Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to come out of the cold during G20 meetings in Turkey over the weekend when the recent pariah huddled with President Barack Obama and other leaders before the announcement of an agreement on a long-term political solution for Syria.
With Moscow’s confirmation on Tuesday that an Islamic State bomb brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt last month, Washington and its allies clearly hope the common aim of fighting the murderous Islamist group will finally persuade Putin to help tackle the root causes of extremism in Syria, as well as Europe’s refugee crisis. He has already promised to stop bombing moderate rebels groups opposed to his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s possible that if the political process moves more rapidly, there could be a greater level of exchange of information [between U.S. and Russian forces],” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris on Tuesday. Syrians could be “weeks away, conceivably, of a big transition,” he added.
Although Western governments are right to pursue any avenue that encourages genuine cooperation, they should be very, very wary of compounding the current crisis in Syria by repeating the mistake of trusting a Kremlin with vastly different goals. For a lesson in how the Kremlin really operates, they would do well to look instead at Russia’s response to another recent news event: the doping scandal that resulted in its suspension from international athletics and possibly next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After the World Anti-Doping Agency issued a report this month alleging state support for a massive doping regime, Putin withheld comment while a parade of lesser officials issued hardline reactions about a conspiracy against Russia. Russians were being persecuted, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said, because “whatever we do, everything is bad.”
When Putin finally spoke up last week, he sounded fairly moderate. Russia must “do everything” it can to eradicate doping, he said, and ordered an inquiry into the charges. It was classic Putin.
Surely, he had weighed his options. With overwhelming evidence from a resolute agency that the Russian Federal Security Service was covering up a vast bribery scheme, no doubt he concluded denial would do little to help avoid the recommended suspension. The issue’s importance to an already isolated country should not be underestimated. Missing the Olympics would play poorly among sports-mad Russians, whose government invested a record $50 billion last year in the Sochi Winter Olympics, portrayed in a tidal wave of state propaganda as evidence of Russia’s return to the ranks of global great powers.
Exercises in that kind of state nationalism are the closest the Kremlin has to a system of ideas and beliefs. In fact, the Russian president is no ideologue. Otherwise, he might have been expected to deny the doping scandal — anything — to ratchet up his confrontation with the West. But unlike, say, Republicans in the U.S. Congress, to whom opposition to every one of Obama’s policies appears sacred, Putin compromises when he must. What passes for Russian ideology doesn’t determine policy, that is, but functions as a tool for achieving his main — and often contradictory — guiding principle of shoring up his power.
Just last week, Russian state television appeared to betray a major military secret when a news camera filming a meeting between Putin and military officials zoomed in on a paper showing plans for a new nuclear submarine drone that could evade U.S. antimissile systems.
That clearly deliberate “leak” illustrates how Moscow really operates. Rather than develop new technology, the Kremlin appears to have merely dusted off decades-old Soviet blueprints in the latest attempt to threaten the West. The vessel doesn’t exist; it’s communist-era bluster.
In yet more saber-rattling, this time on social media, pictures showed new S-400 antiaircraft missiles stationed in Syria, where besides the government and Russia, only Western forces operate aircraft. Which gets at Moscow’s core disagreement with the West. Despite the apparent thaw in relations, the Kremlin’s offer to form an anti-militant coalition still represents a poison pill: Putin’s backing of Assad only strengthens the figure most responsible for Islamic State’s prospering, as well as the migrant crisis wracking Europe.
Meanwhile, Moscow is inserting itself ever deeper into the Syrian conflict, with unpredictable results. It remains to be seen how the explosion of the Russian airliner will affect Putin’s popularity ratings, the crucial pillar of his personal rule for which Russians are sacrificing so much. Last week, Islamic State promised in a video that more Russian blood will soon be shed.
Putin’s persona has proved remarkably resistant to that and other bad news. Far from restoring Russian power, the Kremlin’s choking authoritarianism has prompted a massive brain drain, stifled technological and economic innovation and otherwise diminished the country’s long-term prospects for prosperity. Despite the Kremlin’s claims, there is no parity between Russia and the United States. Still, confronting the United States through the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria has helped push Putin’s approval ratings to record levels of almost 90 percent. Far from undermining public support, economic recession and receding individual liberties appear to have helped galvanize it.
As in foreign policy, Moscow sees athletics as another way to prove its mettle against the West and — like the Cold War communist regimes that serve as its model — it will go to great lengths to achieve sporting victories. Putin will ultimately continue doing what he must to shore up his power, which according to his regime’s internal logic requires ratcheting up the competition.
Insisting Russia faces serious consequences for violating international fair play has provided an example of how to respond to the Kremlin’s subterfuge: remain resolute about upholding Western values. Putin may have sabotaged the London Olympics, as the anti-doping agency’s report says, but the Paris attacks shouldn’t enable Moscow to do the same to Western policy in Syria.
Overlooking Russia’s real intentions would not only harm the ultimate goal of fighting Islamic militants by addressing the human suffering in Syria, it also would send the wrong signal to Russians about their own regime. The West must proceed very carefully.
By Gregory Feifer