With this recent article in the New York Times Victor Sebestyen is the latest in a series of commentators who have downplayed the tempting assessment that the Crimean affair signals the prelude to a new Cold War. In a sense he is right. Indeed, Putin is not offering a universal “Big idea” to counter Western ideology. Indeed, Putin’s cronyism is hardly going to appeal to the masses outside Russia proper and its Russianized fringes. Indeed, it is quite ludicrous to presume that Ché Guevara’s grandson will take up arms to liberate South America in the name of Gazprom. If Putin’s goal were to appeal to this planet’s peoples by promising ‘Russian nationalism and gangster capitalism for all’, then – yes – he would obviously have lost his mind.
Putin has not lost his mind. What he sees quite clearly is that the winning strategy for his form of governance is not to compete by appealing to the people directly, but through their leaders. Instead of offering a universal ideology, Putin has systematically supported non-democratic leaders. Not being bound by scruples over human rights issues, democratic justification, or the defense of free speech, Putin has offered himself as the alternative benefactor for any leader whose style of leadership is, say, not in line with Western affinities. Thus, instead of offering Russian nationalism and Russian gangster capitalism, Putin’s offer to leaders around the world is to help them defend their own brand of these. What Putin is offering is not a Big idea, a univeral ideology, he’s offering a wordwide dictatorship franchise.
We can see this trend emerging in the Middle East. Take a country like Egypt for instance. Following last summer’s supposed (?) coup, the American government understandably acted hesitantly as it weighed the pro’s of holding on to a strategic alliance that has maintained the balance of power in the region for over 30 years and the con’s of supporting an undemocratic regime that has displayed no qualms about using force against its poputation and arresting tens of thousands on mostly trumped up charges. Russia, on the other hand, has used the occassion to take back its place as the rightful patron of Egypt, which it lost during the reign of Sadat. It has offered supported to replace that which would be lost under the Americans, it has invited Egypt’s new strongman to Moscow and it has started sending military envoys to Cairo on a regular basis. At the same time, the Egyptian military has used a (to some extent) similar form of nationalism to cement its control, while its deeper motives for wanting to hold on to power are quite probably related to the gangster capitalism that fueled Putin’s quest for power.
If this style of diplomacy is a trend – and it certainly seems to be – it becomes obvious why Putin doesn’t want to offer an alternative worldview He doesn’t need to. What he offers is an alternative way of running countries. What he supports is a destructive, morally inferior form of governance, but it is a form of governance nonetheless and one that will appeal to many in less-than-stable regions around the world. While we may not be witnessing the resumption of an ideology-laden Cold War, we may be on the verge of its post-modern baby sister.
First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be “disputed” territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels.
Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents. Neither appears to have been the case. Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels. No observer has suggested that its forces were losing. All indications are that the government’s command and control system not only remains intact but that it still includes among its senior commanders and private soldiers a high proportion of Sunni Muslims. Were the regime in decline, it would presumably have purged those whose loyalties were becoming suspect (i.e. the Sunni Muslims) or they would have bolted for cover. Neither happened.
Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would have aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arms depots or places where commanders congregated. The suburbs of Damascus offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout, blow.
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who was head of the Central Command when missiles were launched against Iraqi and Afghan targets warned (Ernesto Londoño and Ed O’Keefe, “imminent U.S. strike on Syria could draw nation into civil war,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2013) that “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.” Taking that first step would almost surely lead to other steps that in due course would put American troops on the ground in Syria as a similar process did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Stopping at the first step would be almost impossible as it was in those campaigns. As the former American ambassador to Syria commented “A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking.” And, Zinni put it in more pointed terms, “You’ll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to.”
The full letter by William R. Polk can be found here.
Now offering to replace Austrians on Golan border. Here, here. Gevalt.
[UPDATE: here. Apparently Israel is taking this worry seriously]
According to DEBKA, Putin has threatened Netanyahu with introducing the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles into the Syrian theater in case of further Israeli airstrikes. (DEBKA chastises Netanyahu for making a stop in Shanghai during his China trip, which allowed Putin to deliver the message in person).
As DEBKA points out, it appears from this event that Israel has underestimated the consequences of the weekend strike on Damascus. Otherwise Netanyahu would surely have avoided running into Putin. But is it really thinkable that Russia would introduce advanced SAM batteries to Syria at the time the West considers a no-fly zone? That would certainly be the most brazen sign yet of Russia re-assuming its Cold War posture, as well as proving an ironclad commitment to Assad’s survival.