I can appreciate a good joke. But Russian President Vladimir Putin's Op-Ed in the New York Times of September 11th, "A Plea for Caution," which I'm sure caused him to smile as he penned it, is not funny. It isn't even a bad joke.
On one hand, there is some humor in seeing President Barack Obama being hoisted on his own petard for having shot off his mouth about the "red line" he had drawn about Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons – that was on August 20th, over a year ago – and now having to back-pedal. He owned that red line, and, true to form, is now disowning it, claiming that it was "the world's," and not just his. That's his "community organizing" skills coming to the fore. As Robert Farley of FactCheck.org concluded on September 6th:
Obama is correct to argue that the international community has long drawn a “red line” condemning the use of chemical weapons, but his point blurs the fact that his “red line” comment in August 2012 was made in the context of what it might take for the U.S. to get involved militarily in Syria. While Obama may have had some justification for drawing that line based on international conventions, the decision to tie U.S. military involvement to Assad using chemical weapons was Obama’s red line.
Another chuckle was earned by Secretary of State John "Swift Boat" Kerry when he inadvertently gave Putin the idea of suggesting that Assad's chemical weapons could be put under lock and key for the duration of the Syrian "civil war." As Bloomberg News iterated on September 10th:
Putin’s remarks complicate the outlook for the Russian proposal a day after it was presented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had seized on comments in London by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the possibility of Syria turning over its chemical-weapons stockpile.
But, if these are jokes, they are not long-lived ones. In past columns we examined the horrific record Obama has chalked up for himself since taking the presidential oath of office in 2009. We should now revisit the record of the man who would assume to take the leadership and moral high ground and have the chutzpah to offer Americans and their political leaders his advice. While no one should get too excited about Obama getting a deserved comeuppance, no one should get too excited about Putin, either. After all, Putin, the man with the arctic-cold blue killer's eyes, is a man after Obama's own heart.
He is a successful and feared power-luster.
However, a joke of sorts was practiced on Putin and his Op-Ed. Someone at the New York Times had the presence of mind to illustrate his column with a Black Hand, an Italian Mafia warning to extortion victims. Putin did imply, ever so subtly, that if the U.S. launched a strike against Syria, it would have to contend with Russia.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria…will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders…It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
That is called stealing Obama's thunder.
First off, Putin had a career as a KGB officer in charge of watching other Russians and also foreigners. Posted in Dresden when the Wall went down and Eastern Europe found itself adrift of Soviet domination, he easily made the transition from being a KGB officer for the Soviet Union to being a watcher for the Federal Security Service (FSB), which succeeded the KBG after the collapse of the Soviets in 1991. At Leningrad State University, still in the KGB until the organization underwent its name change, he watched over the student body and recruited more spooks.
Later, he oversaw the transfer of Soviet state properties to the new federal government of the Russian Federation. In the economic and political chaos following the collapse of the Soviet government, Russian business and industry were up for grabs, causing the creation of a state-protected oligarchy.
Putin has a doctorate in economics. His dissertation title was "The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources Under the Formation of Market Relations," in which he argued for the establishment by the state of "National Champions" in business and industry. Sounds a lot like Obama's plan to subsidize American "national champions" in "green" technology, except those "champions" have all gone belly-up, knocked out cold by the realities of business.
Putin rose to the top of the new Russian political system, becoming between 1999 and 2000 prime minister, then president from 2000 to 2008, prime minister again from 2008 to 2012, and president again in 2012. It is quite appropriate that a skilled and determined ex-KGB officer should rise to the top of political power in Russia and have a firm and ruthless grip on that power.
The long and short of how Putin remade Russia is that from being governed by a totalitarian communist régime, he transformed it into a nation ruled by an authoritarian fascist régime. The Russian state is in "partnership" with companies that toe Putin's line, determines the content and policies of state and private news media, and caters to the wishes of many Russians that Russia become again a power to contend with on the world stage.
There are Obama's little wars, and Putin's Northern Caucasus "problem." Putin waged brutal wars with "autonomous" republics within the Russian Federation that wanted to secede. The two against Chechnya were simply battles between one authoritarian régime, Putin's, against an Islamic one.
That is something Putin understands. As he noted in his Times Op-Ed:
Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
Putin was exercising a bit of diplomatic courtesy by not naming who was supplying the "rebels" with weapons: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States.
His forces invaded Georgia, nominally an independent nation, over its policies in dealing with the "breakaway" republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Light operas and satirical plays were once written about the interminable squabbles in the Balkans. No one is composing librettos about the bitter conflicts between Russia and what were once the "autonomous" Socialist Republics of the late Soviet Union. There are no "good guys" in any of these conflicts whose side one can take.
At 5'7", Putin is a short man, but a combination of a state-controlled Stalinist personality cult for "public relations" purposes and a strong streak of personal narcissism show him flying fighter jets, shooting tigers, competing in martial arts contests, fishing, hunting, swimming, and engaging in other "manly" activities, many of them bare-chested. The only picture missing is of Putin wresting with a bear, or dancing with wolves. All together, Putin's photo-ops are better than Obama's golfing photo-ops. You'll never see a picture of Putin in a sand-trap.
Which is what Obama found himself in over his "red line" remarks.
Putin's Russia is not a place to practice freedom of speech. The number of journalists, rights activists and other individuals who have been murdered or assassinated for practicing it is high, and that shouldn’t be startling. Imagine a member of the Al Capone gang suddenly advocating repeal of the 18th Amendment to his bosses. He would soon be sleeping with the fishes.
Stanislav Markelov, a civil rights attorney representing the family of a woman who was murdered in Chechnya by a Russian tank commander, and protesting the early release of that man from a ten-year sentence, was shot in killed in central Moscow, together with Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old journalist trainee as they left a press conference about the early release. The tank commander, Yuri Budanov, did not get to enjoy his freedom too long; he was himself assassinated in Moscow.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB (or KGB) officer, defected from Russia when he protested the rampant corruption in the Russian government. He was poisoned in London in a restaurant where he met someone who claimed to have information about the murder of a Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya that same year, 2006. He died of thallium poisoning.
Natalya Estemirova, a civil rights activist for Chechnya, was kidnapped and shot in 2009, probably at the behest of a Putin appointee in Grozny, Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov. As the Telegraph story relates:
In the past 10 months many of his rivals have been found dead after killings in Vienna, Istanbul, Dubai and Moscow.
Paul Klebnikov was an editor for Forbes-Russia in Moscow. He was investigating corruption in the Russian government, specifically in connection with expatriate and business "oligarch" Boris Berezovsky, who fled to Britain years before. He was shot. Berezovsky, who once cast aspersions on Klebnikov's articles on Russian corruption, himself met with a dubious death, either by hanging or drowning in his bathtub, after he voiced support for Paul Litvinenko.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, and editor writing about the corruption in Russian government, suffered a gruesome assassination, having ingested a poison that shut down all his bodily functions one by one and causing his skin to peel off.
There must be dozens more such murders committed under Putin's régime that have not caught the attention of journalists (or of politicians) in the West. Many of the killings are attributed to the Russian "Mafia," which, from all the available evidence, acts as a kind of "enforcer" arm for Putin's government and leaves out any role of the FSB.
And that is but a partial exposé of Vladimir Putin, our latest "man of peace." Not exactly a laughing matter.
Russia not only has a close relationship with Syria's Assad, but has maintained very cordial relations with Iran, as well. It built Iran's first nuclear reactor and has offered to build Iran another. Putin met with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani to offer him S-300 missiles In fact, Iran is helping to train Syrian "rebels."
So, we are not only helping to arm the Al Queda-linked Syrian "rebels," but may be working shoulder-to-shoulder with the troops from another implacable enemy of the U.S., Iran, to overthrow Assad's régime.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has also sent arms to the Syrian "rebels" in a continuing bid to shift the outcome of the conflict in the Saudis' favor. As the New York Times reported last February:
The Iranian arms transfers have fueled worries among Sunni Arab states about losing a step to Tehran in what has become a regional contest for primacy in Syria between Sunni Arabs and the Iran-backed Assad government and Hezbollah of Lebanon.
What it boils down to is a contest between the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shi'ite branch to decimate a despised third Islamic sect, the Alawites. Assad is an Alawite, and so is his régime.
Try and figure out why Barack Obama would want to step into this religious mess and ongoing bout for supremacy. It isn't just about chemical weapons.
It is about ideology. And Obama has had his clock cleaned by Putin and the rest of them.