motions of overseeing negotiations for an independent Palestinian state, yet the situation has only deteriorated as the talks have dragged on. Israeli intransigence has been one factor in the ongoing debacle, but so is the sheer impracticality of trying to carve out two separate nations in a strife-torn area roughly the size of Massachusetts.
But America’s other ally Saudi Arabia may even be worse. One of the most dysfunctional states in history, it is both an absolute monarchy and an out-of-control kleptocracy ruled by thousands of princes who siphon off oil revenue, muscle in on local businesses, and jet off to Europe to visit the most exclusive shops and brothels.
When King Salman visited the French Riviera for a vacation, he stipulated that the local beach be sealed off to outsiders and two policewomen be removed to protect his privacy. When he visited Washington in early September, he booked the entire 222-room Four Seasons Hotel for him and his entourage and redecorated it with red carpets and gold furniture.
Yet behind all this opulence and bling stands a grim Wahhabist religious establishment that is the perfect complement to the ultra-orthodox rabbinate in Israel, one that is xenophobic, intolerant, and as thoroughly jihadist as any ISIS militant.
Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars building mosques and madrasas in order to spread fundamentalist Wahhabism across the globe. But the more it has expanded its ideological reach, the more it has come into conflict with Shi‘ism and other dissident branches of Islam.
As Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the U.S., once remarked to Richard Dearlove, chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
The result years later is a growing Saudi war of aggression against a “Shi‘ite crescent” aggression that has led to nightly bombing raids in Yemen, a brutal crackdown on democratic protesters in Shi‘ite-majority Bahrain, and funding for Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria who are at war with the Shi‘ite-led government in Damascus. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Dead-End in the Middle East.”]
Presumably, this is not a spot that Obama wants to be in. He would no doubt like to combat ISIS. But since Saudi Arabia’s top priority is toppling Assad, Obama holds his fire against ISIS when it is engaged in battle with Syrian government troops, according to The New York Times, and Obama looks the other way when the kingdom supplies Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, with U.S.-made TOW missiles. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
Obama also provides military assistance to the Saudis in their senseless war against Yemen because he can’t do otherwise without jeopardizing his relationship with King Salman. The U.S. is tied to the Saudis by oil and military weaponry, so there is a strong motive to play along.
This is where Putin’s judo skills come in. Essentially, the Russian president wants three things. Due to what even the Times admits is a growing danger of blowback — Putin is all too aware that 2,400 Russians have joined ISIS along with another 3,000 jihadis from formerly Soviet Central Asia — he wants a genuine multi-national effort to destroy ISIS and Al Nusra, not the pseudo-campaign put together by Washington and Riyadh.
Putin wants to buttress the Assad government not only because it is a longtime ally of Russia and the Soviets, but because its fall would pave the way for the ultimate nightmare of an ISIS takeover in Damascus. And Putin wants the U.S. to lift trade sanctions put in place following the absorption of the Crimea.
So far, Putin is ahead on the first two points and making steady progress on the third. Appalled by results of U.S.-sponsored regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the world’s public sentiment is aghast to see America embarking on the same ill-conceived venture in Syria. This is the case not only in the Third World which is never happy seeing an imperial power stomping on an ex-colony, but in the European Union, currently reeling under the impacts of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing from the results of U.S.-backed “regime change.”
Further, bombing ISIS or Al Qaeda positions in Syria without Damascus’ permission is a flagrant violation of international law. Yet Obama clings to the traditional U.S. position that it is legal if the U.S. does it because the U.S. is the global sovereign and therefore makes its own law. But growing numbers no longer see it that way.
The idea of battling ISIS but standing off while it battles Assad may make sense among foreign-policy “experts” in Washington, London and Paris. But this “strategy” is wearing thin even in Berlin, which is beginning to reconsider the wisdom of attempting to battle ISIS and Assad simultaneously. All too aware of the chaos that the war against Damascus is creating, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently called on Assad to be included in regional negotiations along with Russia and Iran.
Including Assad in an anti-ISIS coalition would infuriate the Saudis, but here opinion is also shifting. The more Americans learn about Saudi Arabia, the less they like it. The kingdom has executed 135 people so far this year, a 50-percent increase over 2014, mostly by public beheading. It has sentenced the liberal blogger Raif Badawi to a thousand lashes and Shi‘ite activist Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to death and crucifixion for the crime of participating in anti-government protests when he was just 17.
The U.S. condemns Assad for repressing Arab Spring protests in Syria but says nothing when Riyadh prepares to execute an Arab Spring protest leader in Saudi Arabia, a contradiction lost on no one except a few Washington warmongers.
Public opinion, on the other hand, appears to be slower to come around to Putin’s way of thinking on the Crimea. But following the July 11 shoot-out between neo-Nazis storm troopers and police in western Ukraine and then the Aug. 31 grenade attack in Kiev that killed three policemen and wounded more than 100, it is clear that the ultra-right threat is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination, but a growing danger that the Poroshenko government finds difficult to contain.
The more powerful groups like the Right Sector, the Azov battalion and the Svoboda party grow and throw their weight around, the more justified Russian-speakers in the east may seem in fleeing a state in which neo-Nazis are a significant force.
Moreover, xenophobia is spreading not just in the Ukraine, but throughout the entire eastern rim and in portions of western Europe as well where groups like Marine Le Pen’s National Front are making rapid strides. The refugee influx marks a melding of two crises as east European xenophobes rage equally at Russians and Muslim refugees.
Since the two crises are coming together, sober thinkers are beginning to realize that they must be addressed jointly if progress is to be made. This means not only a realistic solution in Syria in which Syria, Iran and Iraq take control of the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, but also the Ukraine where the Russophone desire for freedom and security should also be taken into account.
“Everyone knows Putin is right,” observes the British journalist Simon Jenkins following the Russian president’s address Monday to the UN General Assembly, “that the only way forward in Syria, if not to eternal slaughter, is via the established government of Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies. That is the realpolitik. That is what pragmatism dictates.
“In the secure west, foreign policy has long been a branch of domestic politics, with added sermonizing. ‘What to do,’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, even Ukraine, has been dictated not by what might work but what looks good. The megaphone is mightier than the brain.”
But the result of Americans and Brits “grandstanding at the UN this week seeing who can be ruder about Assad is that Vladimir Putin has gathered ever more cards to his pack.”
Indeed. Still, the odds are against Putin. America’s ties to the Saudis, to Victoria Nuland’s hand-picked government in Kiev, and to the increasingly nationalist regimes in “New Europe” are all too extensive to allow for much leeway.
The neocon foreign-policy establishment in Washington, more powerful than it has been in years, would not tolerate “Putinite” deviationism for an instant, and neither would America’s vast high-tech arms industry, which has grown dependent on sales to the Saudis and other Arab gulf states.
Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, who recently published a fiery anti-Assad column in The Guardian, would have conniptions, while hedge fund operator George Soros would likely dash off another article for The New York Review of Books mourning the inability of the EU to “protect itself from Putin’s Russia.” The New York Times editorial board would have the vapors.
On the other hand, Putin might make headway in detaching Germany, which would no doubt be a game-changer. But its deep links with the U.S. war machine render that unlikely too. The rigidities in the international system may be too much for even the most skillful judo master to flip, which is why the disaster in eastern Europe and the Middle East seems likely to intensify.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).