Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Putin's intentions most likely 'cold warrior'

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AMERICA and Russia have an agreement on removing or destroying Syria's extensive collection of chemical weapons. The headline points are that Bashar Assad's regime must submit a full inventory within a week. Should his government find that deadline too exacting, Vladimir Putin's former colleagues in the SVR, the successor organization to the KGB, can probably help out. Then the weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014. If Syria fails to comply with these terms it will face a chapter seven resolution in the UN Security Council which, for those who have not looked at their copy of the UN's charter since 2003, is the one that covers the use of force. Compliance will be in the eye of the beholder.

Whether this agreement works depends largely on what you think Russia's intentions are. Some see the deal as merely a stalling tactic to head off an American military intervention that might have tipped the balance in Syria's civil war against Assad. "It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin," say senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

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On this view, which tends to be shared by The Economist, Putin has no intention of doing anything that might weaken the regime his government has propped up with weapons, protected at the UN and which hosts a useful Russian naval base. Any ceasefire, which presumably is a prerequisite for weapons inspections, would probably benefit the regime -- which has bases where its forces can regroup -- more than it helps the rebels. After a pause, during which the threat of an American strike would have receded, Assad could get back to the business of killing the large number of Syrians who do not want him as their president. This is Putin as a cold warrior: anything that is bad for America must be good for Russia.

There is another way to read Russia, put forward by Fiona Hill at the Brookings Institute recently. On this analysis Putin has no great attachment to the Assads or to Syria. What he does not want is busloads of jihadis armed with chemical weapons travelling from Syria via Chechnya to Moscow. Even the Russians can see Assad's lot will not be able to rule a country that resembles Syria after this war, so the important thing is to make sure that who or whatever follows the Assad regime will not have sarin gas on tap. On this, America and Russia can agree.

From the point of view of domestic politics, the agreement makes any vote on the use of force in Syria in the U.S. Congress unlikely for the time being. In order to make the deal stick, Barack Obama's administration will have to be careful not to look like it is in a hurry to launch the Tomahawks. That means trying to get a UN resolution threatening force first. If that fails, then Obama is back to asking Congress for its authorization for a missile strike -- and the question of what happens if the House votes no. Meanwhile, there is a government to fund and a debt ceiling to raise.

 

RETURN OF THE COLD WAR

Russian President Vladimir Putin is protecting Syria and Iran as if they were satellite states of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. See analysis here.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 A9

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