By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lucian Kim is a journalist who was based in Russia for eight years. He blogs at luciankim.com. The views expressed are his own.
Americans didn’t elect their president to be nice to Russia, just as Russians don’t expect their leader to dwell on foreigners’ sensibilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview last week. How surprising, then, that he would publish an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, appealing to the American people to withhold support for a military intervention in Syria.
Putin makes a number of reasonable, legitimate points, many of which have been voiced by skeptics in the U.S. and Europe. The problem is that the arguments in the article would be credible if they were made by some authority other than Putin – say the king of Sweden or the secretary general of the United Nations.
Putin correctly identifies the risks of a strike, for example that Syria’s civil war is hardly a clear-cut battle for democracy but a messy sectarian conflict. He is right to ask whether past interventions against Iraq and Libya have not encouraged other rogue regimes to seek weapons of mass destruction as a guarantee against attack. And it’s true that U.S. unilateralism over the last decade has bred suspicion and resentment around the world, even among America’s closest allies.
The Russian president’s plea for caution is sober enough. Yet it is riddled with contradictions that reveal his disingenuousness when it comes to the well-being of Syrians, Americans or global diplomacy.
“We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law,” Putin writes – a statement that flies in the face of the Kremlin’s unflagging support for Bashar al-Assad in the U.N. Security Council. Comfortable in the knowledge that the international community was divided, the Syrian leader ruthlessly cracked down on peaceful protests. Russian backing precluded a political solution from the start.
Putin’s sudden interest in “civilized diplomatic and political settlement” rings just as hollow, considering how Russia used overwhelming military force to redraw the borders of its southern neighbor Georgia in 2008. At the time, the Kremlin justified the war as a humanitarian intervention to stop a butcher – based on the precedents of Kosovo and Iraq.
Putin closes his article by taking President Obama to task for appealing to American exceptionalism in his address to the nation earlier this week. Coming from Putin, this complaint sounds almost comical.
The five-day Georgian War was the most blatant instance of Russian exceptionalism in recent years. And Putin’s highest foreign policy priority today is the creation of a “Eurasian Union,” an association of former Soviet republics with Russia as the first among equals.
Domestically, Putin likes to portray Russia as a unique state that belongs neither to Europe nor Asia – and therefore is free to develop its own style of government without having to ape western values or norms.
At the same time, Putin is obsessed with how the rest of the world views Russia now that the Soviet Union is gone forever.
Obama’s public agonizing over how to tackle Syria gave the Kremlin an opening to raise Russia’s stature as a peacemaker. On closer reading, Putin’s motivation to throw lifelines to Obama and al-Assad has less to do with U.S. unilateralism, international law or the fate of Syria.
It’s mostly about being important again.