The Hidden Fear in Putin's New York Times Op-Ed

The Russian president's language choice indicates his worry about Islamist extremists and the threats they pose to Russia.
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Finding that his strategy of shirtless horseback diplomacy was proving ineffective, Russian President Vladimir Putin instead decided to appeal to the American people directly—with words—in our biggest newspaper today.

It’s a nice article—refreshingly not-strongman-ish, pleasantly nostalgic. (Remember that time we beat the Nazis together? Putin does.)

In it, Putin tries to make the case that the United Nations is really the way to go when it comes to resolving the Syria crisis. You know, the UN, where Russia has blocked all attempts by the U.S. and other countries to do something about Syria.

Like most op-eds, Putin’s is biased and leaves out some key, inconvenient information. He makes no mention of the fact that Russia is openly arming Assad and his army, thus helping perpetuate a conflict he claims to want to find a “compromise” on.

Putin argues a U.S. strike on Syria would upend “law and order,” but doesn’t acknowledge that the Syrian city of Tartus is home to a crucial military base for Russia, or that the Assad regime buys Russian weapons.

The piece also reads like a takedown of the idea of American exceptionalism—the longstanding theory, which Obama has used to sell Syrian intervention, that the United States can act unilaterally to circumvent normal international channels. (It’s how we got into Iraq and out of some major global conventions.)

But there’s another interesting strain here that sheds light on some of the Russian government’s deepest fears when it comes to Syrian intervention. Putin mentions “Qaeda fighters and extremists” and asks his audience to remember how, “after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali.” He also blamed the rebels, not the Assad government, for using chemical weapons, and refers to the opposition as “fundamentalists.”

Putin’s focus on the extremist elements among the rebels touches on a major reservation the U.S. has had about intervening in Syria—that in the aftermath of a potential Assad ouster, “people we don’t like will take power,” as one expert told me recently.

But the fear of radical jihadists is also extremely potent in Russia, and it’s one of the many reasons Putin has so firmly opposed toppling the Assad regime. For years Russia has been battling Chechen separatists, many of whom identify as Islamist. Already, linkages between Syria and Chechnya have been growing—groups of Chechens have joined the fight against Assad alongside the Syrian opposition.

After it became clear that the Boston bombers were Chechen Muslims, Russia flung a bit of an I-told-you-so at the United States, which has at times supported the Chechens:

“Russia has long cautioned Washington about giving asylum to Islamists from the North Caucasus,” Voice of Russia political analyst Dmitry Babich told Russia Today. “They think that they have the right to ascertain their convictions, they have the right to commit violent acts if they feed their cause ... That's their thinking and I'm afraid in Boston they are dealing with exactly that kind of thinking.”

As Jackson Diehl explained in the Washington Post shortly after the bombing, “For Vladi­mir Putin and much of the Moscow elite, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are indistinguishable from the rebels who are trying to bring down the blood-drenched regime of Bashar al-Assad.” (Update Sept. 13: Sarah Kendzior on Twitter points out that the original version of Putin's op-ed included the lines: "This is a real threat to us all. The terrible tragedy during the Boston Marathon once again confirms this" after the paragraph in which he mentions Mali and Libya.)

Russia currently is attempting to quash both the ever-present Chechen independence movement and any potential terrorist threats ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, as the Wilson Center recently spelled out in listicle form on Buzzfeed. In Moscow’s view, those “terrorists” would most likely be radicalized Muslims from Chechnya and elsewhere.

Along with its economic and strategic interests in Syria, Putin has an incentive to suppress the rise of radical Islamists in the region more broadly, and in keeping Syria out of the hands of Islamist groups who may later ally with the Chechens, more specifically.

Despite the “Listen to Wise Uncle Vladimir” tone Putin takes in the piece, he’s not the cautious, international-law-loving, non-interventionist he makes himself out to be. But he’s not irrational, either.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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