Russia was right?
Writing for The Spectator in "How Putin outwitted the West" (10 October 2015), the historian and writer Owen Matthews tells us that Russia was right:
Russia was right about Iraq and Libya, and America and Britain were dead wrong. Regime change doesn't seem to have changed Middle Eastern countries for the better, as Vladimir Putin has been warning for years. His policy is not to support any armed groups 'that attempt to resolve internal problems through force' - by which he means rebels, 'moderate' or otherwise. In his words, the Kremlin always has 'a nasty feeling that if such armed groups get support from abroad, the situation can end up deadlocked. We never know the true goals of these "freedom fighters" and we are concerned that the region could descend into chaos.'Matthews argues that Russia is not entirely consistent in sending forces to Syria - to say the least - but Putin doesn't have to be consistent. He just needs to show Obama as weak and the US a paper tiger, and he thinks that whatever weakens the US is good for Russia, plus he can always claim to be cleaning up what Obama broke.
Yet after a decade and a half of scolding the West for non-UN-sanctioned military interventions, Putin has now unilaterally committed Russian forces to what the former CIA director General David Petraeus calls the 'geopolitical Chernobyl' of Syria. Russia finds itself allied with Syria, Iraq and Iran - a new 'coalition' no less, as Syria's president Bashar al-Assad described it on Iranian state TV last week. How and why did Putin fail to take his own advice about the unintended consequences that breed in middle-eastern quagmires? And most importantly, how has he managed - so far at least - to make Russia's intervention in Syria into something close to a diplomatic triumph?
Russia's decisive intervention has left Barack Obama and David Cameron looking weak and confused. When the usually steadfastly patriotic readers of the New York Daily News were asked whether Putin or Obama had 'the stronger arguments', 96 per cent said Putin. In Britain even hawks like Sir Max Hastings - no friend of the Kremlin - are arguing that Russia can help beat Isis. And most importantly, Putin stole the show at the United Nations General Assembly last month with an impassioned speech denouncing the whole US-backed project of democracy in the Middle East at its very root.
The Arab Spring has been a catastrophe, Putin argued, and the western countries who encouraged Arab democrats to rise against their corrupt old rulers opened a Pandora's box of troubles. 'Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,' he told assembled delegates, in remarks aimed squarely at the White House. 'Nobody cares about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced this situation, do you realise what you have done?' It was quite a sight: a Russian president taking the moral high ground against an American president - and getting away with it . . . . But fundamentally, Putin is much more interested in being seen to project Russian power than in fixing Syria's war. His aim is to hold up Britain and America as paper tigers whose indecision has created a policy vacuum on Syria, into which Putin has confidently stepped. The Russian operation is small and portable enough for Putin to be able to roll it up in a week - and declare victory if and when the going gets tough. That, as he knows, is more than Britain and America have been able to do in any of our recent wars.
This might work in the short run, but will Russia look tough if it abruptly pulls out under pressure? Or will Russia double down?