The recent US-Russia plan on Syria chemical weapons, approved unanimously at the UN Security Council, has been hailed as a step forward in the resolution of this bloody civil war and at the same time as a milestone of international diplomacy. In reality what represent this plan? Is it really a convergence on a humanitarian and security issue? At a closer look the plan represent a “system restore” to the logic of equilibrium of powers and a return to the superpowers balance since the end of the Cold War.
In restoring this configuration contributed many factors: from military to security reasons, from international diplomacy to national interests, from wrong calculations to crude real politik; however, this could not have happened without the two major powers involvement: US and Russia. If the American duo Obama/Kerry played the card of a military threat and at the same leaving ajar the door for Russian proposals, on the other the duo Putin/Lavrov was the one who forced the system restore.
Russian Rebuilding: A Putin’s Legacy
Since Putin made his appearance in the international scenario in 1999, Russian role has changed dramatically, from the anarchy and passive stance of the Yeltsin years to the aggressive and old soviet rhetoric of recent ones. The Balkans Wars, which culminated with the bombing of Yugoslavia following the Kosovo War, were the last time Russia accepted passively a western influence and action with disregard for Russian interests. Russia was at the time a country rebuilding itself, militarily and economically, relegated in the international scenario to a role of an old and prestigious power but without any real and serious challenge to put forward. Putin reconstructed Russian forces slowly and today is again a powerful military machine, a strong economic state and has a substantial influence in international politics. If the war on terror, that culminated with US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq, was condemned in part by Putin, on the other offer to him the possibility to liquidate on the same basis the Chechen rebellion, and to keep the US “busy” in other areas. The turning point, when the passive Russia start to show the teeth, has been the 2008 Georgian War, following an ill pondered and miscalculated action by Georgian President Saakashvili that led to the Russian blitzkrieg. That was the first time, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russian military forces were actively engaged in a major military operation.
The signal to the West was clear, however not really understood or undermined by many. Since then Putin’s action has been clearly designed in regaining Russian control of its vital space and avoid western influence: USAID operations in Russia have been closed and today is one of the major financer for different countries, plans for the missile shield in Eastern Europe forgotten. Nevertheless, if Libya was seen as a “mistake” or wrong calculation by Russia in abstaining at the UNSC, in reality Putin/Medvedev did not have, as everybody else, any interest in helping a discredited leader such Gaddafi. This position somewhat mislead the West in thinking that Russia will once again push over on the issue of Syria, that once challenged with western threat of military intervention, Russian voice although critic will never be followed by a real action. Today is well clear that this is not the case.
Putin/Lavrov: Challenge the US by Isolating Other Powers
Syria is not a formal Russian ally, but on the same time is a key area of interest due to; past links during the cold war, when Assad’s father Hafiz, the Lion of Damascus, was clearly armed and supported by the Kremlin; has a naval base in Tartus; with Iran, offer to Russia a strong influence in an area otherwise of strong American support.
It must be noted that Russia, as well as the US and the West, only use the humanitarian issue as a façade and in reality it is national interest and international power balance that seeks. The duo Putin/Lavrov know very well that losing Syria will exclude them from the East Mediterranean, will enhance US superiority and weaken other friendly states such Iran. But on the top of Putin’s agenda there was, and still remains, a point: restore the bilateral and direct control with the US, a return to the superpower balance of the past.
Putin/Lavrov’s actions followed some key events:
- Supported the UN and the necessity to block a rushed military intervention; they denounce openly US, UK and France for their action in violation of international law and in seeking to side-line once again the UN;
- Challenged US claims of Damascus responsibility in the chemical attack, asking for proof which to today are still waited; to ignore rebels responsibilities in similar attacks; to turn blind eyes on Al-Nusra actions in Kurdistan, where the Al-Qaida linked group has been accused of ethnic cleansing;
- UK and France have ben totally ignored and relegated by Putin/Lavrov, as they seek direct dialogue with the US only;
- A strong claim, maybe a bluff or not, to support militarily Syria in the event of a US attack;
- Obama’s strategy, that is more complex than thought, may have helped the Russians with their plan.
The above created the space for Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov as a skilled duo, a ruthless and hardliner the first with a diplomatic and mild character the second, in searching to regain the balance. They skilfully played the event of the G20 in Saint Petersburg to highlight the divisions within the organisation and at the same time to seek direct dialogue with the US by side-lining completely UK and France.
These two European powers, however, are not the only ones left at the window as the Chinese role is also seen differently. If China has been seen as Russian orientated in the UNSC, this was more for internal logic and non-internal interference policy rather than an ally posture. China, as Russia, judges as dangerous the American influence and especially in the Pacific knows that the challenge will soon arise. For China keeping the US at bay is of fundamental importance and, whilst undermining their efforts in other areas of the world, at the same time they are not interested in challenging them in a stronger way. Whether this is a political calculation or a sign that China is not yet a superpower, a fact remain: Putin, when looking to re-establish a sort of Yalta configuration, also look not only to weaken UK and France but also the Chinese, as to maintain a preferential relation with the US seen as the main contender.
At this point we must ask, what about the US? Is Obama really defeated, some even said humiliated? Has the US policy been defeated by the duo Putin/Lavrov? In reality as said there is more than that.
Obama/Kerry Played a Dangerous but Ingenious Strategy
The duo Obama/Kerry, while on one side genuinely condemned the chemical attack actively promoting a strong response, were at the same time well aware of the dangers of a military intervention. Without UN backing, with public opinion still opposed to any other military adventure, NATO allies unsure or still loyal to a UN intervention and especially by the strong Russian reaction they were forced to change their strategy. The Americans, acting as any other Democratic administration, took their time, tried at first to seek a strong alliance that suddenly crumbled in front of the reality of a war with many obscure scenarios rather than secure victory. They had to resist the hawks in the US military establishment pushing for war and the usual arrogance of UK/France acting as they were still leaving in colonial time. In this we may spot not a weakness, but a sapient strategy that the duo Obama/Kerry has played: on one side the put clearly the military strike on the table, on the other rush the Russian to take a position. In other words, by resisting internal pressure for military intervention, they sought to make Russian position untenable in the long term, and pushing them to come out with a solution or show their absence of strategy. This was a risky game as leaving the hot issue in Russian hands could have well ended with their inability to offer a way out, then leaving at the same time the US without any other cards to play other than a military intervention. So, a question arises, were Putin and Lavrov the only masterminds behind this system restore or there was also a convergent US action?
The vote at the UNSC, with all members is favour of the plan, hailed as a triumph of diplomacy signalled most likely the starting point were the two powers will cooperate, openly or secretly, to restore a mutual control to guarantee stability in some areas of the world. Nevertheless, we need to remember that if this is a system restore to a Cold War configuration, the interests on the table still remain the same: political and national pride, security and influence. The problem with this vision is that countries and people will be once again seen by Washington and the Kremlin as checkers in a chessboard, and where often the outcome of their actions will not result in welfare for the population. At the same time it is undeniable that this could avoid major military confrontations, keep down tones and avoid “adventures”, and although small skirmishes and contained conflicts will still happen, this will be part of a strategy to weaken and challenge the adversary. If the above policy is under way, then the spectacular and, for many, unexpected Iranian availability to discuss with the US its nuclear programme could be the result of a strategy expected in Washington and Moscow.