How Putin Won the G8

Russia's hardline stance on Syria shows that it sees itself as unique and separate from the West.
putin at g8 banner.jpg
Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and U.S. President Barack Obama at the G8 Summit, at Lough Erne, near Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland on June 18, 2013.(Yves Herman/Reuters)

The G8 meeting in Northern Ireland ended with the diplomatic victory of Vladimir Putin: Assad will stay in power for another round of negotiations, while Russia will sell him more weapons.

Going to the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland, the Obama administration was faced with three choices: 1) To listen to the advice of politicians such as congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who believes that there are no good options for the United States in Syria and wants to let the story develop on its own; 2) To collaborate with the Kremlin and make it clear to the Syrian opposition that the United States is not going to support fundamentalists and jihadists; most likely, this will involve a request from the Kremlin to approve its policies towards Russia's own jihadists and separatists; 3) To provide full military support to the Syrian opposition without consent of the Kremlin and, if necessary, interfere in the conflict in order to help the opposition to topple Assad.

it is power and stability, rather than democracy and the right of people to self-determination that are high on the agenda in Moscow.

For good reason, the Obama administration was always unlikely to follow the first scenario as it is both unpredictable and dangerous. It is clearly not the time for a return to American isolationism: if the United States ignores the Syrian war, China, Russia, and Iran will not. Having started negotiations with the Kremlin, the Obama administration followed the second scenario. As negotiations are always better than war, this was the right decision, but only for the time being.

What Obama needs now is both a time-frame and a "red line" of sorts for the second scenario to turn into the third one. And that threshold should not be limited to the use of chemical weapons by Assad. The unconditional military support of Assad by the Russian government should raise a red flag. It is worth negotiating only when the sides are ready to compromise: the Russian President does not appear as a particularly compromising partner at the moment.

The reality of current Russian politics is that Putin's political philosophy is becoming more and more in line with the ideas of leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Augusto Pinochet, or Hosni Mubarak. He does not believe any longer in the values of liberal democracy and the right of people to self-determination. Moreover, recent changes in Russian political culture -- such as the restoration of the Soviet national anthem, the return of the Stalinist "Hero of Socialist Labor" medal under the name "The Hero of Labor," the unification of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia with the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, and the canonization of Nicolas II -- indicate that the Russian president is trying to create a political system that would combine the imperial traditions of both Communist and tsarist Russia. Paradoxically, this shows that, unwittingly, Kremlin ideologues agree with the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, who argued that "the roots of Leninism and Stalinism could be found in Russia's past."

Presented by

Peter Eltsov is Washington-based political analyst.

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