Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin sat across from each other at the G8 meeting last month in Northern Ireland, but their positions on Syria could not be further apart. The G8 statement on Syria that came out from the summit was a triumph for Putin and also a victory for what I would call “consensus through cowardice.” Getting rid of the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad is not one of the document’s pledges. Incredibly, al-Assad is not even mentioned—no doubt at the insistence of his greatest supporter, Putin. For the sake of a hypocritical display of unity, Obama and the others signed a worthless statement that could have been written in the Kremlin.
Since the Russian connections of the Boston Marathon bombers came to light, the myth of common ground between Putin and the West has received a lot of lip service on both sides. It is useful to Putin both at home and abroad to maintain the illusion that he wants greater integration with Europe and better relations with the United States. In both places there have been recent moves to sanction the Kremlin and Putin’s thugs for human rights violations and criminal activity. Putin needs to show his allies he can still protect them.
This does not mean Putin will cede any ground on anything that matters to him, at least not while Obama and the rest fail to apply real pressure. The latest evidence is the bizarre affair of Edward Snowden, the American NSA employee who leaked classified information about domestic surveillance programs. Then he got on a flight from Hong Kong to Russia and according to reports he’s been sitting in Sheremetyevo airport since Sunday trying to figure out his next move. The U.S. wants Snowden extradited for espionage, and when someone else wants something it’s a chance for Putin to show what “cooperation” really means to him.
First came Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statements that Snowden wasn’t technically in Russian territory while in the airport and, therefore, was outside of Russian jurisdiction. Of course Putin feels he has jurisdiction to send tanks into Georgia and military personnel into Syria, and Kremlin critics in London have the odd habit of being murdered. But not the Moscow airport—it’s out of reach! Even that legal loophole expired days ago, however, so now it’s just a matter of Putin wanting to squeeze the most attention and annoyance out of this little accident.
Reflecting Putin’s opportunism, the Kremlin is now suggesting this situation is an opportunity to create an extradition treaty between Russia and the United States. This would be a grave blow to human rights, and the mere suggestion of such a thing illustrates the dangers of treating an authoritarian state like a democratic nation. An extradition pact assumes that the signatories play by similar rules of justice and have similar values. Imagine an agreement between North and South Korea in which Northerners escaping that colossal gulag were forced to return to misery and death simply because Pyongyang requested it. Putin would use such a treaty to persecute innocent Russians who have escaped his grasp by fleeing the country. Disobedient businessmen, disloyal functionaries, and opposition activists—these are the “criminals” the Kremlin wishes to pursue. An extradition treaty with a country that keeps political prisoners would be a moral outrage.
As for the other direction such an accord would cover, consider the case of Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB agent wanted by British authorities investigating the 2006 murder by radioactive polonium-210 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Lugovoi was the prime suspect, leaving a radioactive trail and accused by the victim on his deathbed. Not only did Putin refuse to extradite Lugovoi to be questioned in the U.K., but he allowed him to become an anti-Western propaganda star who soon won a seat in the Russian Parliament (Duma).
This whole Snowden charade is entirely in keeping with Putin’s technique of having it both ways. He gets to look like a tough guy for standing up to Obama on an issue that matters to Putin not at all while at the same time he pretends he is cooperating as best he can. If Snowden were actually valuable there would be no public show. He’d be in a bunker deep under KGB headquarters, and the Kremlin would be in full denial mode. Or he’d likely never have been let out of China. And as at the G8 meeting, other leaders are too afraid to challenge this flagrant hypocrisy, which further emboldens Putin.
Since Putin’s assault on democracy and human rights began in Russia in 2000, I have used the term “G8” under protest. It remains the G7, or the derisive “G7+1” used by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prior to Enniskillen. (This was a rare display of backbone that he had to humiliatingly withdraw a few days later.) It is the group of great industrial democracies, and it is difficult to say on which of those two qualifications Putin’s Russia is the greater failure. When Putin hosted the G8 in Saint Petersburg in 2006, he talked about how Russia was becoming more democratic. Seven years of crackdowns later, his government has begun churning out one draconian law after another, many of which contravene the international treaties and human rights accords Russia has signed. The latest is a bill that criminalizes “gay propaganda,” which can be broadly interpreted as anything about homosexuality.
To judge from the G8 Syria statement, one is greater than seven. It is a vague wish list about “diplomatic pressure” and condemning this and supporting that without a commitment to action. And how could there be with Putin there? It is preposterous that the so-called leaders of the free world in Northern Ireland signed a consensus document on Syria with Putin while the Kremlin is supporting al-Assad’s war machine with advanced weapons and Russian military personnel. He got what he wanted, which is to extend the conflict for as long as possible while dragging neighboring powers deeper into the mire. Along with supporting a fellow dictator, this outcome keeps the price of oil high, the only thing Putin and his allies at home really care about.
Cynically referring to the al-Assad regime’s vicious war of oppression against the Syrian people as a civil war is a mendacious trick that invites parallels to the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the elected government of Spain in 1936 eventually turned the country into the host of a grinding proxy war that could have been avoided by early decisive action. But France and the Great Britain, eager to avoid conflict and even more eager to reach an accord with Hitler’s Germany, immediately promoted a policy of nonintervention regarding the coup by Franco’s forces. Of course, Germany and Italy supplied the Spanish fascists regardless, Hitler providing air power and Mussolini ground forces. Putin’s Russia is happy to take the role of Hitler’s Germany in this bloody reenactment in Syria, while Iran and Hezbollah are playing the Italians.
With no help from Britain and France, by 1938 the Spanish Republican forces were dominated by the only remaining government sponsor, Stalin’s Secret Police, meaning communism and fascism were soon the only options. Although the positions of the rebels and the government are reversed in Syria, the escalating proxy war and the fatal tentativeness of the pro-democracy forces are clearly echoed. Many in the West worry that arming the Syrian rebels will lead to al Qaeda coming to power there. But by withholding support this outcome becomes more likely, not less. If the primary source of support to the Syrian rebels remains the Saudis, it should be no surprise if al Qaeda is the main beneficiary. Will Obama and David Cameron pose for more photos with Putin while their dithering guarantees the destruction of the remaining moderate elements among the Syrian rebels? If yes, the options will soon be limited to al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
The G8 statement refers to bringing all sides of the Syrian conflict to the table. If this conference between a murderer and his victims does take place with G8 oversight, I can suggest a time and place. This September will mark the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, the infamous act of appeasement that permitted the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakian territory. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain hailed the result of the agreement as “peace for our time.” So September 29 in Munich would be the ideal symbolic location for a Syrian “peace conference,” if anyone is left alive to sit across from al-Assad. Perhaps the G7 leaders know the Munich story, but it appears their history books are missing the following chapters. If I am not mistaken, a few important events occurred after Chamberlain’s triumphant declaration, and they were not long in coming.