What Obama doesn’t get about Russia
June 21st, 2013
10:06 AM ET

What Obama doesn’t get about Russia

By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Lucian Kim is a journalist who was based in Russia for eight years and chronicled the Moscow protest movement on his blog at luciankim.com. The views expressed are his own.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s euphoria over securing Russia’s joint sponsorship of a Syrian peace conference didn’t last very long. Soon after Kerry’s triumphant visit to Moscow in May, reports surfaced that Russia had made another weapons shipment to beleaguered Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s open support for the regime in Damascus didn’t stop Barack Obama from trying yet again to get President Vladimir Putin on board at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this week. The Obama administration is being either naive or delusional in its belief that Russia will ever pull in the same direction over Syria. Putin will back al-Assad to the bitter end.

The Kremlin’s support can’t just be explained by Syria’s arms purchases or its hosting of the only Russian naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea. Putin’s rationale for propping up al-Assad is rooted in the past and goes to the core of how he views his own claim to power. By continuously misreading Russian intentions, the Obama administration is abdicating its leadership role – and granting al-Assad extra breathing room.

For one, Russia has been a guardian of the status quo at least since the 19th century. After revolutionary fervor swept Europe in 1848, Czar Nicholas I helped the Austrian monarchy crush a Hungarian uprising. Later, the Soviet Union was just as interested in keeping out the contaminating influence of western liberalism, putting down an anti-communist rebellion in Hungary and invading its satellite Czechoslovakia to quash a reform-minded government. Even the five-day war with Georgia in 2008 can be seen as a police action designed to punish an enemy and reestablish order on Russia’s southern border.

More from GPS: Why Russia won't cut Syria loose

A second motivation for Kremlin intransigence over Syria is the memory of the Mujahideen, the U.S.-armed Islamic fighters who turned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into an unwinnable guerilla war. Russians don’t forget that Osama bin Laden funded the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan, and that al Qaeda and the Taliban both grew out of the Mujahideen. Putin holds a deep-seated suspicion that the West still aids Islamic extremists to damage Russian interests, for example in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region. It should come as no surprise that Russia opposes arming religiously motivated rebels in Syria.

The third reason follows from the second: a continuing belief that the U.S. will use any means – be it a smart bomb, a pro-democracy grant or Twitter – to achieve global domination. Mention of a no-fly zone over Syria doesn’t just remind Russian leaders of Libya, but also of their own impotence to stop U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. At times it seems the Kremlin has become a victim of its own anti-American propaganda. In any case, thwarting the U.S. over Syria is a kind of late revenge and raises Putin’s stature at home as a lone, defiant leader.

Finally, the Kremlin has to insist that al-Assad is the only legitimate leader of Syria because anything else would imply that street protests and outright rebellion are valid ways to change a government. As a KGB agent in East Germany, Putin watched as people power knocked down the Soviet empire like a house of cards in 1989. Now, as Russia’s supreme leader, he cannot condone regime change abroad or countenance its possibility at home.

Never has Russia looked so out of place at a G8 summit as this year. The wording on Syria in the final communiqué expressed “strong support” for the proposed peace conference, hardly a cause for hope.

Any course of action is fraught with danger. But pretending that Putin’s mind can still be changed is beginning to look like an excuse for inaction. In the meantime, al-Assad is using the delays to consolidate his gains and create facts on the ground.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Russia • Syria • United States

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. u.s.a

    time for Canada to be a world power again and clean up Russia. do all the dirty work like in ww2 and save the world

    June 23, 2013 at 1:45 am | Reply
    • Sean B.


      June 23, 2013 at 3:53 am | Reply
  2. reader

    I fully agree with Putin.
    Who is naive enough to think that the overly armed and experienced "rebels" (terrorists) in Syria want anything good? They don't want democracy, elections, or anything of that sort. They will never accept any elections. They will fight until Sharia is implemented everywhere, and everyone follows their views of religion. If the "rebels" have it there way, you will never see a Syrian woman's hair. All women will be hidden under Burkas, not be allowed into schools, and all the usual. Al Assad is the only peaceful solution.
    This is Syria to Al Assad: http://sana.sy/eng/28/2013/06/20/488436.htm
    Look at the free women. If the "rebels" win, people will suffer and be repressed.
    The "rebels" would have all these people executed as traitors to their religion.
    Europe only wants to sell weapons, for money and to please America. America may have a deeper, but completely misinformed and delusional agenda.
    The "rebels" will destroy any trace of history, and destroy any temple, historical sites that do not suit their views.

    June 23, 2013 at 4:16 am | Reply
    • Anonymous

      Well, the islamic republic is better than a dictatorship where thousands die for no apparent reason but for personal pleasure.

      June 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
      • Anonymous

        plus historical monuments are being destroyed now anyway

        June 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  3. carlos

    I have come to hate Americans to my bone marrow.I now understand and appreciate terrorism.

    June 23, 2013 at 7:29 am | Reply
    • Anonymous

      BOOO! U ARE BAD!

      June 24, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply
  4. Alex

    Or, or Lucian, perhaps Russian stance on Syria stems from the abysmal and catastrophic embarrassment that has been US policy in the middle east. Intentionally or unintentionally the US has managed to spread terrorism throughout the region, by destabilizing regimes and leaving them in power vacuum where extremists take root.

    What the Syria development shows is that America in reality cares very little about the "War on Terror". It is now openly supplying known Al Qaeda terrorists with weapons, in a desperate attempt to suppress Iranian influence in the Region.

    But here is where the best part is, after Assad with Iran and Hezbollah quell the Syrian rebellion, where in gods name do you think they will turn next?

    Better send Israel more fiat currency, because epic times are ahead.

    June 23, 2013 at 7:40 am | Reply
  5. Jordan Roberts

    Russia's role in Syria indicates a resurgent Russian state that matches a resurgent Iran. Both nations are seeking to increase their influence and power across the region, and are doing so at the cost of tens of thousands of lives ina dangerous game that will continue to destabilize an already fragile Middle East (as seen in this article: http://jcpa.org/article/the-arab-world-fears-the-safavid/. Iran cannot be allowed to takeover whatever remains of Syria after the war ends.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:28 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Another stupid comment from another mindless Tea Partier! This kind of ignorance will eventually bring this country to it's very knees!

      June 23, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
      • RealPolitik

        I beg to differ. It's the constant pacifistic whining and naïve outlook on the world that is far more dangerous to America. The underlying assumption of every troll who criticizes the use of force on an international stage is that every other actor on the global stage is a peace-loving hippy and that Russia, China and the Arab World would all join hands together with the rest of the world and sing "Save the World" if the big bad American wolf would just stop bother everyone! POWER DOES NOT EXIST IN A VACUUM...IF WE DON'T FILL THAT VACUUM, SOMEONE ELSE WILL! That's a basic and objective TRUTH that a lot of you whiners don't comprehend. We are slowly and cleverly pushing Russia out of the Middle East and thus denying them access to Arab oil (that they don't need for domestic consumption). And we are WINNING! We need to continue pushing, and isolate this perennial foe even further.

        June 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • Joe M.

        "Marine5484" is another Commie troll. It seems that Russian hackers have completely hacked and compromised this CNN forum. CNN needs to get its house in order.

        July 13, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • Mac

      The US isn't interested in increasing its influence?

      June 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  6. Mac

    Create a no fly zone and establish safe areas for the rebels to operate from using as many uavs as possible! Have a quick reaction force ready in case pilots eject over syria.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  7. RealPolitik

    Great article. Also, don't forget Russia's role and obstructionism in the Balkan conflicts where they sided with Serbian expansionism and ethnic cleansing. Obama is naïve when it comes to Russia and has been drinking way too much of his own Messianic Kool-Aide.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  8. da

    Keep giving these asshol*s as many weapons as possible for them to kill each other. Don't know if any Americans have died in this conflict and thats the idea. If we don't go back there, we have nothing to fear from arming them. Thats my myopic view.

    June 23, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  9. Jerry

    I have never seen so many ignorant people blog in here screaming for us to jump into Syria's civil war as I have here. Arguing with these warmongers here is like jumping into a discussion with a bunch of small town barflies who even find their rears with both hands! This kind of ignorance is truly appalling and nauseating!!!

    June 23, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Reply
    • Anonymous

      Good posting, Jerry. I too am disgusted with all these Russian bashing ignoramuses here who know absolutely nothing about that country and have never been there and are now hollering for us to jump into Syria!!! You're right on the money!

      June 24, 2013 at 8:33 am | Reply
  10. sayflyby

    not a bad gu that putin in meny was but these some thing thee with that meen mean meen sryde we know it glydes putin that snowden don't stand to clouse to that one ice iceden iced 4 shore anuff shore anuff yes.by now he,s having one of his wite boy from the hood appasodes he must be down at the gay bar over there.HAY JT.U PUNK,.pnm,.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  11. sayflyby

    not a bad man that putin in meny was ok is some thing with that meen mean meen sryde we know it glydes putin that snowden don't stand to clouse to that one his new name is going to be ice iceden iced 4 shore anuff shore anuff yes.by now he,s having one of his wite boy from the hood appasodes he must be down at the gay bar over there.HAY JT.U PUNK,.pnm,.

    June 23, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  12. Bruce Rubin


    June 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  13. sayflyby

    snowden must be some cined of snowgarila hes snowen you putin get read of that one he onl has what he steels he worthless USA TRASH,.pnm,.

    June 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Reply
    • Joe M.

      English language training in Russia must be really abysmal.

      July 17, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  14. Scott

    The peace conference does not matter at this point. There is little to no interest in peace among the belligerents and their foreign backers. Obama has done a good job keeping us out of this war up until now. It is not clear though if he will continue to do so.

    June 23, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Reply
  15. Osama Abukatta

    This is an excellent article and right on the money analysis....I can't agree more!!!

    June 24, 2013 at 2:28 am | Reply
  16. Peter Wozniak

    One, admittedly minor, factual correction: Although the revolution began in 1848, Russian forces did not cross the border into the Habsburg Empire until the following year. Hungarian general Artur Gorgey surrendered to the Russians at Vilagos on August 13, 1849.

    June 24, 2013 at 6:26 am | Reply
  17. Socrates

    I don't know why Putin doesn't understand that helping terrorists is the intelligent thing to do. We did it with Osama Bin Ladin and later we did great. Putin just doesn't get our way to do business.

    June 24, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  18. mike

    Sorry, but we are just honoring past agreements. Something America fails to do often..such as in the case of Afghan contractors, and also native americans.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:53 am | Reply
  19. roy

    Ezekiel 38 & 39 prophecies on Russia attacking Israel and G-d's reaction.

    June 27, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  20. James fandango

    Russia seriously does not take a nuclear Israel in a very respectful framework and Turkey as well both nations can and WILL combine forces against Russia AND Syria the dear President in Russia had better lay off his power drunk ways when dealing with the Israeli's IF Russia continues to supply Syria and IF this war simply over runs Israel the Israeli's will strike out and destroy the Russian outpost in Syria pure and simple and Turkey will crush the ground supply lines set up for Russia and Iran indeed .

    July 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  21. James fandango

    And the Sunni mainstream will slaughter the Al Qaedan radicals AND Iranian Rebels/special forces in the dead of the night. A traditional Arab way of house cleaning .

    July 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  22. Joe M.

    All Russian Commies are slaves to Russia's new absolute dictator, Putin, who rules his slaves with an iron fist like his idol, Stalin, who killed so many people in the old USSR.

    July 13, 2013 at 1:18 am | Reply
  23. Perry Tanko

    How much longer is this war in Syria going to last?

    July 15, 2013 at 5:01 am | Reply
  24. God Of Death

    Its not possible to aid Syrian rebels becouse there is no suficiently organised political movement, there are para military groups united fighting Assad, among them there are Al Qaeda terrorists, but its also more complicated, the rebels do not agree on the way to handle things after "defeating Al Assad" so its a ridiculous decision to support the uprising without solving this issue.
    Assad has a lot of military power remaining, which continuing a war would only cause a bloodbath, and a foreign direct intervention would leave him nothing to lose by using chemical weaponry.
    Its fundamental that the political side to be adressed, there must be a plan of concensus from the majority about what to do after Assad is out, an agreement about expeling fundamentalist and radicals from power influence and there must be a non interference in the political future of a new Syria ( no implanted nor pressed governments ).

    August 15, 2013 at 5:54 am | Reply
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