His Syrian intervention has made Obama and Cameron look weak and confused
Saddam Hussein hanged: is Iraq a better place? A safer place? Gaddafi murdered in front of the viewers: is Libya a better place? Now we are demonising Assad. Can we try to draw lessons?— Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, United Nations, 1 October
The Spectator: Russia was right about Iraq and Libya, and America and Britain were dead wrong. Regime change doesn’t seem to have changed Middle Eastern countries for the better, as Vladimir Putin has been warning for years. His policy is not to support any armed groups ‘that attempt to resolve internal problems through force’ — by which he means rebels, ‘moderate’ or otherwise. In his words, the Kremlin always has ‘a nasty feeling that if such armed groups get support from abroad, the situation can end up deadlocked. We never know the true goals of these “freedom fighters” and we are concerned that the region could descend into chaos.’
Yet after a decade and a half of scolding the West for non-UN-sanctioned military interventions, Putin has now unilaterally committed Russian forces to what the former CIA director General David Petraeus calls the ‘geopolitical Chernobyl’ of Syria. Russia finds itself allied with Syria, Iraq and Iran — a new ‘coalition’ no less, as Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad described it on Iranian state TV last week. How and why did Putin fail to take his own advice about the unintended consequences that breed in middle-eastern quagmires? And most importantly, how has he managed — so far at least — to make Russia’s intervention in Syria into something close to a diplomatic triumph?
The Arab Spring has been a catastrophe, Putin argued, and the western countries who encouraged Arab democrats to rise against their corrupt old rulers opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. ‘Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,’ he told assembled delegates, in remarks aimed squarely at the White House. ‘Nobody cares about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced this situation, do you realise what you have done?’ It was quite a sight: a Russian president taking the moral high ground against an American president — and getting away with it.
It’s a message that encapsulates Putin’s world-view. Stability and predictability are better than the uncertainties of democracy and revolution — that’s been the Kremlin’s line ever since a wave of ‘colour’ revolutions swept away Putin’s allies across the former Soviet bloc. When the Arab Spring obliterated Russian buddies Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he had just the same idea. The Assad family — allies that Putin inherited from the days of Leonid Brezhnev — are simply the last of Moscow’s allies left standing in a world turned upside down by people power and its unpredictable consequences. In backing Assad, Putin is pushing back not just against the West and its support for democracy, but against the whole idea of popular revolt against authority.