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Other Opinion: Reading Putin

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It may not be the reaction he was hoping for, but Vladimir Putin — president of Russia and aspiring pundit — shouldn’t take it personally that one reader was so offended by his op-ed column in the New York Times that he "almost wanted to vomit." To the contrary: An "engaged audience" is all the rage in journalism nowadays.

At any rate, that reader, who happens to be Sen. Robert Menendez, missed the larger point. What makes Putin’s queasy assembly of half-truths and disingenuous claims remarkable is that it was written at all. Putin has now invested his personal prestige in the attempt to persuade Syria’s President Bashar Assad to put his chemical weapons arsenal under international control. The article’s very existence is the most encouraging sign yet that Russia takes this plan seriously.

Putin may have written the article to meddle in the U.S. debate over airstrikes in Syria, which the American public opposes but President Barack Obama refuses to rule out. As a former KGB agent, Putin knows well how to seize on an opponent’s weakness. Whatever his reason, Putin has now taken ownership of the Syrian policy in an international forum.

This is a welcome development. Putin yearns for Russia to resume its Cold War position as an equal partner with the United States on issues of global security, and to constrain the ability of the United States to deploy force without Russian consent. Yet he has tried to get there by blocking U.S. action while rarely offering an alternative (empty calls for dialogue don’t count).

The plan could well fail at any one of at least a dozen hurdles, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry are now attempting to work out the details with disarmament experts in Geneva. Putin’s column hardly counts as serious contribution to the dialogue, with arguments ranging from the untrue to the bizarre — with just enough plausible warnings against the dangers of intervention to keep readers off balance.

Putin’s comparison of the League of Nations with the United Nations, for instance, is... well, let’s just say that opinion writers are granted some leeway in their interpretation of the facts, and he took advantage. Suffice it to say that the League of Nations collapsed because it failed to enforce collective security. That is exactly what the U.S. and its allies are trying to get the United Nations to do - and are being prevented by Russian resistance in the U.N. Security Council.

Putin also characterizes Syria’s civil war as "fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition." True enough, yet he omits that it is also fueled by Russian weapons supplied to Assad. He also repeats his claims that the rebels bombed themselves with chemical weapons, and that there is no evidence of a government attack. The opposite is almost certainly true, as Human Rights Watch concluded in a recent report. U.N. inspectors are expected to publish their findings next week.

Most bizarre is the out-of-date nature of Putin’s analysis of U.S. warmongering, right down to paraphrasing a 12-year-old quote from President George W. Bush: "You’re either with us or against us." Drones aside, if Obama has a Middle East policy it is to withdraw U.S. military that Bush deployed, and he is hardly a "with us or against us" kind of guy.

All this said, however, the U.S. and others should look past Putin’s distortions. He’s hardly unique among politicians (or, dare we say, commentators) in bending the truth to make his case. They should ignore, too, his calls for the U.S. to renounce the threat of force, which has made the Russian plan possible and will be useful even to Putin as he tries to ensure that Assad delivers on any agreement.

In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more — and certainly must be more persuasive — than his words. There’s no need to trust Putin, to paraphrase another former president, but it’s important to verify his intentions.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

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