In recent weeks Vladimir Putin has become the unexpected darling of the anti-war movement. Despite his own shocking human rights record, Putin has been an outspoken opponent of intervention in the Syrian civil war. This has made him appear reasonable and sympathetic next to figures such as Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and John Kerry who have all been pushing for military action. Some claim he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, or even that Obama should hand his to the Russian president.
In fairness, Putin has played a pivotal role in preventing reckless intervention. Until this weekend it was a question of when, not if, the US would lead international forces, including France, in launching missile strikes.
In the course of a couple of days, the parameters of the debate shifted radically away from intervention. Instead, Russia’s proposal that the United Nations should focus on negotiating with the Syrian government has become consensus.
The proposal that Putin has pushed requires Assad’s government to destroy its chemical weapons capability via a multi-stage plan. Syria would need to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans production, storage and use of said weapons, and allow UN-affiliated inspectors to examine and disarm any relevant sites. Military intervention could still occur as a last resort if these terms were breached.
Likewise, Putin has consistently been expressing an accurate perspective on why intervention would be a mistake. Writing in the New York Times last Wednesday, he pointed out that far from being a humanitarian move, “a strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”, and could “further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa”.
He also underlined how “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy” as there are “few champions of democracy in Syria…[but]…more than enough Qaeda fighters”, and that non-intervention is not “protecting the Syrian government, but international law”.
His views are accurate, and preventing an extremely rash military operation is undoubtedly a laudable success. However, this does not mean that Putin should be hailed as some kind of hero for humanitarian causes, or even a model for approaching international relations.
Following Putin’s re-election to the Presidency a number of harsh measures have been introduced to curb civil society and opposition movements. These include the “foreign agents” law, extending the definition of treason and tightening laws against assembly. ” Under this law, any NGO with international funding is dubbed a foreign agent. This is in addition to the on-going harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of opposition groups and leaders, alongside the incarceration of punk rock groups.
Russia has also recently passed a law banning dissemination of information promoting the “attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relationships” and providing a “distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.”
Non-traditional is widely understood to mean homosexual, and the implication of the law is that you cannot say anything good about being gay in public, nor can you tell a child that it is normal or legitimate. Putin’s claim in his defense is simply that homosexuality is not itself illegal in Russia.
Internationally, Putin’s governments have not previously tended to champion diplomacy or non-interventionism. In 2008, Russian forces launched strikes against Georgia, following Georgia’s attempted seizure of the rebel Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This was ostensibly done to protect Russian and Georgian civilians in South Ossetia. Georgia did arguably start the conflict; one former Georgian diplomat has testified that there were plans to seize the provinces even before Russian intervention. However, Russia’s response was widely regarded as disproportionate, reckless and unjustified. Russian ground troops attacked numerous civilian homes and even a broadcasting station. They were even accused of responsibility for ethnic cleansing of Georgians.
Russian relations with Ukraine, though not yet involving military action, have also been defined by Russian intimidation, including economic threats. It should also be noted that Russia has been supplying Assad’s government with weapons for over two years. Further, at least some of their motivation for opposing American intervention is to reduce the scope of US influence in world politics. While neither of these facts invalidates Putin’s arguments against intervention, they do raise questions about his motivations.
Vladimir Putin is, at best, a “broken clock”. On occasion, such a clock has accurate information to convey, which can be used to achieve positive results. The vast majority of the time, though, he is utterly in the wrong. He is not, therefore, someone who should be held up for praise, nor should people be making ridiculous claims like “he should be given Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize”. Obama may be undeserving of the award, but it is facetious at best to say Putin is any more worthy.
The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, and an authoritarian autocrat is not a champion of peace and humanitarianism.
Image credit to en.wikipedia.org.