David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.
Can everyone please stop pretending that Russia can be a partner with the United States and others in solving the crisis in Syria? Recently, there has been a flurry of visits to Moscow by senior Western and U.N. officials: U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon was there in mid-April, followed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in early May, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. All have gone to meet with President Vladimir Putin to seek, among other things, the Russian leadership’s help regarding Syria. How has that turned out?
Reports in the New York Times on Friday indicate that despite objections from U.S. and Israeli leaders, Russia has transferred sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles to the regime in Damascus. Such weapons significantly bolster Bashar al-Assad’s ability to blunt any outside intervention that would include airstrikes, a naval blockade or a no-fly zone. Moreover, according to the Wall Street Journal, Russia has sent at least a dozen warships toward its naval base in Tartus, Syria, over the past several months to signal the West to think twice before intervening.
In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that Iran, Assad’s other major supporter, must participate in the conference on Syria that Russia plans to co-host in June. Russia has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. Just days ago, Russia was one of only 12 countries to vote against a resolution in the General Assembly — in which no country has veto authority — while 107 counties voted in favor.
Despite all that, President Obama held out hope during his news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the June conference “may yield results” by bringing Syrian opposition and regime representatives together around the table. More than 80,000 people have been killed and over 5 million Syrians have been displaced as a result of Assad’s slaughter of his own people. Yet Obama and other leaders still hang on to their delusions that a negotiated settlement will end the fighting.
The lack of intervention by Western powers has left a vacuum in Syria that is filling with extremist forces who are aligning with the opposition. This has radicalized the war and made it virtually impossible to strike any sort of peace deal and agreement on a transitional government — which, Russian officials insist, should not automatically exclude Assad.
Putin is determined to prevent Assad’s fall from power, fearing that a like-minded leader’s demise would reverberate throughout his own country. Russia’s missile transfer and deployment of ships off the Syrian coast underscore Putin’s desire to eliminate the possibility of a U.S.-led effort to intervene and to preserve the Russian base in Tartus. The actions also reflect Putin’s utter disdain for the United States, which he views as weak and needing him more than he needs it.
Beyond Russia’s policy toward Syria, examples of that disdain are plentiful, even in the past two weeks. The day Kerry arrived, a former senior official at the U.S. Embassy now in the private sector was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for 17 hours without food or water, interrogated and then deported. Putin then kept Kerry waiting for three hours before their meeting. Two U.S. Embassy officials were met by a Kremlin-friendly camera crew when they arrived at the home of a civil-society activist for a meeting; the camera crew was waiting for them after the meeting as well. The recent parading of Ryan Fogle before the cameras as Russia crowed about capturing a U.S. “spy” was a slap in the face to the United States. And as if that weren’t enough, Russia’s Federal Security Service publicized the alleged identity of the CIA station chief in Moscow, an extraordinary breach of the protocol followed by the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
And yet Obama has created the impression that he’s looking forward to meeting Putin on the margins of next month’s Group of Eight meeting in Northern Ireland and at the G-20 meeting in Russia in September. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow has expressed hope that Obama will attend next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, in southern Russia. This has become painful to watch.
The Obama administration ought to see Putin for who he really is: a nasty, corrupt, authoritarian leader who holds the West, particularly the United States, in sheer contempt and is overseeing the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is time to push back on his bullying and egregious behavior and preserve some self-respect. The Russian regime will not help us on Syria, and Putin is no friend.