SYRIA. So, thanks to Putin, the US is not, as we speak, bombing away in a dubious cause to the benefit of its enemies. Having read a great deal of the commentary I am struck with the gulf between America’s opinioneers and its citizens. For example, compare this incoherent anti-Putin rant with the more considered comments of its readers. I have seen this almost universally: lots of Americans understand that they would be in another war if not for Putin. However, there remains a considerable pack of people who really, really want to go to war in Syria: here is a Canadian.

PUTINOPHILIA. A side effect of the Syria crisis is an admiration for Putin in the USA. This piece sums up some of it; another; different subject; this one suggests an interesting theory for all his macho activity. More examples at Russia Debate. A lot of it is disgust with Obama, but not all. Altogether an interesting phenomenon. Again the most interesting evidence is in the comments. I am pleased to see Bill Clinton saying Putin keeps his word. I agree after years of observation: he says what he means and means what he says.

IGNORANCE. Not only did Senator McCain think that Pravda would be a suitable place to retort to Putin’s editorial, but he got the wrong Pravda. He’s even more out of touch with reality than previously suspected. A window into the ignorance of the American anti-Russia brigade.

WEAPONS TO SYRIA. For what it’s worth, and to such experts as McCain it’s worth nothing, it has been officially announced that Moscow has signed no new arms supply contracts but it is fulfilling pre-2011 contracts of air defence and coastal defence missiles. Sergey Ivanov says the USSR did not supply warheads filled with CW to Syria. I notice the re-appearance of the story that Iraq’s CW was moved to Syria (production equipment more likely – Sarin doesn’t last long). But you don’t need a government to make it.

RUSSIA AND THE WORLD. Putin recently implied that the 1815 and 1945 settlements had endured because they involved Russia while 1919 had failed because it had not. An interesting take but I think that what he is really saying is that the only agreements or settlements that endure are consensual ones and that Russia, most of the time, is necessary to make that consensus – as are plenty of other countries, of course. For years Putin (and other Russian spokesman) have been saying that unilateralism doesn’t work: “Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply.” The Syria crisis is an opportunity to hammer the point home. Indeed, that was the whole point of Putin’s NYT piece (comments again pretty open-minded).

NGOs. The government is offering funding to certain NGOs. Golos – the so-called “only independent vote monitoring organisation” – was turned down for a grant. No surprise, I suppose, but what was interesting was that it applied in the first place. (BTW, “election monitoring” is a key weapon in the “colour revolution” arsenal as Michael McFaul artlessly reveals here. I especially enjoyed “Yet most of these groups believed that a free and fair election would mean victory for Viktor Yushchenko. And they were right.” We know how you will freely vote before you do.)

MOSCOW MAYOR. The incumbent Sergey Sobyanin won with just over 50%. The oppositionist Navalniy came second with something over a quarter, exceeding opinion poll predictions. What seems to have happened is that in a very low turnout of about a third, Navalniy was better able to mobilise his support. At any rate he’s claiming foul. But when so confirmed a Putin-hater as Latynina says it was a clean election, you know that that won’t fly (you may also deduce that Navalniy is losing ground among his fellow anti-Putinites.) In other elections the pedestal party won except in Yekaterinburg. I remind readers that the only real opposition in Russia that holds its ground and enjoys continued support is the Communist Party. And it just can’t muster the votes. The ones the West puffs come and go.

EARLIER MURDERS. The ex-policeman who was the spotter for the murderers of Anna Politkovskaya admitted in court that he also provided surveillance for the murderers of Paul Klebnikov. Klebnikov wrote books that seriously offended both Berezovskiy and a Chechen rebel commander. A trial accusing the latter failed.

GEORGIA. PM Ivanishvili says he plans to quit politics soon: “…when I am sure that the country is undergoing stable development”. Presidential elections, which will see the end of Saakashvili, are next month. We will see how soon “soon” is. But he has promised this from the start.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (

The World According to Putin

Note 2016. And now it transpires that Obama knew all along that the evidence that Assad was responsible for the Ghouta attack was weak.


The dénouement of the Syria crisis provides a learning opportunity for two inimical groups of Americans. For Obama’s admirers there is the uncomfortable revelation of his and his team’s unimpressive behaviour. They will have to process this revelation.

A more conflicted group, however, are the anti-Obamites. They are to a degree delighted to have Obama shown up; they gloat that Putin “schooled him”, made a fool of him and so forth. On the other hand some are starting to complain that the agreement legitimates Assad to a degree and, in the end, may not destroy any weapons. Some, convinced, as these people are, that Putin is not only the sworn enemy of the USA but also devilishly cunning (a favourite gibe is that while he plays chess, Obama plays tick-tack-toe or some other childish game), have decided that the agreement is a huge victory for Russia. Of course this gives them another opportunity to bash Obama’s leadership which is 90% of the point of these pieces, actually.

But none of these people notice the big news. Or, rather, the big non news. And that is that we are not today hearing and seeing attacks – attacks that while “unbelievably small” are not “pinpricks” – commanded by the uncertain; attacks that are unsupported by Congress, the American population or by allies. We do not see an intervention in a savage civil war that will benefit only the jihadist enemies the US is fighting elsewhere. We do not see the light-hearted beginning of another “short sharp” intervention that will drag on and on like the eight month Libyan intervention or the three month Kosovo intervention followed by 12 years of military occupation. That is the big news: the US is not getting stuck into another mess. Were Putin the cunning enemy so many think he is, he would have encouraged Washington: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Instead, he extracted it.

That is what was so unforgiveable about what he did: Putin the Evil saved America the Great from the folly of its leaders.

Readings Into Putin

The reaction to Putin’s essay in the New York Times shows how preconceptions can overwhelm reality. Because so many op-ed writers and politicians knew what Putin really meant, they didn’t pay much attention to what he actually said. Seeing Putin as an enemy, they failed to notice the obvious. If Putin really was the enemy they think he is, he would be delighted to see the USA mired in an incoherent military intervention – “limited”, “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small” but not “pinpricks” – with a vacillating leadership, opposed by two-thirds of its population, probably its legislature and most of the world and with no allies to speak of. Something that could only weaken the USA. On the contrary, he extracted the USA from this future.

The themes in his essay are ones with which Putin-watchers are familiar, the central one being “The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus”. In short, there is a set of international norms and rules to govern the use of armed force that have more-or-less worked for years. It is gravely weakened when “influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization”.

Who could deny that? Whatever one may think of the effectiveness of the UN, so long as one does not renounce it altogether – and Washington has not – then Putin is correct. Moscow has, of course, a strong self interest in preserving the UNSC but that does not make Putin’s defence of it stupid or wrong.

Putin believes that a US strike on Syria: “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”; Moscow is a proponent of the status quo; things can get worse. He reminds us that the overthrow of Khadafy spread trouble into Mali; they did get worse. He maintains that the fighting in Syria has nothing much to do with “democracy”. He reiterates for the nth time that Moscow is “not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” And that Moscow has many times called for talks without preconditions and blocked Washington’s demand that Assad must go first (how can you expect to have talks if the victor is pre-assigned)?

Some have taken contemptuous disagreement with his belief that it was not Assad that used poison gas. These people should speak more carefully: German intelligence is apparently doubtful, US intelligence is hardly certain either. Putin’s belief is not, therefore, outrageous.

So, familiar themes: the UNSC must be upheld (note that he nowhere suggests that it is perfect, just that it is all the world has today); intervention in a horrible civil war is not likely to make anyone happy and the USA’s behaviour is making it be seen as a bully. Altogether his remarks are unremarkable. Or would be, had they come from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or, come to think of it, Senator Obama a few years ago. But, because people know that Putin is an enemy, a dictator, a hypocrite, they know that what he is saying is… well, let us consider an incoherent piece in The New Yorker: despite the fact that Putin repeats points “made in good faith by American and Europe opponents of air strikes” it’s only “mendacity” and “hypocrisy”. So, even when Putin speaks the truth, he’s lying. Finally this curious retort: “‘American exceptionalism’ was Moscow’s idea. So quit complaining, Vladimir.”

But what seems to have made some Americans want to vomit was this paragraph: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force…”. Or that he questions “American exceptionalism”. But just what is “American exceptionalism” in this context? Washington can bomb anyone it wants? we must all go along with it when it does? the US is never wrong? only the US can criticise others ? what? And, anyway, how dare a thug like Putin lecture us!

The brutal truth is that the USA, in the person of its leaders, has looked ineffectual, confused, weak and alone. It was not Putin who did this. Putin in fact saved it from greater folly and that is hard to forgive. A real enemy would take delight in watching that train wreck develop. Instead Putin has given Obama a way out: perhaps not a “friend” but a concerned neighbour that would have to live with the results.

Even if the writers don’t get it, most of their readers seem to. The most recent three comments on The New Yorker piece at this time of writing are contrary to the author’s line: 1 “Is there any of you with enough humility to say the words THANK YOU to a world leader. Putin needs to receive a gift from the UNITED STATES.” 2 “Americans have had their nose put out of joint and received a lesson in -wait for it — rationality after the hysterical incoherence that has gripped the polity.” 3 “What is curious to me is what our own propaganda and actions looks like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to those countries when a President Bush lectures them? Or Obama?”

On the original NYT piece, the top three pick comments are: “Say what you will about the Russians and Mr. Putin in particular. This reaching out is unprecedented. Surly our country and our leaders cannot ignore this gesture from the Russian government.” The second one is rather scornful of Putin but the third is not: “Aside from the obviously specious claim that it was the rebels who used the gas, much of this post is thought provoking and has a tone of reasonableness that I find disturbing to my prejudices. What a crazy world we are living in when Russia sounds more sane and responsible than our own government on a serious international crisis”.

This disconnect shows a gap between Americans and their opinioneers and gives another example how pre-conceptions determine observation. And did we not see this before when the authorities ignored Moscow’s warnings about the Tsarnaev brothers? If you believe Putin is a thug then he has nothing to tell you and you don’t have to listen.

But it seems that few readers were fooled: opposition to involvement in the Syrian war was and is overwhelming; few supported Obama and his strikes; many are grateful to Putin for stopping another open-ended military operation.

As Putin pointed out, these “humanitarian interventions” not only are more complicated than expected (vide Somalia, Kosovo, Libya) but have unanticipated consequences. Whatever deficiencies the UN system has, it is better in most cases to operate within its creaky framework. Finally, Putin has a point: consider that Somalia had general UN support, Kosovo was agreed to by most of NATO, Libya by some of NATO and the putative Syria intervention by hardly anybody. It is becoming “commonplace”.