THE WORLDPOST
09/11/2013 10:36 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Putin Op-Ed: U.S. Strike On Syria Could Escalate Conflict

By Timothy Heritage

MOSCOW, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has found many ways and places to browbeat the United States over the years.

Munich was the venue for a 2007 speech in which he changed the tone of Russian foreign policy by railing against U.S. "global supremacy". The May military parade on Red Square has become a yearly platform to warn against U.S. hegemony and his annual news conferences are laced with anti-American bluster.

But the latest choice for an attack, an op-ed article in the New York Times, is an unusual departure for Putin even though it was not his first column for the newspaper - he wrote one defending his decision to send troops to war in Chechnya in 1999.

Finding a way, as he put it, "to speak directly to the American people" underlines his growing confidence that a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical arms under international control has enabled him to steal the diplomatic initiative and moral high ground from U.S. President Barack Obama.

He now looks determined to press home the advantage by presenting himself whenever and wherever he can as the man leading global peace efforts in Syria, undermining Obama even in the pages of a leading U.S. newspaper.

The attention the op-ed received in U.S., global and Russian media gave the Kremlin cause for some back-slapping on Thursday.

"The idea came up at a very short notice. The latest edits were done last night," a Kremlin source said, suggesting foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov was one of the instigators and that work on it had continued until late on Wednesday night.

The Kremlin is advised by a New York-based public relations company, Ketchum. Putin also gave the Associated Press, a U.S. news organisation, an interview last week to get his message across to the American public but sources close to the Kremlin said it was the first such article in the U.S. press since 1999.

The image he presented was of Russia as peacemaker, and the United States as warmonger, turning the tables on Obama after being portrayed in the West as an obstacle to peace for most of the time since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011.

As if on cue, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed Putin up by telling a Russian television channel: "Syria is placing its chemical weapons under international control because of Russia. The U.S. threats did not influence the decision."

ACCUSATIONS OF HYPOCRISY

Putin's column was partly a response to Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday in which he said he would study Russia's plan - following a gas attack Obama blames on Assad's troops and Putin blames on rebel forces - but voiced scepticism about it.

In Russia, which is Syria's main ally and an important arms supplier, the article featured prominently in news bulletins, largely without comment by state media, but attracted satirical and derogatory remarks as well.

ritics pointed out that Putin's 1999 article in the New York Times took the opposite tack by defending Russian military action in an internal conflict against separatists in Chechnya.

Others noted that Russia had sent troops to Georgia in 2008 without U.S. Security Council approval, although Moscow said it was responding to Georgian military action against Russians inside Georgia's internationally recognised territory.

Some portrayed Putin as hypocritical in warning the United States it must uphold international law - because of accusations that Russia's judiciary is weak and bends to the Kremlin's will.

"Life and law mean nothing to him," Garry Kasparov, an opposition leader, wrote on Twitter. Mocking his column, he wrote: "In (the) morning I expect to see a Putin cooking column in Le Monde and Putin football column in El Pais."

Others derided Putin's decision to take up his pen because of Russia's poor record of protecting journalists.

"Oh, Putin has written a column, just like Kashin," opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter, referring ironically to Oleg Kashin, an investigative reporter who was beaten so severely in 2010 that he went into a coma.

A New York-based rights watchdog which operates in Russia and is critical of Putin on human rights deplored his article.

"President Putin should give more credit to his audience: Russia will be judged by its actions, both on the international arena and domestically," Human Rights Watch said.

"So far, Russia has been a key obstacle to ending the suffering in Syria. A change towards a more constructive role would be welcome. But a compilation of half-truths and accusations is not the right way to signal such a change." (Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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