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The Russians in Syria: Humbug and Hypocrisy

It’s a week since the Russians began their air-strikes in Syria, and the countries that have already been bombing there for over a year – the United States and some other NATO countries – are working themselves up into a rage about it. The Russians are not bombing the right people, they are killing civilians, they are reckless, dangerous, and just plain evil.

A statement last weekend by NATO’s 28 members warned of “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour” and urged Russia “to cease and desist.” When a Russian warplane attacking Islamist targets in northwestern Syria strayed across the frontier into Turkey for a few minutes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Turks would have been within their rights to shoot it down.

The weather was poor, the target was close to the border, and the Russians apologised afterwards, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the incursion “does not look like an accident.” So what does he think the motive was, then? Russian pilots are getting bored, and are having a competition to see who can stay in Turkish airspace longest without getting shot down?

And the wicked Russians are killing civilians with their bombs, we are told. Yes, of course they are. So is the American-led coalition with its bombs. Unless you are fighting at sea or in the open desert, there will always be civilians in the same area as the “legitimate” targets.

It’s particularly unbecoming for the United States to act holier-than-thou about the use of Russian air power in Syria, when it is simultaneously trying to explain why American planes bombed a hospital in Afghanistan last Saturday and killed 22 civilians. Neither Americans nor Russians gain anything by killing civilians; it’s just an inevitable by-product of bombing.

But the biggest Western complaint is that the Russians are bombing the wrong people. Contrary to American and European assertions, they are indeed bombing the “right” people, the troops of Islamic State that Western air forces have been bombing for the past year. But the Russians are also bombing the troops of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They might even bomb the troops of the Free Syrian Army, if they could find any.

Don’t they realise that these people are trying to overthrow the evil Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whereas the cruel and deluded fanatics who serve Islamic State are trying – well, actually, they are trying to overthrow the evil dictator Assad too.This brings us to the heart of the matter.

Western propaganda makes a systematic distinction between Islamic State (bad) and the “opposition” forces (all the other groups). The problem is that there is really little difference between them: they all want to overthrow the Syrian regime, and they are all Islamist jihadis except for the tattered remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

The Nusra Front was created in 2012 as the Syrian branch of ISIS (now Islamic State), and broke away early last year in a dispute over tactics and turf. It is now the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham was also founded by an al-Qaeda member, and is a close military and political ally of Nusra. And until the propaganda needs of the moment changed, even the United States admitted that the “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition had collapsed.

There are no reliable statistics on this, but a good guess would be that 35 percent of the rebel troops confronting Assad’s regime belong to Islamic State, 35 percent to the Nusra Front, 20 percent to Ahrar al-Sham, and ten percent odds and sods including the Free Syrian Army. In other words, at least 90 percent of the armed opposition are Islamists, and probably no more than 5 percent are secular, pro-democratic groups.

There are not three alternatives in Syria. There are only two: either Bashar al-Assad’s regime survives, or the Islamists take over. Really serious Islamists, who hate democracy, behead people, and plan to overthrow all the other Arab governments before they set out to conquer the rest of the world.

They are probably being a bit over-optimistic there, but they would be seriously dangerous people if they commanded the resources of the Syrian state, and they would be a calamity for Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims. The Russians have accepted this reality, decided that it is in their own interests for Assad to survive, and are acting accordingly.

The United States and its allies, by contrast, are hamstrung by their previous insistence that Assad must go on human rights grounds. They cannot change their tune now without losing face, so they don’t bomb Assad themselves, but they persist in the fantasy that some other force can be created in Syria that will defeat both Assad and Islamic State.

Moreover, the leaders of America’s two most important allies in the Muslim world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are determined that Assad should go (mainly because he is Shia, and they are Sunnis), and they would be very angry if the US helped him survive.

That, plus American anger at Russia over Ukraine and lingering hostility from the old Cold War, is why NATO is condemning the Russian intervention in Syria so vehemently. But it is all humbug and hypocrisy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“And the wicked…bombing”; and “Don’t…matter”)

Standing Up to Russian Aggression

Just before he sat down to a traditional Bavarian meal of sausages and beer with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the start of the G7 summit on Sunday, US President Barack Obama told the media that one of the meeting’s priorities would be discussing ways of “standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Which begs the question: what kind of aggression are we talking about here?

There are unquestionably Russian troops in the rebel provinces of eastern Ukraine, and that is certainly an act of aggression under international law. (The Russian troops there are definitely not just volunteers lending the rebels a hand while they are on leave, as Moscow maintains. How can we be sure? Because soldiers on leave do not take their tanks and artillery with them.)

But is this a prelude to a Russian invasion that would take over all of Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently alleged? If it is, it would require a whole different level of response, and the result could easily be a new Cold War.

Is it also the first step in a Russian campaign to take back everything that used to be part of the Soviet Union, and before that of the Russian empire, as many in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia and other former “Soviet Republics” fear? If so, “standing up to Russian aggression” would be an even bigger task, involving a major NATO troop build-up in Europe and probably a new nuclear arms race.

Might Russian President Vladimir Putin actually be the next would-be world conqueror, out of the same mould as Napoleon and Hitler? In that case, get ready for the Third World War, because it’s unlikely that anything less would stop him. So exactly what kind of aggressor Putin is matters quite a lot.

Here’s a clue: Putin was first elected president of Russia in 1999, and for his first fifteen years in power he didn’t attack anybody. (He responded very toughly to the cretinous Georgian attack on Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia in 2008, but he didn’t start that war.) On the whole, would-be world conquerors don’t wait fifteen years before making their first move. They get started as soon as possible, because it’s a big job.

After three months of non-violent demonstrations against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in the winter of 2013-14, and after a day of shooting on Independence Square (the Maidan) in Kiev that killed at least fifty protesters and three policemen, Putin agreed to a deal on 21 February that promised new elections in Ukraine within a month.

It was always puzzling why the demonstrators went out onto the square and spent three bitterly cold months there demanding that Yanukovych quit right away, given that elections were due in Ukraine within a year. Why not stay warm at home and vote him out next year? He couldn’t do anything irrevocable in the meantime.

Never mind that. The representatives of the protesters definitely did agree to the deal hammered out by Russian and EU negotiators on the evening of 21 February 2014. Yanukovych was to resign and there would be new elections IN ONE MONTH. Yet only hours later the demonstrators attacked the presidential administration buildings and Yanukovych had to flee. Why couldn’t they wait even one month?

Maybe because they were afraid that they would lose the election. Kiev is in western Ukraine, where most people are strongly pro-Western and would like to join the European Union, even NATO if possible. It certainly looked to people watching it on television as if all Ukrainians wanted Yanukovych out.

But Yanukovuch had won the 2010 election fair and square with a 52 percent majority, thanks to the votes of eastern Ukrainians. Their ancestors had lived in the Russian empire for more than three centuries, unlike those of western Ukrainians. Most eastern Ukrainians speak Russian, share the Orthodox religion of Russians, are actually pro-Russian in general.

What’s more, eastern Ukraine is the home of almost all of the country’s heavy industry, and it was Russia that bought most of the coal, steel and industrial goods produced by eastern Ukrainians. It was their votes that elected Yanukovych in 2010, and there was no reason to believe that they would vote differently in 2014. There really was a coup in Kiev in 2014, and Putin was quite right to feel deceived and betrayed.

He was wrong to respond as he did, taking back the province of Crimea (which had an overwhelmingly Russian population but had been bundled into Ukraine in a Communist-era decision in 1954). He was very wrong to back the rebellion in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. If he actually encouraged them to rebel (which is not clear) he is even more in the wrong. It is all being done in defiance of international law.

But he is not setting out down the path of world conquest. He is not even planning to take over Ukraine. “Standing up to Putin” is an invigorating moral exercise, but it is not strictly speaking necessary.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Is it…race”; and “Here’s…job”)

Putin’s Resurrection

If he just had the ‘flu, why didn’t they say that he just had the ‘flu? We’d all have sent him get-well cards, and that would have been the end of it.

The lengthy and mysterious absence of Vladimir Putin ended on Monday, when the Russian president emerged in St. Petersburg to greet the visiting president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev. The only explanation he offered for his 11-day disappearance from public view was that “It would be boring without gossip.”

The rumour mill certainly went into overdrive during his absence. He had suffered a stroke. He was in Switzerland for the birth of his child with his alleged girlfriend, gymnast Alina Kabayeva. He’d had a face-lift, or maybe just another botox job. There had been a palace coup, perhaps connected in some way to the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last month.

All mere speculation, whose only useful function was to hold the ads apart. The Kremlin remains, as it was in Communist and Tsarist times, a place of perpetual intrigue, and Kremlinology is as imprecise a science as ever. There are clearly rival factions struggling to influence Putin’s decisions, but nobody can clearly say what they want or even who belongs to which one.

Why, for example, was Putin’s first action after his resurrection an order to put the Russian navy on full combat readiness in the Arctic, of all places? That’s a long way from Ukraine, which is the focus of the current confrontation between Russia and the Western powers. Is Putin opening up a new front, or just demonstrating his resolve? And if so, who is the demonstration aimed at? NATO? Some faction in the Kremlin? Both?

The problem with an opaque regime like Putin’s is the difficulty in reading its motives and intentions. Even democratic governments like that of the United States can be reckless and unpredictable – consider President George W. Bush’s decisions after 9/11 – but American policy is a miracle of transparency compared to the decision-making process in Moscow. The difference is stark, and it has serious effects in the real world.

At the moment, for example, there is a major debate underway in Washington (and in other NATO capitals as well) about whether Putin must now be seen as an “expansionist” leader who has to be stopped before he goes any farther. The debate strongly resembles the one about Soviet intentions after the Second World War, which ended in a Western decision that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power that had to be “contained”.

The debate back then drew heavily on analogies with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the failure of the policy of “appeasement” – and the decision to surround the Soviet Union with alliances and military bases, right or wrong, led to an extremely dangerous 40-year Cold War.

Hitler has been dead for 70 years and the world is now a very different place, but here comes the same old debate again. If you argue in Washington today that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are not the first step in his plan for world conquest, but just a clumsy over-reaction to the overthrow of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych by the rebels in Kiev a year ago, you can be sure that various people will accuse you of being an appeaser.

They don’t even understand what the “appeasement” policy actually involved. British defence spending, for example, more than doubled in the five years between Hitler’s rise to power and the decision to go to war with Hitler. They knew they might have to fight him in the end, but they used the time before they were ready to fight to see if he could be appeased by giving him back some of the territory Germany had lost after the First World War.

If it had worked, it would have been a lot cheaper than fighting a second world war. In the end it didn’t work, and so Britain and France went to war. But it is extremely unlikely that the NATO powers are in a similar situation now. For one thing, they never really disarmed after the end of the Cold War, so they don’t have to re-arm now even if Putin does turn out to have big plans.

If Putin really is planning on world conquest – or at least on recreating the old Soviet Union – then he has left it very late. Hitler started grabbing territory within a couple of years of coming to power. Apart from a little war with Georgia (which Georgia started), Putin has waited fifteen years to make his first move. If he does have a plan, it’s a very slow-moving one.

Besides, his strategists will be warning him that Russia could not hold up its end of a new Cold War for very long. Russia has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and it is now a largely de-industrialised petro-state with a GDP comparable to Italy’s. He is probably just blundering around, trying desperately to save face after his humiliation in last year’s Ukrainian revolution.

Unfortunately, what goes on inside the Kremlin is so obscure that nobody can be sure of his ultimate intentions. That leaves a nice large space for the hawks in the West to play in, and they are taking full advantage of it. But Putin probably just had a bad case of ‘flu.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 11. (“Why…both”; and “They…plans”)

Murder in Moscow

“Every time I call (my mother),” said Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recently, “she gives me a talking-to: ‘When will you stop being rude about Putin? He’ll kill you.’”

Now Nemtsov is dead: four bullets in the back as he was walking home in Moscow with his girlfriend on Friday night. The protest march against Putin and the war in Ukraine that he was planning to lead on Sunday became a memorial march instead.

So, two questions. Did President Vladimir Putin order the assassination? And if he didn’t, then who did, and why?

The hit was carried out with professional skill only three minutes’ walk from Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, in an area that is infested day and night by militia (police) on constant alert to break up demonstrations. You could put together a feature-length film with the footage from the countless CCTV cameras that tracked Nemtsov’s walk across the square and down to the bridge where he died.

It took accurate intelligence to know where Nemtsov would be on Friday night, and serious organisation and planning to carry out the killing in such a heavily policed area. That points to members of the military or security forces, though not necessarily to ones who were acting on official orders. Because the first thing to say about this murder is that it did not serve Putin’s purposes.

No doubt the Russian president disliked and despised Nemtsov, but neither he nor any other opposition leader posed any threat to Putin’s power. Thanks in large part to his seizure of Crimea and his military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Putin is currently enjoying an 85 percent approval rating with the Russian public. Why risk upsetting this happy relationship with the first public killing of a senior political figure in more than a decade?

It’s much more likely that the killing was carried out by serving or former soldiers or intelligence officers who took it upon themselves to eliminate an “anti-patriotic” politician who condemned “Putin’s War” in Ukraine. In the superheated atmosphere of nationalist paranoia that currently prevails in Russia, such people could easily imagine that they were doing just what Putin secretly wanted.

Putin is too clever to want that, and immediately condemned the killing as “vile and cynical.” It was a curious choice of words: “vile”, of course, but why “cynical”? The reason became clear when various senior regime members began hinting that the murder was a “provocation” by the Western intelligence services or even by Nemtsov’s own opposition colleagues, killing him to stimulate dissent and bring the Russian state into disrepute.

This murder will have no permanent impact either on Russia’s internal politics or on its relations with the rest of the world. The paranoid style is now so deeply entrenched in Russian politics that people who support Putin (i.e. most people) will either believe the nonsense about Nemtsov’s murder being a “provocation”, or be privately glad that Putin acts so decisively (as they imagine) to protect Russia from its myriad enemies.

As for the rest of the world (or at least the “western” part of the world), it has already written Putin off as a man you can do business with. The Russian leader is, in many Westerners’ eyes, an expansionist warlord who can only be contained by sanctions and threats. It may even take a new Cold War to stop him. Paranoia, alas, is a communicable disease.

The Western narrative that seeks to explain how, in less than a year, we have arrived at a point where the United States is contemplating supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine to kill Russian troops, has several large gaps. The first is that the revolution on the Maidan in Kiev last winter overthrew a legitimately elected Ukrainian president only a year before the next elections were due.

Putin initially accepted that outcome (with the elections moved up to only one month in the future), which was brokered by the European Union. In other words, he accepted the illegal overthrow of the pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, so long as free elections followed rapidly. Quite possibly because he thought Yanukovych’s supporters in the east might boost him back into the presidency again.

That same thought may also be why the revolutionaries in Kiev broke the deal and insisted on Yanukovych’s immediate removal from power. It was only then that Putin concluded that he was faced with a Western plot to whisk Ukraine into NATO and create a strategic and political threat on Russia’s southern frontier.

There was no such plot: NATO has not the slightest desire to assume responsibility for the defence of Ukraine. But there was a great deal of open Western rejoicing at Russia’s discomfiture, and Putin lost his customary cool and responded with the annexation of Crimea and then the encouragement of pro-Russian rebels in southeastern Ukraine.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. “All great men are bad.” In that sense, Putin is a bad man, and more dangerous for being both paranoid and increasingly isolated. (His circle of advisers has dwindled to a handful of hawks.) But he is not planning to conquer even Ukraine, let alone the rest of the former Soviet empire, and he almost certainly did not order Nemtsov’s death.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Putin…enemies”)