- (july 2012)
Russia, Syria and the West.
(This is basically a follow-up to the article The logic of Russia's isolation)
Russia has been using its veto power at the United Nations to reduce the
international sanctions against Syria and to avoid that a United Nations
resolution could be interpreted as a mandate to use military force against
the Syrian regime. This is a good example of the chronic difficulty in
understanding Russia's worldview.
The West draws obvious conclusions: that Russia wants to keep its naval base in Syria to cement its regional power and that Russia wants to preserve the lucrative contracts with Syria. The truth, however, is that the might naval base is a small port that only one ship at the time can use, and the contracts signed by Assad account for a tiny fraction of Russia's economy. Besides, Russia only sells antitank weapons and defense air systems that have nothing to do with fighting the civil war. On the contrary, Russia views the West as the culprit. The USA wanted to topple Assad in retaliation for Iran's nuclear program and to weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon after Hezbollah de facto won the elections there. Unfortunately, that plan is not going as well as it did in Libya and it is now causing a bloody civil war. Then the USA uses Russia's sale of weapons to Assad as an excuse to justify the illegal flow of arms to the opposition (these arms, mainly provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar via Turkey are conventional weapons that are useful in a civil war, not the antitank weapons and air defense systems that Russia sells the government and that are useless in a civil war); and in general uses all the other issues to shift the blame to Russia for what is, in Russia's view, a failed Middle Eastern policy that brought to power Iran's Shiite friends in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and soon the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Russia shakes its head at how naive and incompetent the USA is.
The insurrection in Syria is mostly carried out by Sunnis against Alawites, who are friends of the Shiites: doesn't the USA see that this will only encourage other Sunnis to take up arms against the Shiite regime of Iraq?
Al Qaeda in Iraq said just that explicitly before launching an attack that killed over 100 Iraqis in july 2012.
The bomb that killed some senior Syrian politicians was viewed as an act of fighting for freedom in the West: doesn't the USA see that a terrorist act is a terrorist act and justifying it will only encourage more terrorist acts by anybody who feels his or her cause is a just cause?
Initially the USA publicized the peaceful nature of the street protests in
Syria, but from the beginning Russia warned that it would turn violent and
attract terrorists, and the facts (from Russia's point of view) have proven
Russia right: it has now become a violent civil war with already ten suicide
bombings that are clearly modeled after Al Qaeda; and Al Qaeda terrorism
is officially at work in Syria, as described on the jihadist websites of
various Islamist militias
(the Al Nursa Front, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Al Baraa ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigades). Just like Russia feared and predicted. Expect more suicide
bombings, and perhaps soon the first images of Iraqi-style sectarian cleansing.
Russia is astonished that the USA is not realizing what it caused: its reckless
invasion of Iraq indirectly raised an army of well-trained Sunni fanatics
who not only learned how to fight the powerful army of the USA but are also
highly encouraged by having won against it (if that's not Allah's will, what
is it?) These well trained Sunni fanatics are now splitting: half of them
continue the fight in Iraq (against its current Shiite regime) and the other
half joined the fight in Syria (against its current Alawite regime).
Russia rolls its yes to the sky and remembers the good old days when the
brutal regimes of Saddam Hussein and Assad (both propped by Russian arm sales)
provided stability and security in the Arab world, and Iraq even served the
purpose of checking Iran's ambitions. From the Russian point of view the USA
is causing one disaster after the other, and it's even hurting its own
Russia is painfully aware that it is more vulnerable than the USA to Islamic terrorism, both because of its geography (unlike the USA, Russia does border on several Islamic countries) and because of its ethnic mix (its population include millions of Muslims, among which there are probably thousands who sympathize with the cause of Islamic terrorists), and perhaps also because its security agents are easier to bribe than Western ones.
Russia is much more preoccupied with protecting its own public than with helping
some demonstrators in some distant messy country to get rid of some dictator
through some messy process that might backfire badly.
Russia is annoyed with the USA as much as the USA is annoyed with Russia: the stauch rhetoric by the USA against Assad is encouraging the opposition to refuse any dialogue with Assad. Therefore the conflict could go on forever. Russia has pressured Assad to open a dialogue with the opposition, but the opposition is refusing to even appoint someone in charge of mediation because it feels strong that the USA is supporting regime change.
The USA tells Russia "Assad is not quitting because you support him" but Russia replies "The opposition is not negotiating with Assad because YOU support it": who is causing the bloodbath, the one who would like to negotiate or the one who refuses to negotiate?
Again, this does not mean that Russia is right and the USA is wrong; but
Russia's position is mostly rational and justifiable as much as the USA's
Something similar happened when Russia fought a brief war against Georgia:
it was appalling how the West failed to see the Russian point of view (which
today even many Western analysts share). See The West is wrong on Russia.
Finally, let's face it: the West is bluffing when it claims that inaction
over Syria is due to Russia's veto at the United Nations. If Russia and
China signed off on intervention, what would the West do? Barack Obama did
as little as possible in Libya, Sarkozy is gone, Britain is in no position
to start a war, Germany steers clear of international crises... who is going
to do what? Nobody has any idea of how to deal with Syria, which is a much
more complex and dangerous ethnic/religious Pandora box than Libya or Egypt.
There is literally nobody who has come up with a convincing plan of how to
end the Syrian civil war. Therefore, let's be frank: Russia provides a
convenient alibi for the rest of the world not to do anything, which is what
they would do anyway because nobody has the will and the plan to do something.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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- (may 2012)
The logic of Russia's isolation.
People in the West often forget that Russia is still the largest country in
the world, and for a while the Soviet Union was the largest country that ever
existed. To the Russians it is not so obvious that they should accept whatever
the West decides is right.
Russia's hostility towards the West (both towards the USA and towards the
European Union) makes no geographic, ethnic, genetic, linguistic or strategic
sense. Russia is a Christian country that for ages stood as the defender of
the Christian faith against the Islamic advance. Russia is a Slavic country
with strong blood ties with Eastern Europe, which is now massively integrated
with Western Europe and the USA (even the countries that were supported and
defended by Russia against NATO aggression like Serbia). Most Russians (and
certainly the ruling class) are white Caucasians who share most of their
history with white Caucasians of Europe, not with their Asian neighbors.
If these ties were not enough, Russia shares most of the strategic interests
of the West. The main threat to its stability is political Islam, which is
also the main killer of Russian citizens. They had Islamic terrorist attacks
in their main cities just like the USA and Europe did. Russia wants a
Taliban-free Afghanistan as much as the USA does. Russia would be directly
affected if Iran tested a nuclear weapon which could start a nuclear arms race
at its borders. Russia's power in the world is threatened by the emerging power,
China, a lot more than by the old power, the USA. Last but not least,
Russia's main trading partners are the Europeans. So why the hostility?
The hostility originates from the top. Putin wants to retain his power, and
does so in a very undemocratic way (To Western eyes it is puzzling that he
doesn't do it in democratic ways because he enjoys higher approval ratings
than any Western leader). Every Western leader lectures Putin and his
associates on democracy, that they interpret as a way to undermine their
legitimacy and their political life expectancy. Hence the hostility from
the top, which runs at a very personal level. Basically, Obama and the others
are telling the Russian people that the president of Russia is a dictator,
which the president of Russia does not interpret as good-neighbor behavior.
Western commentators may underestimate Putin's honest concern: he probably
believes passionately that Western-style democracy would cause disintegration
and chaos to Russia (look at the political chaos and endless bickering that
it causes in the West itself).
Western ideas constitute a dangerous threat to his personal power and also
to the country's stability, as Yeltsin's great recession and the
Chechnya rebellions proved (both ultimately caused by the liberal ideas of
the immediate post-Soviet state).
Furthermore, ordinary Russians share that feeling: they paid a huge price
for Yeltsin's recession and Chechnya's wars (both in part due to Western
interference), and later reaped the benefits
of Putin's strong rule. Hence, it is also ordinary Russians who tend to view
the West as a threat to their well-being, peace, and standing in the world.
Ordinary Russians themselves are lukewarm to real democracy, that seems to be
a harbinger of trouble. Some of them simply think it's too early for Russia,
some of them think it is not the right system in general.
They like to vote, but not for "change". Change has been often catastrophic
(and sometimes genocidal) for Russia.
It does not help that the USA supported Georgia in Georgia's feeble attempt to
reannex two breakway republics after USA warplanes had bombed Serbia to "protect" Kosovo
(which de facto resulted in Kosovo's right to secede from Serbia). It does
not help that the USA condemned Russia's wars in Chechnya and then launched
a full-scale invasion of Iraq (at least Chechnya is part of Russia, whereas
Iraq is a sovereign nation located thousands of kilometers away from the USA,
and at least the terrorists that attacked Russian cities were from Chechnya
whereas the terrorists that attacked the USA were mostly from Saudi Arabia
It does not help that the USA has military bases all around Russia (in Eastern
Europe, Scandinavia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Mongolia, South
Korea, Japan and of course Alaska), whereas Russia has virtually
no military presence far from its immediate borders).
The double standard is obvious to all Russians.
Western and Arab public opinions
are angered by Russia's stubborn protection of the dictator of Syria,
but they forget that Russia (and France) did exactly the same in 2003,
defending Saddam Hussein until the end, a fact that convinced Saddam to stay
in power till the end instead of surrendering. This is not the first time that
Russia sides with an awful dictator, except that this time the rest of the
West is united against the awful dictator.
The fact is that these positions are actually favored by Russian public
opinion, and frequently even by those who criticize Putin as autocratic.
They don't buy the official Western propaganda that paints the West as
defending the poor oppressed people of Syria (the same powers were perfectly
happy when "they" were the oppressors of those very same people).
Western public opinion also forgets that Russia is a multi-ethnic state like
the USA, that is trying to do exactly what the Anglosaxon majority of the USA
did to the minorities: unify, integrate and assimilate. Recently, Putin stated
that Russia is in the middle of a process of "Russification" of its ethnic
groups that sounds like a Hitler-ian program to Western ears until Westerners
look in the mirror and realize that xenophobic nationalistic parties are
winning increasing number of votes throughout Western Europe for precisely
the same reason: the ethnic majority feels entitled to force its value on
"The core, the binding fabric of this unique civilization - is the Russian people, Russian culture." (Putin's words, not mine)
He launched a program to promote
Russian culture and values through "television, cinema, the Internet, and popular culture in general, which shape public opinion and set behavioral examples and norms." In other words, precisely what Hollywood has done for the USA.
Whenever the West attacks these programs, the West doesn't attack just Putin,
it attacks the majority of Russians, who feel the same way.
They feel that the West employs a double standard against Russia.
There is little that the West can do to change perceptions. If the European
Union was moving swiftly and smoothly towards unification and this helped
Europe remain a world power, if the USA were increasing its power on the
world, if the Arab Spring led to economic booms, and so on, Russians might
be interested in Westerenizing their country. As it stands, the benefit
of adopting Western-style politics are dubious. The West should just stop
lecturing Russia on democracy and accept that, for the time being, they have
a more popular leader than any of the Western countries. If Putin had not
been attacked at a personal level by the West, he might not be so stubborn
on issues like NATO's defense shield, sanctions against Iran, the Syrian
revolution, etc. After all, Russians enjoy a lot more freedom now than they
did 20 years ago, and probably more than US citizens enjoyed in their
first 20 years (especially women and minorities).
The ones who should change that perception are the Russians themselves, and not
because they are historically wrong: they are historically right, that democracy
has yielded chaos, corruption and decline in Russia. But the future looks
increasingly like a world in which democracy will be considered a given, and
they are being left behind. Worse: they are being hated by the people around the
world who are fighting (and dying) for more democracy. Because of its stubborn
anti-Western stance, Russia ends up supporting all the most brutal regimes of
the world. There was a telling sign held by demonstrators in Syria: "Thank
you Russia, we are dying".
To satisfy its unbridled lust for anti-Western rhetoric,
Russia is willing to go to bed with weird allies: the only country that
defends Syria's regime the way Russia does is Iran (and that regime is not
particularly loved by its people either).
There are a few billion people on this planet, notably Arabs,
who are undergoing a momentous transition from dictatorship to democracy,
and they are feeling that their main enemy is not the dictator who resists
change but the world powers (Russia and China) that defend him at the United
Nations and that sells him
the very arms that kill them by the thousands. What Putin's Russia is doing is
the equivalent to a massive investment in making sure that it will be the most
isolated country in the world for several generations to come.
It is also ironic that Putin is supporting Syria's dictator Assad against a
popular uprising at the same time that he himself is the target of public
protests by pro-democracy groups in the streets of Moscow, as if he wanted
to stem a tide that started in Tunisia and, after Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria,
might reach the Kremlin.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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Articles on Russia before 2012