Why did Russia veto the UN Security Council resolution over Syria?
Vladimir Isachenkov has an AP piece that offers some background; with that piece and the vast database and computer resources here at Team Mead’s GHQ in glamorous Queens, it’s possible to explain why Russia did what it did.
First point: domestic politics. Putin is running for reelection, and although the clueless MSM (the ones who thought the Egyptian revolution was all about liberals and tweeting) instinctively sees the issue as a contest between Putin and liberals, the opposition that worries him is on the right. They are ultra-nationalists and fascists steeped in crazy-think conspiracy theories and full of fear and hate.
It makes good electoral politics for Putin to run against the west and, especially, against the US, and that is exactly what he’s doing. As Isachenkov points out, Putin has accused US special forces of involvement with the death of Gaddafi and generally stepped up the anti-US rhetoric. This partly reflects his thinking — Putin is a classic Russian zero-sum realist who can’t decide whether the liberal internationalists in Washington are dumb and naive fools or deeply cynical master politicians whose deliberate use of a liberal rhetoric they themselves despise and disdain befuddles their enemies and wins support from a stupid public opinion.
He probably thinks it’s a mix of both: there are plenty of happy clappy Washington nincompoops who really believe all that liberal drivel, and behind the scenes are the real string pullers and hard players who use the silly sentimentalists to advance their agenda.
But whatever Putin thinks, and whatever his plans are for US-Russian relations in his new term, a mix of anti-American words and deeds that look bold but are in fact cautious is exactly what he needs for the campaign. A veto at the Security Council fills the bill: to Russian public opinion it looks bold, and it invokes those glorious past days when the USSR was a superpower. But it involves no military test of strength that could humiliate Russia by demonstrating its weakness — like poor Yeltsin’s abortive dispatch of Russians to Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars.
Given Putin’s political problems at home, he might well choose to use the Syrian issue to bolster his domestic support even if it cost him a lot overseas. At the end of the day, it is the survival of a regime at home rather than the interests of a nation abroad that often drives policy. (And while Putin is no doubt willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto power at home, it’s much more convenient when you don’t have to rig the elections too openly.)
But Russia also has calculations, some good and some not so good, about why the veto makes sense in the international arena.
For one thing, using the veto does remind people that Russia exists and that however diminished from the old days it may be, the old bear still has some teeth and claws left. Ignoring Russia and dissing Russia isn’t cost-free, and whenever an opportunity comes along to remind the world of that fact, any Russian leader will be tempted to take advantage.
Second, Russia has some specific grievances connected to Libya. What seems to really enrage the Russians is less the overthrow of the Great Loon than the cancellation of his many contracts with Russia and the refusal of the new government to give Russia a slice of the Libyan pie. Russia always thought the west’s democratic agenda in Libya was a laugh — and the antics of the thuggish new regime and the array of torturers and thieves now running rampant in that country has done little to dispel that view. (Again, the Putin/KGB worldview would suggest that the hard realists at the core of Washington’s power structure released the ninnies to dance themselves into a frenzy of humanitarian and democratic ecstasy while the cold purposes of the DC machine were advanced.)
But what Russia thought it expected and deserved in return for its abstention on the Libya vote was due consideration for its commercial interests in Libya. France, Britain and Qatar seem to be dividing that pie enthusiastically among themselves and nobody is thinking about Russia’s share and Russia’s price.
From that point of view, Russia has no choice but to bring the hammer down and make as much trouble as possible in Syria. That the western powers exceeded the limits of the resolution and did exactly what they wanted in Libya could be endured — if they had paid Moscow’s fair price. But they didn’t, and if Russia doesn’t respond, no one will ever respect its interests. It was cast a veto or change your name from Vladimir Putin to Patsy Pansy.
Third, the Middle East is increasingly divided along sectarian lines. There is a Sunni camp and there is a Shia camp. The Sunni camp (Saudi, the Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey) generally hates and fears Russia and enjoys the backing, however strained, of the US. There is nothing to be gained for Russia by trying to appease Sunni public opinion or dangling the bait of an alliance in front of the Sunni powers right now. Yes, the Arabs will demonstrate outside your embassies and even throw a few stones. Your name will be mud.
But long history has shown the cynics in the Kremlin just how little that really matters. The Arabs curse you today and bless you tomorrow — and vice versa. Public opinion is fickle and vain. Interests rule. Let the mobs howl, the intellectuals denounce: this means nothing and will pass.
For now, Russia has only one option in the Middle East: the Shia and the heterodox. Iran, Assad, but there is also Yemen. There are the anti-Sunni protests in pro-American Bahrain. There is the population of Oman, perhaps. By cementing bonds with the orphan Shia, deserted by all the great powers, full of resentment, Russia can keep a hand in the Middle East, even if it is a weak hand.
This is nothing new for Russia. In the Cold War, the USSR was the challenger and the weaker power. The US almost always got the A team, the power players. Russia was the leader of the outs and the revisionists, and Captain America was the leader of the status quo and the ins. So Russia gets the “B” team in the Middle East today — the Shia.
At least it’s a team.
And, the Russians presumably calculate, the Sunni alliance will soon begin to fracture. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have fundamentally different interests and visions. The ancestors of today’s Saudi kings and the Ottoman caliphs fought more than one war. The Islamists in Turkey are not Wahabi and have a radically different vision from that of the Saudis. Egypt doesn’t want Turkey to become the leader of the Sunni world either. And the Algerians and others in North Africa don’t want to see a new form of European domination in the 21st century.
The imposing coalition of the Europeans, Americans and the Sunni powers now assembled against Assad and through him Iran will not last. And when it crumbles, and the coalition partners of today begin to fight among themselves over the spoils, Russia will start to find friends. To be an anti-western, anti-American power in the Middle East is not, in the long run, to play a losing game.
An additional plus for the veto: everything we see in Iraq, Libya and even Egypt suggests that life after Assad in Syria is going to be pretty nasty. Throwing the responsibility for Syria’s future onto the western powers may not be such a dumb thing to do. If tribal and communal conflict spreads, if instability arches from Lebanon to Iraq in a series of sectarian bloodbaths, Russia’s hands will be clean.
Beyond the region, Russia has other motives for a veto. There are a lot of governments out there who worry that someday the fickle conscience of the western world will suddenly turn on them. For years you can peacefully and happily dominate your country, murdering and silencing opponents, diverting huge sums of money to the Cayman Islands and the Swiss banks while the west treats you with great respect. You visit the White House, you dine with the Queen.
Then the wind changes and you suddenly turn into a leper. You haven’t changed: you aren’t torturing more people more horribly in your jails and you haven’t upped the percentage of the national budget you send to tax havens every year, but now the Queen doesn’t answer your phone calls and the New York Times spits whenever your name is mentioned. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been writing terrible things about you for years, but now the State Department and the European Union are taking note of those reports.
You call your old friends and ask for help: how do I fix this, who do I pay? And nobody gives you an answer. In the past you’ve always been able to smooth over any problems: shoot a few too many demonstrators too close to the CNN office and you have a problem, but it can be fixed. Make a large donation to a think tank, invite a few experts to a conference, fire a minister, announce a reform, something.
But suddenly the things that used to work don’t work anymore. The think tanks and universities won’t take your money. The politicians won’t visit. They mock your reforms. You throw a few ministers to the wolves; the wolves just bay for more. Investigators are nosing around your bank accounts; the French start making difficulties about visits to that lovely villa by the shore.
That scenario haunts dictators all over the world. They know they can’t trust the US or Europe; you can’t buy their friendship, though you can rent it for a while.
But at the end of the day, there is Russia. Russia won’t ask embarrassing questions. The Russian banking system isn’t subject to unpredictable moral fits. In the last, desperate resort, the Black Sea isn’t as nice as the Riviera, but you can count on it. Stand by Russia and Russia will stand by you.
A reputation for reliability is not the worst thing in this crazy world of ours. Standing by Assad may have short term costs, but in the long term Russia gains from bolstering its image as a more trustworthy partner than the west.
Russia is a little bit like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, it reasons. Rather than being yet another acolyte of the hypocritical and insufferable Anglo-Saxon superpower, it will stand with almost anyone who joins the Great Refusal.
Syria and Iran are among the party of resistance. Syria may well go down, Iran might. Russia may not be able to prevent that, though it can try. But to let them go down without at least some kind of help would be a grave blunder from the Kremlin point of view. It would dramatically weaken the forces of resistance around the world — and it would undercut Moscow’s reputation as the friend of the friendless, the people who take your call when nobody else will. Standing by these guys now sends a message to a lot of other people who worry about the west. Contracts and other benefits will come Moscow’s way because of this stand. Count on it. Putin does.
And there is another option. As the crisis moves on, Russia has established itself as a possible interlocutor between Assad and the rest of the world. If the price is right and the time is right, Russia can broker a deal and collect some kind of fee.
From Putin’s point of view, wielding the veto was a no-brainer. The west wasn’t willing to offer anything like a good enough deal. Contracts in Libya, guarantees about commercial relations in the new Syria: the west probably wasn’t even speaking Russia’s language during the wrangling.
[Illustrations: Wikimedia. St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square; Young Vladimir Putin; The Ummayad Mosque of Damascus; Gaddafi at the African Union; pansy viola; distribution of Islamic schools and sects; the first issue of the Captain America comic, Marvel Comics; view of Sochi from the Black Sea; Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré.]