Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed, annotated and fact-checked

September 12, 2013

(Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has an op-ed in today's New York Times urging President Obama not to strike Syria. It's a fascinating document -- a very Russian perspective translated into American vernacular, an act of public diplomacy aimed at the American public and the latest chess move in the U.S.-Russia standoff over Syria, one in which we the readers are implicated. Putin does make a number of valid and even compelling points, but there is an undeniable hypocrisy and even some moments of dishonesty between the lines.

Below, I've annotated the op-ed, line-by-line, elaborating and translating at some points, fact-checking a bit in others. Putin's writing is set off in italics and bold; my notes are in plain text.

MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.

Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

So far so good, and all true, establishing a baseline of cooperation on shared interests while acknowledging U.S.-Russia tensions.

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

Putin here is implicitly defending Russia's right to use its veto to block the United Nations from any action on Syria, including simple press releases condemning the use of chemical weapons. The U.N. Security Council veto system, which means that Russia can block any action just because it says so, was not a product of "profound wisdom" as  much as profound pragmatism. Countries don't like to give up their power to other countries. After World War II, getting the world's five remaining great powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union) to consent to this newfangled United Nations system required granting them veto power so they'd be comfortable with it. This is what it took, but it wasn't profoundly wise, and both Russia and the United States abuse their veto power plenty.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

It's true that the League of Nations collapsed because no one took it seriously, including the United States. But the United Nations survived the Cold War, which included lots of non-U.N.-approved military actions from -- you guessed it -- the United States and the Soviet Union. If the United Nations can survive the unilateral Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, among many other wars large and small, it will survive cruise missile strikes on Syria.

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

Putin makes some strong arguments here that a U.S. strike on Syria could hurt U.S. interests. Many of his points are defensible and have been made by American analysts, such as the risk to U.S.-Iran negotiations and the fear that strikes would exacerbate extremism. Some of them are disputable -- Obama's proposed strikes would be pretty modest compared to the ongoing violence, a drop in the bucket, and thus unlikely to so dramatically reshape an already war-torn region.

But what rankles many analysts about this paragraph is that it ignores Putin's own role in enabling the already quite awful violence, as well as the extremism it's inspired. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime has killed so freely and so wantonly in part because it knows Putin will protect it from international action. Putin has also been supplying Assad with heavy weapons. It's a bit rich for him to decry violence or outside involvement at this point.

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.

As above, these are strong arguments against outside involvement in Syria's civil war, made more than a little hypocritically, given that Putin himself has been actively involved in shaping the conflict and steering it away from peace. Still, the concern about Syria breeding extremist violence is likely an earnest one for Putin, who surely knows that some Chechens have been fighting in Syria and could very plausibly cause trouble back home in Russia.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future.

Russia has certainly espoused dialogue and a compromise plan, but it has acted instead to stop that from happening, refusing to wield its considerable power to bring this about. There is no one in the world better positioned than Vladimir Putin to force Assad to the negotiating table. Instead, Putin has shown every indication that he wishes for Assad to defeat the rebels totally and outright, as his father Hafez al-Assad did in 1982 when he crushed an uprising in Hama.

We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.

Putin is couching his support for Assad as simple fealty to international law. It's true that, according to the United Nations charter, almost any U.S. strikes on Syria would be illegal under international law. Still, it's hard to believe that Putin is motivated by international law, given the lengths he's gone to prevent the United Nations from protecting other forms of international law when it comes to Syria. Russia has blocked the United Nations from simply condemning Assad's attacks on civilians or the use of chemical weapons in Syria, much less taking action to punish or stop those crimes.

Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

This is true, and a real dilemma for Obama, given that he is attempting to portray strikes against Syria as meant to uphold international law against the use of chemical weapons.

Still, you'll be shocked to learn that Putin does not hold himself to the same standard he's setting here for Obama. Putin's Russia launched a war against Georgia just five short years ago. He would argue that the war was justified, but it certainly wasn't approved by the United Nations Security Council.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

This is the section of the op-ed that's drawing by far the most criticism. There is very little reason to believe that rebels carried out the attack but strong circumstantial evidence that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. An investigation by Human Rights Watch pointed to the Assad regime as responsible. The United Nations investigation, while not permitted to formally assign blame, is expected to amass lots of evidence indicating Assad regime responsibility -- a story that broke mere minutes after Putin's op-ed went online.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.

These are all strong points clearly meant to align with, and thus call greater attention to, arguments that many Americans have been making against strikes. Putin knows the memory of Iraq is weighing heavily on the United States right now and wants to remind us why. Russia, for its part, vehemently opposes Western intervention in foreign countries, which it sees as a continuation of Western imperialism and an indirect threat to Russia itself.

The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.

This is credible. Putin's Russia has actually made some important strides in nonproliferation, including signing an historic nuclear disarmament treaty, New START, with President Obama in 2010.

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.

A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.

This is Putin's big argument: Let's follow through on the Russian plan to have Syria give up its chemical weapons in exchange for the United States not attacking. And Obama is clearly interested.

It's hard to miss, though, that this appears to strongly contradict Putin's claim that rebels were responsible for the chemical weapons attack. As Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein tweets, “Putin’s oped argues: 1. The rebels used chemical weapons, not Assad. 2. Let’s encourage Assad to give up his weapons (no mention of rebels).”

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.

This is my favorite part of the op-ed because it suggests that perhaps Putin himself, and not just a Western public relations firm, may have had a hand in crafting it. "Americans aren't special" is a terrible way to convince Americans to hear you out. But that idea is a sore point for Putin, exactly the sort of thing he'd struggle to resist poking at.

"American exceptionalism" is a complicated idea but it basically boils down to a combination of simple nationalism and a belief that the United States can and should play a special role in shaping the world. The one other country that has most closely shared this view of itself was the Soviet Union. Putin's Russia has obviously lost the ability to play the role of a superpower, but he still cultivates a sense of nationalism and national greatness. That often means nursing Russian pride hurt by perceived American bullying. This jab at "American exceptionalism" is a great illustration of that.

There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

This is an appeal to shared values and an implicit argument for harmony. It's a reminder to American readers that Russia is a predominantly Christian nation. And it could also be, as World Politics Review editor Matt Peterson pointed out to me, an implicit argument for sovereignty, that all nations are equal and so no one country should go interfering with another.

Read more: Is it possible Putin wrote the op-ed himself?

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Max Ehrenfreund | September 12, 2013