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Putin at the U.N., Russia in Syria: 10 Days That Shook the World

“Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness because his client Mr. Assad was crumbling.” President Obama, Friday, 2 October 2015

“I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, [Putin] is getting an ‘A’ and our president is not doing so well…They did not look good together.” Donald Trump, 29 September 2015

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

During the week beginning Monday, 28 September, changing and dramatic international news rushed by with the speed last reached at the onset of the Russian-Ukraine conflict in the spring of 2014. Journalists have been mustered by all media to follow events of the first order, from the 70th anniversary opening of the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, where Presidents Obama and Putin were awaited with great anticipation, through the releases of Russian footage of their bombing raids in Syria beginning on Wednesday, and closing with the summit in Paris of the Normandy Four – Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko – summoned to examine implementation of the Minsk-2 accords and plot the way forward.

During much of this time, as in the preceding week or so, Western officials were wrong-footed by the Russians who rolled out very consequential initiatives of military and diplomatic nature without the famously intrusive American intelligence ever having gotten a whiff of what was coming in advance. This left both the White House and the worldwide pool of journalists dependent on ‘heads up’ from Washington in a state of permanent confusion, scrambling to find a comeback. In this context, Obama’s response to questioning in a news conference at the week's end was emblematic, that Putin’s latest moves in Syria come from weakness; like the reduction of all Russian-related affairs to the personality of Vladimir Putin, denigration of Russia has been the consistent commentary from the White House whatever the news development of the day.

<figcaption>Game changer</figcaption>
Game changer

However, among the politically astute there was some appreciation for what the Russians were achieving. Donald Trump, who had initially sought to differentiate himself from both the Administration and from fellow Republican candidates by insisting that he could cut deals with Putin, then flip-flopped a couple of weeks ago to insist that he would be much tougher on the Russians than Obama, has returned to his starting position. On Tuesday, the Associated Press quoted him as saying with a backward glance at the General Assembly session the day before: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, [Putin’s getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well… They did not look good together.”

Some leading foreign policy professionals had essentially the same view. For example, the dean of the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Vali Nasr, no friend of Putin or the Russians generally, wrote an appreciation published by on 28 September: “No matter how this ends, for now Russia has changed the dynamics of the Syria crisis and opened up new possibilities….This could create a path out of the current impasse in Syria which would be welcome news.”

Nonetheless, nearly all commentary, both lay and professional, has tended to miss the ‘elephant in the room’ aspects of what has transpired this past week. In this essay my effort will be not so much to summarize what has occurred in the week gone by but to open up new dimensions of interpretation. Then I will conclude with remarks on what all of this may contribute to our conceptualization of the New World Order that has been very much on the mind of International Relations theorists ever since Russian action in Crimea changed the Post-Cold War mold.

The Prelude

On Friday, 25 September, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared before journalists in the Rose Garden by the White House, to present the conclusions of their talks on this state visit. Obama explained to reporters that they had reached agreement on the major issue for discussion, alleged Chinese hacking into US company computer systems for purposes of industrial espionage. In characteristically undiplomatic, simply rude language in the presence of the Chinese president, he went on to say that now the US would be monitoring to see that China’s good words were followed by good deeds.

In the case of President Putin’s address to the General Assembly on Monday, 28 September, we see that the Russians are practicing an inverted order: their game-changing deeds preceded Mr. Putin’s words over the course of the several weeks running up to the speech. They executed closely coordinated actions of their diplomatic and military services that imply a beehive of activity in Moscow.

During that period, they began moving large amounts of munitions and materiel into Syria at their naval base at Tartus and war planes with support crews to the nearby Latakia air base. These moves created considerable speculation in the Western media about Russian intentions. Such logistical moves are, by the way, precisely what the Russians did not do in the summer of 2014 when US and European media, led by Kiev, accused Moscow of invading Donbass.

Russian activities in Syria during September got press attention chiefly because of the U.S. obstacles that were put in their way: the orchestrated denial of overflight rights to Russian planes carrying freight to Syria through the Balkans, the most obvious route for such missions. Firstly the refusal came from Bulgaria, then from Greece. However, the Russians proceeded with their plans, re-routing to the East, and reaching Syria through Iran and Iraq, which turned down American requests in the matter. That cooperative stance by the Tehran and Baghdad administrations should have been the first indication that something serious was up, but the clue was not pursued by journalists.

Meanwhile in the week before the appearance of Obama and Putin in the United Nations, Russian diplomacy went into overdrive. On Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow with a team of top security and intelligence officials for meetings with their Russian counterparts. The Israelis’ stated concern was to avoid crossing paths with the Russians over interdiction of alleged transit of military materiel by Hezbollah across Syria now that Russia was intervening and closing Syrian air space to third parties, which had included the Israelis. The visit was quick and to all appearances successful. Russia’s key role in the region now had Jerusalem’s public acquiescence.

On Wednesday,23 September, for the opening of the newly completed Cathedral Mosque in Moscow, Europe’s largest, accommodating 10,000 worshipers, both President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were present and used the opportunity to meet with Vladimir Putin. The Turks were there to find a modus vivendi over Syria now that the Russians were moving in and the West’s option of imposing a ‘no fly zone’ on northern Syria, long advocated by Erdogan, was no longer viable. It now appeared as well that Erdogan’s insistence on the immediate removal of Assad from power was withdrawn. For his part, Abbas, whose presence was explained by his large personal financial contribution to the building of the mosque, welcomed the Russian initiative in Syria. Even at this early point, it was obvious that Russia was changing the game on the ground and in the air to frustrate those who had hoped to bring down Assad, namely the US and EU, the Gulf kingdoms and Turkey.

The rising tide of news about Russia’s activities in and around Syria peaked on Sunday, 27 September, the day before the General Assembly speech of Vladimir Putin. First through a leak on Sunday, then by official announcement later in the day, we learned that the Russians had reached agreement with the governments of Syria, Iran and Iraq to set up a jointly managed coordination center in Baghdad with revolving leadership for sharing intelligence about the Islamic State in a common mission to fight jihadism. The ability of the Russians to pull off such a diplomatic coup in complete secrecy from the 3,000 or so American military advisers in Baghdad was in itself a remarkable tribute to the New Russia. The ‘Old Russia,’ by which I mean the USSR, was known to professionals for its ‘loose lips.’

The release of information about this regional cooperation with the Russians over combating ISIS raised the level of expectations in Western, and also in Russian media with respect to Vladimir Putin’s planned speech to the UN General Assembly on Monday enormously. It was speculated that the speech would be devoted to Russia’s plans for an anti-terror campaign. The Russian leader’s motives were said to be to draw attention away from Russia’s fiasco in Ukraine and also to seek an early end to Western sanctions as reward for any measures to combat the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin leadership kept its cards close to its chest, saying only that the President would use the speech to give Russia’s views of all the key issues now facing the international community.

And in speaking of the Russians’ warm-up of Western anticipation about the speech, one must also mention the interview which Putin gave to Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose on Sunday. Putin made effective use of the shocking revelations during Congressional testimony the previous week showing that the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip “moderate Syrian opposition to Assad” had been a fiasco, with most of the trainees subsequently defecting to ISIS with their gear, and with just 5 trained opposition soldiers remaining true to the mission.

The Speech

By his own standards as a public speaker, Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly on 28 September was a mediocre speech devoid of sparkle. It was read out more as a necessity than a pleasure. Putin made no pauses to collect applause that other speakers before the General Assembly, most notably Barack Obama, had exercised.

There was good reason for restraint: Putin would be meeting with Obama for their first face-to-face talks in almost two years and he did not want to do anything that might compromise the success of those talks. He used coded language rather than the open accusations that Obama directed at Russia in general and Putin in particular in his speech delivered before the Russian President's arrival in New York. For his jabs at Uncle Sam, Putin wore boxing gloves rather than brass knuckles. But he landed body blows nonetheless, as I will set out below.

By the emphasis which the world media gave to Putin’s remarks in the speech on setting up a grand coalition against the Islamic State, one might think that this single issue was all the speech was about. However, that is a false analysis. His words about Syria and fighting the jihadists together accounted for 2.pages in a speech 10 typed pages long. As he had promised in advance, Putin covered a number of different issues whose commonality was the responsibility of the United States and its allies for backing the wrong side through their egoism and hubris, with lamentable consequences for the rest of the world.

Putin’s speech was well constructed, as usual. He opened by directing attention to the reason why he and so many other heads of state had come for this particular session whereas they had skipped previous years. They were there to mark 70 years since the ground work was done to create this organization in Yalta, in his country (no opportunity to highlight Russia's historic rights to Crimea is overlooked by the Russian leader). His words were not empty and abstract. Putin used the opportunity to remind the Assembly that disagreements between the major powers sitting on the Security Council had been a feature of the institution from the very beginning, and that nonetheless as the most authoritative and legitimate institution representing all of world opinion it had been a major contributor to global stability.

From this he moved to the issue of the right of veto by the Permanent Members of the Security Council, which of late has been politicized in an effort to strip Russia of its weight in the institution by depriving it of the veto. And from there he went straight to the question of how some powers (meaning the United States) have been undermining the UN by using the gridlock at the Security Council as grounds for assembling coalitions and waging military interventions in violation of the principles of the United Nations. Here we see his thinly veiled criticism of the US, identified by the code word ‘exceptionalism,’ used to justify violations of international law, a theme that appeared in many of his major addresses since his talk to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007. Indeed Putin’s denunciation of values-based or idealist foreign policy and his defense of Westphalian principles of equality of sovereign nation-states take up 1.5 pages in the 10 page speech.

The underlying concept of this World Order upheld by most nations but dismissed by Washington and Brussels he identified as real freedom – the freedom to pursue a unique national course of development without tutelage and interference. Not to criticize others from on high, Putin made reference to the Soviet experience of trying to impose its preferred social models on others which led to disasters. This he likened to the current aggressive policies of regime change by foreign (meaning Western) intervention that have created havoc and misery in North Africa and the Middle East. His line of argumentation ended in Putin’s direct challenge to the West: “Do you begin to understand now what you created?’ to which he added: “… I fear this question is left hanging in the air, because they have not turned away from a policy based on smugness, conviction in one’s exceptionalism and impunity.”

Other international issues Putin loaded into this speech included his condemnation of NATO expansion and the perpetuation of Cold War policies by the West; condemnation of the role of the West in Ukraine, where in his view it provoked the armed coup d’etat which led to the civil war. Then he introduced a new element in his litany of Western violations of the global institutions the West itself had crafted, now in the area of trade. He insisted it was the WTO principles were trampled by the unilateral imposition of trade sanctions against Russia in connection with developments in Ukraine. From there to the more general violation of WTO in the attempts to create large and exclusive trading blocs, meaning the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIPP) and the Trans Pacific Partnership being promoted by Washington. He pointed out, correctly I might add, that the negotiations relating to these new trade pacts are being held in secrecy from the populations of the respective partners, not to mention third countries that will be negatively impacted by the emerging mega-blocs.

Now let us take a brief look at his appeal for a grand coalition to combat the Islamic State. Putin’s vision of what lay behind this phenomenon did not mince words: it was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent decision to throw into the street Saddam Hussein’s decommissioned officers; it was the violent overthrow of Gaddafi and the ill-considered support for the armed opposition in Syria.

And he exposed the hypocrisy of those who say they are fighting against Islamic terrorism but do nothing to cut its flow of revenue, including from trade in oil and arms. As we soon were to learn, upon entering its fight in Syria, Russia would move precisely on this issue.

In the manner of a skilled orator, Putin closed his speech by returning to the role which the United Nations is expected to continue to play in preventing confrontations and laying down cooperation in world affairs.

Meeting with Obama and the Start of the Russian Armed Intervention in Syria

Obama’s private meeting with Putin which came a few hours after the latter’s speech was characterized by spokesmen close to the talks as “frank and constructive,” words usually used to describe sharp disagreement. However, it went on 1.5 hours, half an hour more than projected, which suggests that the accent may indeed have been on the ‘constructive’ side. Likely they reviewed what has to be done to ensure that Russian and US coalition forces in Syria do not clash accidentally or otherwise.

It was clear from the start that there would be no agreement leading to Russians joining the American coalition and subordinating themselves to US military leadership. After all, that very concept had been a bone of contention in the immediate post-Soviet period during the American led intervention in the Balkans of the 1990s. Moreover, the war aims of Russians and Americans are at loggerheads. The Russians openly claim they are defending their national interests in seeing the Assad regime survive and in crushing the Islamic State. The Americans insist the removal of Assad is a precondition for the fight against ISIS to be successful.

The United States reiterated its satisfaction that it held all the cards in coalition making. As Obama said on Friday, 60 nations stand behind its coalition, whereas the Russians could only muster Iran and Iraq. Of course, the relevance of having one or two sorties over Syria from Australian or Belgian fighter planes directed by the American command is subject to question, while the active support Russia has for its initiative from the neighboring regional powers who have the intelligence and, in the case of Iran, the manpower available to deliver a devastating blow on the ground to the Islamic State is quite a different matter.

The onset of Russian bombing raids in Syria on Wednesday, 30 September just after the upper house of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, voted to authorize the use of Russian armed forces outside the country came like a thunder clap.

Once again, world media were wrong-footed and confusion reigned among the early comments from government leaders. UK Prime Minister Cameron and Obama grudgingly issued comments of support for Russia taking up the hard work of fighting the Islamic State. The sheer decisiveness and speed of the shift from words to new deeds could not fail to impress.

Finally, when the details of the initial missions came in, the Russia-baiters found their footing and began to claim that the Russians were attacking not ISIS but the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime. Cries of foul reached an hysterical crescendo in McCain’s call for the US to go head to head with its military forces in the Middle East and force the Russians from the skies.

For his part, on Friday at a meeting with journalists in Washington, Obama struck a conciliatory pose, that of peacemaker who insisted the US would not allow its forces to cross the Russians. Instead it would let the Russians enter a quagmire in Syria of their own making.. He said that by hitting not only Islamic State forces but opponents of Assad the Russians were pouring oil on the flames of the Syrian civil war. The regime’s opponents would go underground. The inevitable civilian casualties would inflame the passions of Islamists and end up recruiting for the jihad.

However, events on the ground in the Middle East on Friday, were not kind to purveyors of the Washington narrative. Reports surfaced from Kunduz, Afghanistan that US fighter jets there had likely been responsible for bombing a well-documented hospital run by the French NGO Médecins sans Frontières, killing 19 (now raised to 22) of their staff and civilians including children. Ban Ki- Moon called for an investigation. Others have condemned what they say may constitute a war crime. And the entire Washington narrative about the Russians in Syria causing collateral damage was swept into the dust bin, at least for a few days until some new line of attack on the Russian presence can be fabricated.

For their part, the Russian reports on their bombing raids in days two and three of the campaign showed graphically that Islamic State targets were being taken out. And reports from the ground indicated that towns held by IS for the past two years are now being evacuated, that many terrorists were killed and others are on the run. The Russians took credit for bombing oil pipelines used by the Islamic State to deliver oil from Syrian oil fields under their control to Jordan and Turkey, bringing in more than a million euros a day to their war chest. The question as to why such targeting was not done by US forces over the course of the past year of their sorties emerged center stage. Russian military spokesmen responding to charges that they were only defending Assad came up with a better response than the usual irrelevant ‘what-about-ism’ that so often predominates in propaganda exchanges: “what do you expect to hear from Americans who for the past year have only been bombing desert sands.”

In this back and forth of pleasantries, all sides have omitted mention of what I would call the most significant reality: that by its actions in Syria this week, Russia has done a great deal to restore its image as a world power because of the unique technical preconditions which made the bombing raids possible.

This has been achieved in a way that penetrates the mind of the world public, whereas Russia’s costly muscle flexing over the past year through very frequent and massive troop readiness drills and war games have not been appreciated outside the country by anyone other than military intelligence officers, or have only driven public fear of rather than respect for Russia.

European powers that have participated in the US coalition against the Islamic State also have advanced jet fighters and smart bombs. But apart from the United States, only Russia has the complete satellite-based intelligence gathering as well as drone coverage of the air space to operate command and control of forces over the combat zone that combine with smart munitions to deal punishing blows on the enemy with minimal risk to themselves. This is an incredible leap forward of the military capabilities of Russian forces since when they last were engaged in warfare in the Muslim world, during the time of their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It matches the change in diplomacy, where today Russia has the explicit backing for its actions by the key regional Islamic states – Iran and Iraq.

The Russian military prowess is being presented to the public in what is a mirror image of US ‘shock and awe’ videos going back to the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We now see on Russian state television each day and in re-broadcasts on the BBC and Euronews real-time video documentation of the targeting and destruction confirmed by Russian drones over Syrian airspace. The general viewer in the USA or Europe may be forgiven for not appreciating how unique such capability is in the world outside the USA. That our professional experts remain silent on this point is one more proof of their reluctance to admit Russia into the clubhouse. Meanwhile the Russians have been saying sotte voce that they can deliver this type of blow now anywhere in the world. In this light, President Obama’s unending attempts to position Russian behavior in the context of inherent weakness sound more pitiful and unserious with each passing day.

Postscript – the Normandy Four in Paris

Against the background of the stunning news earlier in the week coming from the UN in New York and from the Middle East over developments in Syria, the meeting of the heads of state of the Normandy Four in Paris on Friday was anti-climactic. The major television news channels interrupted their programming from time to time to show their reporters standing outside the building where the talks were proceeding. The vigil to hear from the principals on what was decided was prolonged as the meeting went on substantially longer than anticipated. And in the end the harvest of news from the press conference called by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande was very meager. Both Poroshenko and Putin were absent, and the Western leaders related only of what they had said, not of what, if anything, had been agreed.

It was announced that further elaboration of key issues under discussion such as how and when elections would be held in the Donbass or when the Russians would turn over control of the border to Ukrainian authorities would continue at the level of working groups. The can was being kicked further down the road, and in the meantime disengagement of the warring parties in southeastern Ukraine from the front lines would proceed. For the residents of the area, this de-escalation will bring a respite. From all appearances a frozen conflict is emerging, which suits Russian interests very nicely but makes a mockery of Kiev’s expectations of a military solution to the conflict.

A good many commentators have noted how the emergence of the Syrian civil war as a proxy war between Russia and the West has eclipsed the Ukraine conflict. ‘Yesterday’s cock of the row, today’s feather duster’ is how one colorfully described Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s descent from Western hero of the day to the status of a public nuisance.

However, we would do well to consider how much more dangerous for world peace is the new battleground in Syria where both Russian and US-led military forces are engaged in close space. Compared to Ukraine, which is a territory of existential importance for Russia and only marginally important to the national interests of the USA-EU, Syria and the surrounding Middle East region are of equally high value to both sides in the contest. The region is a powder keg, and there are all together too many firebrands in this party.

Theoretical implications: conceptualizing the New World Order

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world became unipolar for an interval of uncertain duration, rallying behind the sole remaining superpower, the United States. Defenders of this reality found support for the belief in its permanence in the tight argumentation of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. But from the very beginning there were voices seeing other possibilities. In his 1994 book Diplomacy, Kissinger already argued for a return of the world to the status quo before WWI, namely multipolarity, with five or six major powers combining and recombining alliances to achieve a balance of power in which there was no dominant hegemon.

In response to that vision of the future, some International Relations theorists argued that multipolar world orders are inherently unstable and dangerous. Moreover, states were said to be losing their sovereignty, worn down by globalism and the rise of non-state international institutions. As we saw in the 1998 global financial crisis and then again in 2008, in the absence of currency controls global flows of money, flight capital, could bring nation states to their knees.

Nonetheless, the Concert of Powers idea remained fashionable in some circles. I heard this promoted by a bellwether political scientist from Moscow, Sergei Karaganov, as recently as this spring at a conference in Germany, where it attracted favorable comment. As I noted in my review a week ago of Kissinger’s latest major work World Order, he is still promoting it. However, as I go on to say in my critique , the notion that there are 5 or 6 world powers in competition over a balance has been overturned in the past couple of years. Four of these powers are now solidly linked, two by two: the US and EU, Russia and China. The rest of the world is divided between them. Through BRICS, Russia has effectively picked up the leadership of what was once a third force of Developing or Non-aligned Nations, forming a geopolitical bloc that has well over half of the world's population and maybe 40% of its GDP, rising all the time.

It was thought by Fukuyama first and by many others later that the absence of any ideological divides, given that the whole world has signed on to free markets and democracy, meant such a polar division is impossible. However, a new fissure line opened up: for and against the Westphalian model of the sovereign nation-state, for and against values-driven foreign policy.

This is precisely the divide that has now moved on from the Ukraine crisis to the Syrian crisis. Russia’s expansion of influence in the Middle East, which is enhanced by its latest move to form a coalition of regional powers, is one further important step in the formation of the two opposing blocs.

The question is: does this new bipolar condition mean a return to global stability because small players are once again under the control of two major blocs? or does the end of fluidity in realignment of balance of power mean restoration of the fatal conditions of world order that Kissinger says brought on WWI?

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd.

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