Putin Is No Partner

Dependening on Russia's president to forge a Syria solution is likely to result in no progress.

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Aside from a respite from the threat of force against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a seemingly inevitable consequence of last Saturday's "framework" agreement reached between the U.S. and Russia is the likelihood that Washington will resume treating Russian President Vladimir Putin as a necessary partner in international affairs. 

Just a few weeks ago, President Obama's cancellation of a planned Moscow summit with Putin following the St. Petersburg G-20 appeared to put the nail in the coffin of the "reset" policy. That approach was based on a supposed departure from President George W. Bush's foreign policy and an emphasis on achieving cooperation with Moscow on a handful of discrete issues. 

In fact, the fruits of cooperation with Moscow under the "reset" policy were overstated. And an actual departure from President Bush's reluctance to challenge the Putin-ization of Russia would have been welcome, but neither Bush nor President Obama responded seriously to the downward spiral on political and civil rights in Russia.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Relying on Russia for a Syria solution will make things worse on that front by obscuring alternative views among Russians on their country's role in the world. Such views exist. Former prime minister and current democratic opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov told Radio Liberty on September 2 that, were he in office, "my actions would of course be different from what I see now being done by Russia's leaders." He also took issue with Russian government efforts to absolve the Assad government of responsibility for the August 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Russia's democrats see in Putin's Syria policy a self-serving desire to protect the club of autocrats. They believe it is in the interests of their country "to support the international community's effort to limit the power of dictators and stop crimes against humanity," Alexander Podrabinek, an opposition journalist, wrote online for the Institute of Modern Russia on September 17.

The discovery by U.N. weapons inspectors' of Cyrillic lettering on munitions that delivered the sarin gas to Ghouta and evidence tracing the attack to Syrian government military facilities ought open up a frank discussion – in the U.S. and in Russia – about the history of Soviet assistance to the Assad family dictatorship and its arsenal of weapons (both chemical and conventional). Unfortunately, the dynamic of current U.S.-Russia policy will create a an incentive for the Obama administration to downplay or gloss over Russian assistance to Assad of any kind, including conventional weapons and U.N. obstructionism that has contributed to many more deaths than those at Ghouta.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Autocrats like Putin who dominate domestic media and wield the threat of punishment against speech they don't like are able to effectively identify themselves with the nation and the state. It helps also that Putin is in the position to pay an American public relations firm millions of dollars to place propaganda in the pages of The New York Times, even as he targets individuals and organizations receiving funds from democracy foundations abroad as "foreign agents."

The fact is, a dependence on Putin for a Syria solution is likely to result not only in no progress in ending the Syrian conflict, but also to hamper the efforts of Russia's opposition figures who wish to steer a course away from the foreign policy of autocracy, adopt a more cooperative international approach and apply the values they work for at home to Russia's foreign policy. It's a bad deal all around.

Ellen Bork is Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

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