Putin’s stragetic Syria win more a Russian bear trap
Suddenly we’re back in a Cold War world in which, depending on your taste in metaphors, the Russian bear is on the prowl or the Russian chess master is several moves ahead of his floundering western opponent.
Thus Russia’s presence in Syria under the pretence of taking the fight to ISIS is a strategic triumph for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and an embarrassment if not humiliation for US President Barack Obama.
At least Obama, being a second term president, won’t suffer the electoral consequences of being schooled by his rival, unlike Jimmy Carter who in 1980 was turfed out of the White House for having “lost” Afghanistan to the Soviet Union, among other failings.
In 1979 the Soviet Union intervened militarily in Afghanistan at the invitation of a client government that was in danger of being toppled by an armed insurgency.
As the west has spent the last decade finding out, “stabilising” Afghanistan is easier said than done. In the face of dogged resistance, the Soviets embarked on a scorched earth strategy, bombing villages into rubble to deny the mujahidin rebels safe havens, destroying irrigation systems in an attempt to starve the hostile countryside into submission and laying 10 to 15 million landmines, presumably on the theory that if you blew children’s legs off, they wouldn’t grow up to be effective guerrilla fighters, Afghanistan not being blessed with wheelchair-friendly terrain.
(In 1994, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated it will take 4,300 years to make Afghanistan entirely land mine-free.)
Not surprisingly, these tactics created an enormous refugee problem: one third of the pre-war population fled to Iran or Pakistan while 2 million were displaced internally. In the 1980s half the refugees in the world were Afghans.
After the better part of a decade and having killed between 850,000 and 1.5 million civilians, the old men in the Kremlin came to the conclusion that their great geopolitical manoeuvre wasn’t such a masterstroke after all. Afghanistan was a quagmire, a bear trap, the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
The war had made the USSR an object of loathing and contempt; it had radicalised a generation of Muslims resulting in thousands of battle-hardened militants fanning out across the globe taking their jihad to the Soviet vassal state of Chechnya, among other places; it was fostering domestic resentment and bleeding the Soviet Union dry.
So the Russian bear slunk out of Afghanistan, leaving it to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Many of the foreign policy gurus who’d scorned Carter for having “lost” Afghanistan now agreed with each other that the invasion was a colossal strategic blunder and a significant cause of the decline and fall of the Soviet empire.
Western Putin worship is a curious phenomenon. If a western leader strutted around with his shirt off striking action man poses, he would be – rightly – derided and suspected of having a Mussolini complex. But when the Russian leader, a former secret policeman turned oligarch, does it, it’s seen as reinforcing an image of strength and decisiveness. He’s portrayed as a “strong man,” a particularly mealy-mouthed euphemism for an authoritarian.
Even as Putin turns the state-run media into a propaganda machine that despots the world over must envy and bullies independent media into submission – journalism is a very high-risk occupation in contemporary Russia – pundits in the west continue to trot out the weasel words of power worship: ruthless, calculating, comfortable with the exercise of power, a master of realpolitik restoring Russia’s standing in the world.
(These terms aren’t used critically: they are expressions of sneaking admiration.)
So what is Putin’s contribution to the world we live in? Well, by fabulously enriching several of his cronies, he’s been a boon to the super yacht building industry. He fomented a civil war in Ukraine which is turning that country into a wasteland. He has pretty much strangled Russian democracy at birth. He provided a safe haven for whistle-blower/traitor Edward Snowden. And he has intervened in Syria to prop up a genocidal tyrant who would rather destroy his country than give up power.
What statesman wouldn’t want that lot on his CV?
Let Putin “have” Syria. Eventually it will dawn on him that he has paid a heavy price for the pleasure of thumbing his nose at the world’s only superpower and embellishing his personality cult.
And pity the people of Russia: after enduring seven dark decades of totalitarianism, they have been dragged back into a shadow land of gangsterism and repression.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.