Putin in the Times

Putin stencil. Belgrade, May 2009.

Followers of events in Syria were treated with a taste of the absurd this week. Vladimir Putin wrote a bizarre op-ed for the New York Times in which he argued against U.S. intervention. Predictably, it inspired an untold number of commentaries, ranging from sarcasm and ridicule, to blunt outrage from American leaders.  I’d only recommend Max Fisher’s piece in the Washington Post, since it takes Putin’s opinions more seriously than others.

Fisher realizes something that most analysts overlook: Putin isn’t actually wrong about many of the things that are written. Hypocrisy, and the fact that this is part of a cynical powerplay, does not mean that many of the statements are made in error. Rather, his op-ed is slickly crafted as the opinions of a wise statesmen who is more interested in an effective argument than tired Soviet-era propaganda about “Western imperialism.” The only outright factual exaggeration is this one:

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

There is not “every reason” to believe that it was used by opposition forces. Rather, as Putin is well aware, firmer evidence is still needed. I have read many analyses that snort at the idea that more information is required to rule out the possibility that opposition forces conducted the attack to invite foreign intervention. However, we need to be cautious about dismissing it outright. After all, the United States just concluded an occupation of Iraq that was justified primarily by intelligence obtained from a turncoat named Curveball, who admitted that his information on “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was a lie concocted to force American assistance in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. People sometimes use extraordinary means to guarantee the overthrow of a regime.

But quotes like this?

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Sure, they’re a stretch. As Fisher points out with this one, the U.N.’s founders had to make this decision more out of pragmatism, as states were unlikely to surrender their ability to invade other countries. However, they also aren’t totally unreasonable arguments, and demand subtle responses.

Ultimately, the op-ed’s words are carefully chosen, conveying a tone of an elder statesman advising his colleagues towards caution (even as it obviously seeks to embarrass American diplomatic efforts in Syria.) Putin is aware that these official arguments make for attractive propaganda because, when divorced from him personally, many readers would likely agree. Senator John McCain said that Putin’s op-ed  “insults the intelligence of every American,” but the fact is that it doesn’t. The reason it works as propaganda is precisely because it isn’t full of unintelligible lies. It’s an articulate piece of writing that coats the Russian leader’s moves in a false atmosphere of wisdom.

One almost forgets that it’s actually a piece written by an ex-KGB strongman, whose last article in the New York Times defended Russian military intervention in Chechnya.


Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Davis. Published with a Creative Commons License.

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