Let me start off by saying that Putin’s use of force in the Ukraine and Syria is wrong on several levels. He’s wrong in principle to pursue a military solution, and even if we condoned his use of force, he would still not be acting in the best interests of his country.
If Putin wanted to keep the Ukraine in his sphere of influence, he should have offered it a better economic deal than the West did and spent more money influencing Ukrainian elections and politicians. That’s the way the game is played in kleptocracies, as Putin obviously knows.
The problem with his actions in Syria is that it’s as much of a quagmire as Iraq or Afghanistan. Syria has four competing forces: Kurds, Assad’s, ISIS (or are we calling it IS or ISIL this week?) and the alliance of rebels against Assad. Putin’s actions, if met by the West ratcheting up aid to the rebels, will likely lead to the country splitting into three parts, two of which may unite with two of the three parts that seem to be Iraq’s probable future. At the end of the day, it’s likely that instead of Syria and Iraq, we will end up with four states, ISIS, Greater Kurdistan, the rump of Iraq and the rump of Syria controlled by either Assad or some rebel group. It seems as if Putin has learned as little from the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980’s as Bush II, Cheney and Rumsfeld learned from Viet Nam.
While I believe Putin to be—literally—a bloody fool, I also think that the American government and news media are being deceptive when they paint Putin as an aggressor. In both the Ukraine and Syria, Russia is reacting defensively to Western and American aggression.
Many Americans like to imagine the United States as the world’s cop. working selflessly to promote freedom and democracy. In fact, at any given time the political globe comprises several spheres of influence, or hegemonies, each of which projects its influence over part of the world, or over a client state in contested regions. Roughly speaking, today’s hegemons include the United States, Western Europe (often acting in conjunction with the United States), Russia and China. When we’re talking about the Middle East, I believe we should add Iran to the list.
As Stephen F. Cohen pointed out to much criticism after Russia took the Crimea by force, since the fall of the Soviet empire, Western Europe and the United States have been courting former Soviet client states, which effectively means that the West has gradually infringed on the former Russian hegemony, shrinking it slowly but surely. From the standpoint of Hungary and Poland, the economic benefits of joining the EU are many, but Russia does not look at things from the point of view of the Hungarians or the Poles. Nor does the United States or China, for that matter, which is why another word for hegemonic politics is imperialism. As Cohen suggests, the last straw for Putin and Russia was losing the Ukraine, and especially Crimea, which is more Russian than Ukrainian and only belongs to the Ukraine because of series of short-sighted administrative decisions.
The Syrian situation is no different. Years ago, the Soviet Union was tight with lots of Middle Eastern countries, but at this point in time, the Assad government is Russia’s only real client state in Islamic lands. By openly supporting the Syrian rebels and insisting that the Assad government be replaced, the West is attacking a Russian ally. There can be no doubt that messing with the Russians had as much to do with the West’s decision to support the rebels as does its outrage at the brutal way that Assad has treated his people. There is no disputing that Assad is a butcher, but so were Suharto, the Shah of Iran, Samosa and many other dictators—excuse me, authoritarians, as former rightwing U.S. UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick once put it—whom the United States supported or still support, often against incipient democratic movements. Once upon a time we also supported Saddam Hussein and we still give millions in military aid to countries ruled by kings. Before we condemn Russia for backing Assad, we should take a gander at our own goose.
Putin’s moves will backfire, just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq was doomed to fail. A current Republican myth is that if the United States had kept our troops in Iraq, ISIS would never have been able to grab so much territory so quickly. Rightwing militarists thus attempt to shift blame for the current situation from the Bush II Administration to President Obama. This line of reasoning ignores that under Bush II we destroyed the country and its political infrastructure and shattered a nation that was really three nations held together by a strong dictator. It would have only made sense to remain in Iraq if the United States would have added more troops and been prepared to stay there for 40 or 45 years, at least as long as the Soviet Union was in Hungary, the Czech Republic and other East Bloc nations.
I don’t see any of the activity of the world’s hegemons in Syria or the rest of the Middle East to be in the best interests of the people of the region. By selling arms, bombing, putting troops on the ground and supporting one side over others (for future considerations), all we do is muck things up and prevent the people in each state from deciding for themselves how to live. Cutting off heads seems particularly savage, but launching an air strike is just as savage, and a quicker, more efficient way to kill. I also imagine that bleeding out after a bomb drops on your neighborhood is more painful than a quick and clean severation.