The historian Ronald Hingley once described an aspect of the Russian disposition as a kind of superiority complex wrapped inside an inferiority one: From literature to politics, we have seen a zealously maintained belief that Russia is a power greater than all others mixed with resentment of the fact that all others plainly do not feel the same way. Soviet propaganda was a monument to this manic-depressive attitude, embodied in the self-conceit, which dated back to czarism, that Moscow was the “new Rome” (complete with slave labor and an imperial expiration date, as it happened).
There is nothing so dangerous as a former superpower unaware of its own diminished role. What the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin today lacks in ideology, it more than makes up for in invidious posturing. Daily there is some fresh exhibition of paranoia, sham moral equivalence, or hyper-sensitivity to criticism—real or perceived—and all usually directed against the United States. Consider the reaction to the recent passage of the Magnitsky Act in Congress, which imposes asset freezes and travel bans on those responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights” against individuals seeking to exercise basic freedoms or expose the criminality of the Russian government. More and more Russians support this law because they see it as a necessary foreign corrective on the domestic absence of the rule of law, and because it hits even low-level state functionaries where they hurt the most—in their ability to spend or invest ill-gotten gains abroad. And so the Putinists are predictably incensed and have become predictably absurd. They have compared a murdered whistle-blowing attorney to a convicted global arms dealer. They have expelled State Department-linked aid organizations that finance domestic NGOs that tell the truth about Russia. And now they have proposed a total, xenophobic prohibition on Americans adopting orphaned Russian children, which apparently violates the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the Conventions on the Rights of the Child (Russia is a party to both). If these measures seem ludicrously disproportionate to Western observers, they are viewed as legitimate tit-for-tat retaliations by their architects who further bridle at not being taken seriously.
I never know whether to smile or wince whenever I’m asked if the Kremlin will ever stop supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The very question elevates Putin’s “line” on Syria to the kind of geopolitical paramountcy he so desires and is as pathetically moored as an unattached thirtysomething to the interpretation of mixed signals. It’s almost as if Putin wants the international media and diplomatic corps to parse his regime’s every syllable because it makes him feel important.
On December 13, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov made an obvious observation: “Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the victory of the Syrian opposition.” Now, one might think that Russia and Syria haven’t been ruling out this contingency since March 2011, which is why both have spared no expense in atrocity or propaganda in trying to destroy that opposition. Yet suddenly, a headline-making speculation: Did this “off-message” remark mean that Moscow had truly begun to reposition itself on a two-year-old crisis? Never mind that Bogdanov’s comments were not carried on Russian state-controlled television or on the Foreign Ministry’s website. Those hopeful for a political solution for Syria still insisted that he was intentionally telegraphing his masters’ overdue rethink, as did the State Department, which congratulated Moscow on “waking up to the reality.” A day later, however, the Foreign Ministry went right back to sleep, clarifying that its position on the conflict had not changed and “never will.”
Never is not such a long time in the land of soft power. Next came Putin’s press conference on December 20 at which, in between forecasting the time and cause of the apocalypse, he claimed that “[w]e are not that preoccupied with the fate of Assad’s regime” and that his position was not “to back Assad and his regime in power at any price.” More raised eyebrows. It scarcely mattered that Putin said almost exactly the same thing nearly a year ago, before his “election” as president, before his UN representatives had suggested that the Houla massacre had been perpetrated by Syrian rebels, before Russia tried to transport refurbished attack helicopters and minted Syrian pounds to Assad, and before Turkey embarrassed Putin by forcing a Syrian plane loaded with Russian war cargo to land in Ankara. In an interview with the Times of London on March 2, 2012, the crane-navigating, urn-recovering authoritarian groused: “When Bashar al-Assad came to power he visited London and other European capitals first,” nothing mattering so much to a godfather as prioritized obeisance. “We don’t have a special relationship with Syria. We only have interests in the conflict being resolved.”
This week, as if to underscore that the point of this interminable guessing-game of Russian intentions is the playing of the game itself, Putin authorized his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to declare that “Assad is not going anywhere, no matter what anyone says, be it China or Russia,” and to reiterate, on Christmas Eve, that the “fate of Assad must be decided by the Syrian people, not by the outsiders and by part of the Syrian opposition.”
That first insight might actually be true, though how easily the media still allows itself to be fooled into thinking that the Kremlin’s desire is for Assad to leave. According to Time magazine, Moscow has granted “billions” in loans to a regime it’s apparently neither hot nor cold on, meaning that either the Syrian opposition, which has been burning Russian flags for quite some time, will be asked to honor those loans at a future date, or that the lender still expects the original borrower to do so. I wrote a few weeks ago that as long as Russian-made weapons are shooting down Russian-made aircraft in Syria, the transactional nature of the Moscow-Damascus relationship remains in tact. Russian arms sales reached a record high of $14 billion in 2012, and you’re very welcome to believe that shaving a few billion off that total would be seen by Putin as a fair price to pay for forestalling ethnic cleansing or chemical warfare.
One should think that if Putin were serious about coaxing Assad out of power, and in shoring up international credibility as a responsible arbiter for peace, he would take a few conspicuous actions. First, publicly offer the imperiled dictator safe passage out of Syria, if not safe haven in Russian territory. Yet such is not the case. Second, recall those many Russian “military advisors” who are manning Syria’s air defense systems. The Guardian expects these personnel to continue at their posts in the unlikely event that NATO warplanes fly overhead. I highly doubt it. When the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sailed to Tartus in January 2012 as part of a Russian naval “task force,” the US Sixth Fleet was on hand just in case the ill-designed ship, held together by Scotch tape and Orthodox prayers, sunk en route, and never mind that the Kuznetsov might have been shipping weapons then, too. Another rare moment of honesty from Russian officialdom was that a Western intervention would render forfeit all diplomatic, material and military support for Assad. Russia calls America’s bluff, America can’t even call Russia’s candor.
It’s been a few years now since many serious people in Washington believed that a major bilateral “reset” was necessary to convince an ex-KGB agent to render transport assistance to American and European soldiers willing to die to stop radical Islamists from regaining control of Afghanistan. Or that corrupt siloviki who stage mock invasions of neighboring countries were as sincerely committed to nuclear disarmament as was a former community organizer from Chicago. ‘Tis the season to be silly, though here’s a morbid thought to tide you over till after the New Year. Perhaps our government knows that Putin’s line isn’t changing and isn’t going to; it’s just grateful that he occasionally makes it seem so to give it an excuse to do nothing new or substantive about Syria.