How Russia Saw the ‘Red Line’ Crisis

Did Obama’s refusal to strike Syria really give Putin the green light in Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Valdai, Russia (Reuters)

Since the summer of 2013, when President Obama walked up to the red line over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and then pivoted away from it, it’s become something of a truism among Washington hawks that this bit of cowardice paved the way for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine some six months later. “When President Obama declared Friday that ‘there will be costs’ for any Russian intervention in Ukraine,” Marc Thiessen, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and American Enterprise Institute fellow, wrote in 2014, “you could hear the laughter emanating from the Kremlin—followed by the sound of Russian military vehicles roaring into Crimea and seizing control of the peninsula. ‘Costs?’ Vladimir Putin must have thought. Just like the ‘costs’ Obama imposed on the Assad regime in Syria?”

But did Obama’s refusal to bomb Syria in 2013 really give Putin the green light in Ukraine? It is a question Jeffrey Goldberg poses to Obama, who, of course, swats it away. “Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument,” Obama says. “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia [in 2008] on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.” Obama repudiates the “crazy Nixon” thesis, which says, essentially: Be crazy, be unpredictably harsh, and geopolitics are your oyster. (Ironically, this is the approach Putin’s domestic critics accuse their president of using: How do you get back at the West for blacklisting Russian officials involved in the killing of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky? Ban American adoptions of Russian orphans! They’ll never know what hit ‘em!)

It’s no surprise that Obama finds this approach as silly as it is ineffective, but Goldberg’s exploration of the Red Line Moment made me curious about how the Russians see this common and unexamined refrain: Obama showed weakness on Syria so Putin exploited it in Ukraine.

“Wow, it’s kind of a revelation what you just said,” said a very surprised source from the Russian Foreign Ministry, who was not authorized to speak on the record, on hearing the question. “It’s not tied to any kind of reality. These things are not connected to each other in any way.”

“It is absolutely made up,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the equally surprised editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who has a reputation for channeling the Kremlin view. “You shouldn’t think of Putin as such a primitive guy. It’s totally clear that the Syrian and Ukrainian crises had nothing to do with one another.” For Lukyanov, it’s almost insulting to suggest a connection. “Technically, it was possible then for Obama to hit Syria and destroy Damascus,” Lukyanov said. “Then Syria would have been yet another government that would’ve paid for doing something wrong. But Russia is a nuclear superpower, and this kind of rationale vis-a-vis Russia is senseless.”

That is, Russia sees itself as a power on par with America, and simply doesn’t group itself with a minor regional power like Syria. Even if Bashar al-Assad had been punished militarily for using chemical weapons, Putin wouldn’t have drawn the conclusion that he could be similarly punished for actions in Ukraine. Syria is Syria, and Russia is Russia, and you don’t punish nuclear superpowers. “In Moscow, they understood clearly what Obama now says openly,” said Lukyanov of what Obama told Goldberg—that Ukraine is not a NATO country and is always going to be subject to Russian meddling, regardless of what Washington does. “There are no obligations in the West and the United States to defend Ukraine,” he said. “Risking war with a nuclear superpower over Ukraine was just not going to happen. It would’ve been clear even if Obama had hit Syria. It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

The source from the Foreign Ministry echoed that sentiment. The action Obama did take—avoiding a strike on Syria and instead forging a deal with Russia to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons—represented not weakness but an unusual moment of reason, in Moscow’s view. “It showed everyone in the world that, if there is a will in these two countries, any problem can be solved,” the Foreign Ministry source said. “It was very constructive work. ... Everything was done to help the administration get out of the corner they’d backed themselves into and to get them back into the zone of international law.”

“No one sees Obama as a weak president, and no one saw that moment as a moment of weakness,” said Igor Korotchenko, the editor of Russia’s National Defense Magazine and a reserve colonel of the Russian General Staff. He is also a member of the Defense Ministry’s civilian oversight council, and often acts as the ministry’s flame-throwing, anti-Western id. Yet he was strangely insistent on defending Obama’s honor. The American president’s decision not to enforce the red line, he said,“was a moment of rare strength.” Lest you think Korotchenko was buttering me up, he spent a few minutes lecturing me on how Assad never used chemical weapons. “It was a provocation by the rebels and this is well documented,” he told me. “Make sure you note that in your piece.” (The United Nations investigation of the August 2013 chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus strongly suggests otherwise.)

And yet Korotchenko was also deeply puzzled by the formulation I presented. The red line? That was what America crossed in nurturing the protesters on Kiev’s Maidan in the winter of 2013-2014, and, in his view, ousting legitimate Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It had nothing to do with Syria. After Yanukovych fled in February 2014, Korotchenko said, Putin made a “political decision” to let the people of Crimea “decide their political future” and join Russia. “We didn’t know how America would react, and we examined all scenarios ... including American military intervention,” Korotchenko explained. “Which means Obama wasn’t seen as a weak president but as a president who can take any action.”

Even people like Gleb Pavlovsky, a political scientist who helped Putin get elected in 2000 and worked with him until 2011, when Pavlovsky went over to the opposition, don’t understand the logical line drawn between Syria and Ukraine. “Considering the way the Kremlin brain is wired, there shouldn’t be a connection,” he told me. The summer and fall of 2013, Pavlovsky pointed out correctly, was a time when Putin flirted with liberalization. He released political prisoners like the members of Pussy Riot and the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky from jail, set as he was on sprucing up his image ahead of the Sochi Olympics. “Washington didn’t seem weak then,” Pavlovsky says. The Syria deal Putin and Obama ultimately struck “was a success for Putin. And he respects his partners when they help him become successful. I think that during this period, there was a warm feeling toward Obama.”

“After the Syria deal, Putin was flying high, he was ecstatic, he expected a lot from relations with the U.S.,” Pavlovsky recalled. “The Ukrainian crisis changed a lot.” An accord mediated by Russia and the West that would have left Yanukovych in power dissolved soon after it was struck in February 2014, as Yanukovych fled Kiev in response to threats of violence. “The accord ... was forgotten, and it was seen as betrayal,” Pavlovsky said. “And Putin decided that if that’s how you’re going to play, I’ll play that way, too. There’s a connection, but it’s not the one you paint.” If anything, in Putin’s view, it was American actions in Kiev, rather than its inaction in Syria, that prompted Putin to grab Crimea and invade east Ukraine.

Another interesting point: By the summer of 2013, Obama had already been president for four and a half years, and no one in the Kremlin had any illusions about how he saw the world. His decision in Syria was not exactly shocking or out of character for the Russians, especially after the hesitation he showed in Libya. “For Putin to understand that it’s not Bush and not Reagan, you didn’t need to wait for Syria to happen,” said Lukyanov. “To see that Obama is a totally different type of leader, that he’s different from Bush and Reagan and Clinton, you didn’t need to wait for Syria. It was apparent from the beginning.”

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