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Decoding Putin’s Op-Ed

Vladimir_Putin_without_sunniesQuite apart from grammatical errors and occasional rambling, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in yesterday’s Times bears at least two cold undertones. Putin employs a vocabulary of emotion and multilateralism. But his arguments, let us be sure, contain a persistent cynicism and deep partisanship.

Putin’s cynicism is evident, first, from his view that there exists “insufficient communication between our [the American and Russian] societies.” This is a remarkable acknowledgement of the limited affinity, real or rhetorical, between the American and Russian people. Few leaders suggest or acknowledge such things. They may argue against a country’s leaders, but tend inevitably to embrace its people. Such gestures are seen as good diplomacy and attractive behavior. Ronald Reagan’s January 16, 1984 speech on US-USSR relations is perhaps the most memorable in this regard. Reagan declaimed:

Well, those differences are differences in governmental structure and philosophy. The common interests have to do with the things of everyday life for people everywhere. Just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room… with a Jim and Sally… Would they then debate the differences between their respective governments? Or would they find themselves comparing notes about their children and what each other did for a living?

In contrast with Reagan’s words, Putin’s express no warmth.

Putin’s cynicism approaches its crescendo when, after scolding the United States over the course of two paragraphs, he rather emotionally writes: “this internal conflict (in Syria), fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.” Wow. One might almost be moved. Since, however, we are on the subject of foreign weapons, we might ask the following: Who, in fact, is one of Assad’s biggest suppliers, if not the biggest? One wonders why, when talking about his desire to address the Syrian conflict, Putin does not mention Russia’s own complicity in the bloodshed.

Putin’s cynicism reaches its zenith when he observes that “there is every reason to believe [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces.” This is an alarming remark. It comes after not only the US but other countries, too, have found communication intercepts and forensic evidence implicating the Assad government.

The other undertone in Putin’s op-ed is his selective—and partisan—view of the world. This is evidenced from his opinion on the function and reality of the UN and the UN Security Council. He extols the importance of the UN, noting that it has “underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.” However, he omits any mention of the Security Council’s by now predictable gridlock on matters relating to war. In the last several years, whenever the Security Council has had to debate on war, the debates have typically ended unresolved; the views held by the US, Britain and France are consistently irreconcilable with those of Russia and China. And so, whereas “consensus” might be desirable, what, one might ask, is to be done when in reality there exists little consensus but ample dysfunction? Perhaps dysfunction in the Security Council is Putin’s policy. For it would allow autocrats such as Assad—and Putin himself—to get away with all sorts of brutal policies at home. It would also allow Putin to uninhibitedly continue selling arms to Syria.

The cynical and the partisan go together in Putin’s piece. This chilling confluence is particularly distinct in one of Putin’s didactic remarks. “We must stop using the language of force,” he writes, “and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” This might be an admirable sentiment except that it comes from a man responsible for using the “language of force” against the gay community and opposition figures of his own country.

There seems to be only one way of reading Putin’s piece: Do not trust him.