Vladimir Putin is playing to form in his presidential run, throwing out anti-US red meat right and left:
He told students in Siberia on Wednesday that the United States “wants to control everything” and seeks to make other countries its “vassals,” not allies.
This evokes a subject I hope to return to in more detail. Specifically, his remark has clearly Eurasianist (or Neo-Eurasianist) tones. One metaphor commonly used in Eurasianism (new and old–I won’t try to distinguish that much between them) is that of the US as Athens (or Carthage) and Russia as Sparta (or Rome): a commercial, maritime empire dominating a collection of vassal tribute states arrayed against a traditional, continental society.
Putin’s evocations of this theme tend to coincide with crises in which Russian political stability is in jeopardy. He made similar remarks after Beslan, for instance. Today, there are two crises that feed Putin’s anxiety. The first, of course, is the domestic political situation in Russia. The second is the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Syria is a nation that Russia, and the USSR before it, has invested in heavily. It is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East. It is the home of Russia’s only overseas base, Tartus, where the shambolic flotilla visited earlier this month.
Longtime ally Assad is under siege. Russia’s other longtime ally in the region, Khadaffy, is dead. Putin sees this all this as part of an Athenian-American plot to extend its dominance. He sees the protests in Moscow as another manifestation of this relentless campaign.
As a result, Russia is going all in to protect Assad, despite the latter’s incredible brutality in fighting against the uprising:
Moscow has been busy drawing “red lines” as it comes under pressure to stop shielding its old ally Assad and to use its power as a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member to push Damascus into ending the crackdown which has killed thousands of civilians.
Russia has erected a wall of noise, emphasizing it opposes sanctions against Syria – a major customer for its arms – and making clear it will block any attempt for the Council to endorse military intervention.
The latest test of Russia’s resolve, a new draft resolution backed by Western and Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, does not call for new sanctions or threaten military action – but it does call for Assad to cede power.
The draft says the Council supports an Arab League plan “to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system … including through the transfer of power from the President and transparent and fair elections.”
Moscow could potentially be appeased if the draft’s supporters remove the specific reference to the transfer of power by Assad or add a clause ruling out military intervention.
However, it may also demand a clear statement that Assad’s more violent opponents share blame for the bloodshed. Russia would also be pleased by the removal of a clause calling for “further measures” if Syria does not comply swiftly, wording that to Moscow smacks of sanctions.
Gennady Gatilov, a deputy foreign minister, said on Friday that Russia would not support a demand for Assad’s resignation and warned that a rushed vote would be doomed to failure, indicating Moscow could veto the draft in its current form.
Putin gives the US far too much credit for Machiavellian machinations. American policy in the Middle East has been confused and uncertain. It is pushed and pulled by conflicting considerations, realpolitik wrestling with humanitarian concerns, though of course from a Putinist perspective desires for democracy and freedom are merely an element of American realpolitik–hence the Russian intransigence on Syria.
What has transpired in the last 12 months in the Middle East is not evidently in American interest, viewed from a purely realist perspective. A nation interested in vassalage would have supported Mubarek: that’s what Athens would have done. The current situation in Egypt is hardly encouraging, either from a geopolitical or humanitarian/democratic perspective. If anything, the situation in Libya is even worse.
The fundamental problem is that trying to chart a transition from repressive systems to freer ones in the Middle East is devilish hard. The more repressive the system–with Libya and Syria being at the extreme repressive end of the scale–the more difficult the transition. As both Iraq and Libya demonstrate, these are fundamentally broken societies, with cultures with no tradition of either personal liberty or political democracy. There is no easy way from there to somewhere better: there’s not even reason to believe that there is any agreement between people in those societies and most in the West as to what would constitute better.
The West generally, and the US specifically, are at least trying to navigate a transition to something better. Russia has no desire to do anything of the kind. To Russia, it is all about stability, the body count be damned. Indeed, Russia is quite willing to help Assad add to the body count, as indicated by a recent shipment of small arms ammunition from Russia to Syria and the agreement to sell Yak-130 aircraft to the Syrian regime.
In so doing, Russia is doubling down, earning itself the enmity of many ordinary Syrians in the bargain. If Assad survives, Russia will have a beachhead–a very shaky one–in the Mediterranean, and the US will be dealt a setback. If he loses, all that is gone, and from Putin’s perspective, the loss is a leveraged one because it will resonate in Russia, emboldening the opposition by showing that authoritarians can be overthrown.
But Putin perceives no choice. Especially from his zero sum perspective, anything but Assad’s survival is a defeat.
So Russia is joining with China in a new sort of Holy Alliance, attempting frantically to protect authoritarian regimes (and worse) abroad in order to protect their own authoritarian systems.
This is understandable. This is what authoritarians do–from Sparta to the Holy Alliance. What is more troubling is that these views are echoed in the West, and in the US, especially the the (convergent) progressive and Paulbot fringes, both of whom rail against the loss of liberty in the US and the US’s “imperialism”, all the while defending Putin, the quintessential anti-libertarian and anti-progressive. This is not explicable on the basis of a consistent defense of liberty, one that acknowledges the difficult choices in politics and diplomacy. As with Assange, it seems most explicable on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
And that is a very unholy alliance indeed.