Western experts is still puzzled in understanding Russian foreign policy, as evidenced by initial reaction to Vladimir Putin’s UN speech.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a luncheon hosted during the 70th annual United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Photo: The United Nations / AP
For a very different take read: "Putin tries to change the subject at the UN – and fails"
There is no doubt that the first step towards normalizing relations between Russia and the West needs to be a clear understanding of each other’s positions. But that is proving difficult on both sides.
Take, for example, a recent article of Russia Direct's contributor Paul Goble, “Putin tries to change the subject at the UN - and fails.” This article – coming from a Western analyst with extensive experience in the U.S. foreign policy establishment - perfectly illustrates the problems that the U.S. expert community has in understanding Russia.
Although Mr. Goble accuses Russian commentators and the Kremlin of failing to understand the realities, it is hard not to notice that the author presents his own “reality.”
Analyzing what isn’t there
Goble begins his article with an old lawyers’ tale about raising one’s voice when both the law and the facts are against you. What this has to do with Putin is not clear, since the Russian president is renowned for his calm political style.
Putin’s UN speech promised to be a sensation, but turned out fairly routine — mild criticism of the West, but no bombastic statements. It was a far cry from, say, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s UN performance in which he called George W. Bush the devil, not to mention Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging diplomacy.
Of course, Putin’s visit was steeped in symbolism. It was, after all, the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, which, despite all the criticism it receives, remains one of the foundations of modern international relations. However, on closer examination, it is difficult to escape the impression that the main purpose of Putin’s trip was to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Since the details of the talks are not in the public domain, Goble evidently attempts to divine the thoughts and intentions of the two men. Back in the real world, until the presidents publish their memoirs, the minutes are made public, and the relevant documents are declassified, the results of the meeting will be judged by the dynamics of the political steps taken by the two countries.
What about Ukraine?
Goble’s analysis of Putin’s speech was based on his assumption that the Russian president was trying to divert attention from Ukraine by promising to cooperate on Syria. Yet does attention really need to be diverted from Ukraine? And more to the point - Does Ukraine still command attention?
The fact is that the topic of Ukraine has gradually faded from the Sunday morning TV news agenda, which is still a fairly accurate barometer of U.S. politics. Today only Republican politicians remember Ukraine, and only then to criticize Obama, adding it to the list of his administration’s foreign policy failures.
Hence, Putin hardly had need to fly to the United States for one day to deliver a speech for the purpose of diverting attention from Ukraine — the American public has enough on its plate as it is. And the Russian president is not so naive as to expect one speech to erase, or even ease, the economic sanctions against the Kremlin's policy in Ukraine.
Let’s not forget that some Russian officials and experts firmly believe that they consider the Ukraine crisis to be nothing more than a pretext for Western sanctions aimed at weakening Russia. That would suggest that Moscow understands that sanctions are here to stay.
ISIS as the common enemy
What about the second part of Goble’s thesis? Did Putin use his speech at the UN to try to win universal approval of Russia’s position on Syria? Let’s start with the fact that for the past twenty years one of the fundamental principles of Russian foreign policy (which appeared once again in Putin’s New York address) is recognition of the right of every nation to define its own policy not just domestically, but internationally. Put simply, on Syria and other international issues, Moscow recognizes the right of every country to determine its own position.
Also read the Q&A with Columbia University's Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"
Russia’s position, for one, is very clear: Putin merely restated it at the UN, but in reality it is being put into practice by the Russian Air Force. Syria, Iraq and Iran, having been forced to clarify their stance by the harsh realities of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), support Russia’s actions and are cooperating with Moscow. As the Russian operation progresses, other states will be able to decide for themselves whether they support Russia.
From this point of view, it emerges that the main purpose of Putin’s visit to the United States was not to recruit supporters for Russia’s actions in Syria, but to talk with his U.S. counterpart. So were the negotiations successful?
Whatever Goble and other experts say, there is insufficient information in the public domain to answer this question properly. But as events unfold in the Middle East, information will appear, whereupon the question can be revisited.
In his article Goble touches upon the issue of Syrian refugees in Europe. To his credit, he did not repeat the mantra of the neocons and fans of U.S. military action, which states that the influx of refugees into Europe is final proof that Assad must go, since they are fleeing more from his regime than from ISIS.
U.S. neocons have always had a fickle relationship with facts, but anyone outside this group is welcome to browse official EU statistics, according to which in recent months the number of refugees from Syria is roughly equal to those from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where Assad is not present, but ISIS-allied terrorists are.
So it makes little sense to argue with Putin’s assertion that the refugee problem is linked with the fight against international terrorism and the need to strengthen statehood in countries from which people are fleeing to Europe.
The realities and illusions of international relations
Clearly carried away by his analysis of Putin’s speech, Goble doesn't mention some of the parameters of modern international relations, in particular, the fact that for more than eleven years, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been members of NATO. Therefore, in the event of Russian aggression against these countries (which Goble suspects to be Moscow’s intention), Russia will find itself at war with NATO. There can be no winners in such a war, while the losers will include Mother Earth herself.
So does Goble believe that Russia’s leaders have suicidal tendencies, or that they are willing to risk all to capture such a wonderful place as the Baltic region? In that case, the article fails to explain why the Kremlin has not already invaded, or why control over Ukraine is so important in the conquest of the Baltic countries, as he suggests it is.
Many such questions arise when reading the article. It is not the first and will hardly be the last example of a Western expert writing about Russia. For many authors, it is a fact-fudging exercise in which scraps of information are customized to fit a personal view, or whim, regarding Russian foreign policy.
It is to be hoped that the decision-makers in both Western and Eastern countries adopt a less illusory approach. Right now they have an opportunity to assess the extent to which Russia can assist those countries that have requested help in the fight against ISIS. Russia has responded to this request.
Putin’s words about the need to fight terrorism match his deeds. President Obama, speaking at the UN that very same day, cannot boast of such consistency on the Middle East. His policy ranges from abandoning such a staunch ally as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to demanding that Assad leave his post without having the capacity to force the Syrian leader to comply. In the Middle East, of all places, such things do not go unnoticed.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.