Russia is a Beacon of Sanity About Syria

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 9, 2013

Russia-bashing and Putin-bashing, always fairly popular, have been much in fashion of late. Having lived for a while in Russia and before that the Soviet Union, as well as having devoted far too many hours to the study of Russian history, I might, in the past, have been sympathetic. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that in recent years Russia’s leaders have been beacons of sanity compared with their western counterparts, whose appetite for military misadventure would be comic if it were not so tragic. In resisting Barack Obama’s calls for military action against Syria, Vladimir Putin speaks for the world.

Russia’s decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ban on Americans adopting Russian children, and now the disagreements over Syria have seriously worsened Russian-American relations. In an unusually blunt statement, President Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of lying about al-Qaida’s role in the war in Syria.

Far from being a sign that the UN is failing, Russia’s willingness to use its veto shows that the UN is acting as it ought to — withholding legitimacy from acts that do not deserve to receive it.

“This was very unpleasant and surprising for me,” Putin said, “We talk to them (the Americans), and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying, and he knows that he is lying.”

“Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use,” shot back the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, “Russia continues to hold the (Security) Council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities.”

In this dispute, the Russians are far more representative of public opinion than the Americans. While the United States was able to extract a statement from a majority of G20 members calling for a “strong international response” to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the statement noticeably refrained from supporting military action. As Putin pointed out, only Canada, France, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.S.A. were in favour of such action, whereas Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, and South Africa were against, with the rest of the G20 decidedly cautious.

In fact, even the list of countries notionally in favour of military action is not as impressive as it might seem: the British government may support the idea, but its House of Commons has rejected it; Canada’s government supports the concept only in principle, but it isn’t prepared to do anything itself; and most significantly, it appears increasingly likely that the U.S. House of Representatives will vote against endorsing action against Syria. Indeed, if opinion polls are accurate, strong majorities in France, the U.K., and the U.S.A. are against the use of force.

When Putin expresses his skepticism about the claims of British, French, and American intelligence agencies regarding the alleged chemical attack, he is in tune with millions of people in the West; likewise when he argues that the consequences of attacking Syria will probably be negative. In demanding that Russia support his Syrian policy, President Obama is asking Putin to back something that even the American people do not believe in.

Despite its occasionally paranoid tendencies, Russian foreign policy is mercifully free of the messianic urge to reshape the world that characterizes the liberal interventionism of the great western powers. As a result, the Russians very often have a more realistic approach to international affairs, which makes them better judges of consequences. The world would have been much better off if George W. Bush and Tony Blair had listened to the Russians over Iraq, for instance. When opposing Anglo-American initiatives in the United Nations, Russia is not, as Samantha Power claims, shirking its international responsibilities. On the contrary, it is living up to them by refusing to support ill-judged initiatives and by pushing back against efforts to legitimize the use of force by the strong in international relations. Far from being a sign that the UN is failing, Russia’s willingness to use its veto shows that the UN is acting as it ought to — withholding legitimacy from acts that do not deserve to receive it.

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s military and financial dominance have meant that very few have been willing to oppose it, with the result that American foreign policy has gone badly astray. Dissent is a good thing, and it is in America’s interests to have somebody to point out the error of its ways and thereby restrain it. If Russia has the confidence to fulfil this role, this is something for which we should all be grateful.

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