Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

What Does Russia Want?

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As of Monday, when I wrote this column, there was no real doubt about the provenance of the shots fired last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus, shots that marked the first massacre of civilians by chemical weapons in a war that has raged for two and a half years. Except for the usual band of dictators that miss no chance to air their rabid revisionism, all observers agree that Bashar al-Assad and his regime were responsible for the firings.

Nor is there any question about the need for a response. Morality and the cause of peace both demand one, as do pragmatism, seriousness, and the most basic realpolitik. Because, in the end, a choice has to be made. Barack Obama said, a year ago, that the use of poison gas constituted a red line that must not be crossed. Now, either his word means something and he will be obliged to respond to the crossing of that line, or he'll waffle, he won't respond, choosing instead to posture with his destroyers. In that case his word, and that of his country, will no longer count for anything. And then, hello havoc in North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the club of countries that have, or would like to acquire, weapons of mass destruction and that see in the case of Syria a test of the democracies' determination.

As for the question of the legitimacy of intervening despite the roadblock set up at the United Nations by the gangster states, led by their godfather, Russia -- well, that question is no longer germane. Are we not now faced with one of those situations of extreme urgency that was contemplated by the international body when, in 2005, it formulated the principle of the responsibility to protect? Do we not find ourselves in the very same position as President Sarkozy was when, on March 10, 2011, he told the Libyan rebels who had come to Paris to ask him to save Benghazi that although he hoped for the authorization of the United Nations, if he didn't get it, he would be satisfied with another mandate? Are there not moments in history when what the classical philosophers called natural law must trump manmade laws and their contingencies?

The real question, however, is Russia.

The real puzzle, and it's a tough one, is why, in the face of all logic, in the face of entire world, and -- this part is new -- in the face of a segment of Russian public opinion that, like the rest of the planet, is shocked by the images of gassed children, the Russian government is taking such pains to support a notoriously murderous regime.

Chechnya, many say.

They ask how the killers of the Chechens could join in the condemnation of Bashar al-Assad without the international community pressing them to account for their own crimes.

Also mentioned in explanation is Russia's opposition in principle to anything that might resemble a challenge to the Hitlerian-Stalinist adage, "A man's home is his castle."

All of that is true, no doubt.

Yet there remains another explanation for this strange behavior, this ultimately irrational, almost absurd association with the viva la muerte ethos of a regime that the leaders of the Kremlin must know is fated to disappear in more or less short order. I became aware of this explanation in the course of a discussion this summer with a Russian official whose identity I am not at liberty to disclose.

Russia was a collosus.

It was a collosus with feet of clay, but a collosus just the same, reigning until recently over Cuba, Vietnam, Central Asia, part of the Balkans, India, Iraq, Egypt, and others, in addition to eastern and central Europe, the Baltic states, and Finland.

Of that vanished kingdom, that sphere of influence unequaled and unprecedented in its history, of that empire alongside which the purported American empire was a pale and clumsy shadow, what remains? Nothing. Not one dominion. Not one protectorate. Not even rebellious Ukraine. Nor Cuba, which is now under Venezuelan influence. No relics, no confetti. Truly nothing. Except, of course, rough-and-tumble Syria, which nevertheless, in the eyes of Putin, the former KGB agent, must embody the last vestige of bygone splendor.

Russia is a sick country.

Russia has bled dry. Its foreign trade, for example, is equivalent to that of the Netherlands.

But, in defeat, it is nostalgic for its past power, of which nothing remains but Syria, which is even more bloodless than Russia but onto which we see it hanging with the same stubborn, irrational determination (and allowing for differences in the two cases) with which the weakened France of the 1950s held on to Algeria, which it knew to be irretrievably lost.

This explanation will seem worrisome to those who don't like to see a great country governed by vengeful braggarts hopped up on resentment. And they're not wrong.

But it should reassure those who know that braggarts never swagger more ostentatiously than when they know deep down that they have no real control over the course of things.

Is Putin is a paper tiger? A jacked and ripped Popeye? A bluffer who will not run the risk of imperiling the Olympic Games in Sochi? History, obviously, is no guide. In such moments of suspense, there is no ready-made or risk-free solution. Each participant must calculate the odds and act accordingly. My bet is that we can rescue Syria's civilians and save what remains of the honor and credibility of the international community without unleashing the threatened apocalypse.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy