Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why did Putin do it?

Like almost anyone watching, I would be delighted if a U.S. strike against Syria could be averted by an agreement to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control.

At the same time: A world in which Vladimir Putin defuses a crisis by proposing and following through on an executable plan to reduce violence is not the world I thought we live in.  I can't help but at least half-expect yesterday's hope to go up in a puff of smoke, perhaps as Assad simply denies that his regime has any chemical weapons (Syrian buy-in thus far has been voiced by foreign minister Walid al-Moualem). Yet events are rushing forward. France has proposed a Security Council resolution calling on Syria to empower the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy its chemical weapons and require Syria to join the OPCW, the implementing authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention. It's hard to see Russia blocking some kind of Security Council resolution to execute its proposal, if not France's current draft per se, and China too has indicated support. So even if action to secure Syrian CW does not materialize quickly, the Russian proposal seems to be on course at least to break the Security Council logjam and hence defuse the impetus for near-unilateral U.S. action. 

Why did Putin do it? The authorization for military action against Syria that the administration has sought seemed headed for near-certain defeat.  Almost two thirds of Americans are opposed to a strike.  Regarding international conflict, Americans don't want the country to lead, whether from in front or behind. According to the latest New York Times/CBS poll, released today, 62 percent say the U.S. should not take the lead among all other countries in the world in trying to resolve international conflicts, and 61 percent oppose air strikes against Syria. Those numbers are trending the wrong way for the administration.  So why would Putin move to avert a military strike that pretty clearly was not going to happen, at least not until further atrocities hit the headlines? Four possibilities come to mind:

 a) The opprobrium of propping up a dictator who is slaughtering his own people with CW is wearing even for Russia and China (and Iran, whose people have traumatic cause to hate chemical weapons).

b) The Russians are worried about radical Islamists getting hold of Assad's CW. Similarly, the Russians don't want the Syrian civil war to further escalate and spread.

c) The Russians don't want the Obama presidency to implode, as Democrats are softer adversaries than Republicans (Romney famously called Russia "our number one geopolitical foe," and McCain cowboy diplomacy in Georgia prompted state-sponsored media speculation about "why McCain hates Russia so much").

d) The Russians want to kill all possibility of U.S. action against Syria. Former Bush spox Ari Fleisher advanced that hypothesis on Twitter:  "POTUS was pushing a boulder up a hill. Now that he's paused, no way he can push it further. There will be no Syria strike." When Obama spoke last night of a Senate vote not happening any time soon, I thought he might have fallen into a trap of this sort (the resolution does have a chance in the Senate; why not move swiftly there, then pause before any House vote?).  On the other hand, swift Security Council action would justify that pause.

I would guess that c) is the least likely of these possibilities and d) the most likely, perhaps with some tincture of a) and b). In fact, d) is manifestly true. Just as the U.S. and France are boasting that plans to strike Syria prompted the Russian move, the Russians are boasting about preventing a strike, as the Times reports:
Aleksei K. Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of Parliament, said in a posting on Twitter that the proposal “cut the ground from under Obama’s launching of military strikes.
The question, of course, is whether Russia intends to prevent the military strike without any cost to Syria, or rather to follow through on some kind of enforcement of its proposal. That enforcement may be nominal, and may lead to the kind of cat-and-mouse game that Saddam played with the U.N. But it will probably foerstall use of the weapons at least.

If the Russians want to boast that they stopped U.S. military action, and the U.S. wants to boast that it forced Security Council action, it's all good if both prove true.

Update: France's Security Council move suggests possibilities between the binary posed by Max Fisher yesterday:
But there’s also strong reason to suspect that Russia’s plan is a bluff, a clever chess move meant to delay a U.S. strike and force lengthy negotiations that will go nowhere. That would certainly be signature Lavrov. It could take months to negotiate over whether Assad would accept the plan, the process of surrendering the chemical weapons, where they’d go and so on. Meantime, the United  States would be beholden to delaying strikes. If Russia does just want to delay, it will have many opportunities to do so along the way, and in the meantime any momentum within Washington for action will be lost.
A resolution that actually passes the Security Council might have sufficient ambiguity to stimulate months of further jockeying over what kind of international action is called on to enforce noncompliance or partial or ambiguous compliance.  Recall that Saddam actually did allow intrusive new inspections in response to the Security Council resolution that the Bush administration won in late 2002. The U.S. could have followed through on the inspections and declared victory.  

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