The Real Reasons for Vladimir Putin's Syria Op-Ed

Russia's president is savoring a moment where he can take the moral high ground in an international crisis

Vladimir Putin
YANA LAPIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin
By |

In a long op-ed published in The New York Times this week, titled "A Plea for Caution from Russia," Russian President Vladimir Putin pleaded for the U.S. not to launch military strikes against Syria. Instead, citing international law and concern for civilians, Putin urged America to pursue Russia's proposed plan for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons.

The moral high ground is not usually a place where you'd find Putin – a man better known for jailing critics, persecuting gays and steamrolling smaller countries. Since the Syrian crisis began, Putin has stood by Russia's long-time ally, blocking any U.N. criticism of Assad's regime, while upping arms shipments to the war-torn nation. For two years, Russia has had to play the role of the big, bad bear.

But Russia's proposal last week that Syria's government place its chemical arsenal under international control has turned the situation on its head. Suddenly, Putin is speaking the unaccustomed language of peace and international law – and, even stranger, finding he can actually more or less mean it.

"We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement," wrote Putin, whose ruthlessness against Chechen terrorists is legendary. The man who has been accused of presiding over a series of politicized show trials in his own country wrote, "The law is still the law, and we must follow it."

Putin has found himself on the right side of public opinion in the U.S. when he writes, "It's alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States." This week, the unlikely hashtag #PutinforPeace has been trending.

Many found it hard to stomach Putin's holier-than-thou attitude. U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN, "I almost wanted to vomit." Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) tweeted: "Putin's NYT op-ed is an insult to the intelligence of every American."

These critics are right not to take Putin at his word. The Russian leader's overriding motive is to shield Assad from U.S. military strikes – Russia sees no possible gain from Assad's defeat, and it does not care if Syria is democratic or not. Putin doesn't have much interest in international law, except where it constrains America, as his desolating war in Chechnya proves. As he recently told a Russian paper, "We're not an NGO. We have national interests."

Those interests in this case are stopping militants seasoned in Syria from returning to Chechnya and Dagestan in southern Russia, and preventing a precedent for regime change, which the Kremlin fears might one day be used against them.

So why write about Syria in The New York Times? Because in some ways Putin does mean what he wrote – he has no affection for U.S. dominance or military intervention, and more importantly, he's discovered that many others agree with him. Russia is now setting the global agenda in a way it hasn't done since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Times' decision to publish shows Putin's personal importance on the world stage is at all-time high. Unexpectedly back in the same ring as the U.S., and finding much of the world in his corner, Putin is milking this moment for all it's worth.

The Kremlin has scented a chance to re-establish itself as the leading alternative to the U.S. in the world. Russia's key role in the flight of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; the G20 economic conference, which Russia hosted last week; and Russia's dealmaking role in the Syria crisis are all being used as tools to portray Putin as a statesman of global stature. The past two weeks have seen a flurry of frank statements from Putin at home, setting out his worldview. Gloating in The New York Times is the finishing touch.

Pushing back on the idea of American exceptionalism, the Russian leader wrote, "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." In a week like this, Putin must love his job.