How Putin Won the G8

Russia's hardline stance on Syria shows that it sees itself as unique and separate from the West.
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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."

In this context, Ronald Reagan's dictum "trust but verify" is pertinent as ever since the end of the Cold War. Putin's foreign policy credo is based on four principles: territorial integrity, political stability, individual power, and national sovereignty. The latter, in Kremlin's definition, means "no interference by the West" for whatever reason: economic, political, or any other. As this policy has been shaped by Russia's fear of political instability both in Russia and in the Middle East, it is unlikely to change soon, certainly not during the presidency of Putin, who may stay in power for another eleven years.

One must not forget that Putin's rise to power benefited greatly from the Second Russian-Chechen war, which according to Kremlin ideologues, saved Russia from disintegration and chaos. The analogy with the war in Syria is striking: it is power and stability, rather than democracy and the right of people to self-determination that are high on the agenda in Moscow: following this logic, some Putin's supporters find it possible to sympathize both with right-wing politicians in Israel and with the Ayatollah regime in Iran.

It is naïve to think that Putin will pull the plug on his support of Assad without guarantees of political continuity: i.e., Syria's territorial integrity, a Baath-like political secularism, and the respect of Russia's geopolitical and economic interests in the region. Neither the United States nor any other country can provide such guarantees to Russia. Therefore, the joint communiqué on Syria brings very little hope: with the help of new arm supplies on both sides, the Syrian war will intensify while the meeting in Geneva will fail.

What the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland has shown is the fundamental ideological split between Putin's Russia and the West. While the former Communist apparatchiks, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, cared greatly about the freedom of expression, the current Russian leader prefers to play "the big game." He sees his homeland as a great Eurasian empire which has vast geopolitical interests and is unique in every respect: political, cultural, and spiritual. He certainly agrees with the foreign policy motto of Czar Alexander the III (1845-1894) who said that "Russia has only two allies: its army and navy".

It is frightening that Russia is no longer seen by its ruling elite as a part of Europe and the West. It is given its own, completely unique historical role. Most likely, Putin agrees with the oft-quoted verse by the 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev: "You will not grasp Russia with your mind, or cover with a common label, for Russia is one of a kind. Believe in her, if you are able". One would hope that in beginning of the 21st century, decision makers in Russia would grasp their country with their minds rather than just believing in it.

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Peter Eltsov is Washington-based political analyst.

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