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The Crises in Ukraine and Syria: Putin Caught in the Jaws of a Vise

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Russia did not yet lose all its cards in Ukraine, and will not be on the retreat just yet in Syria, as a result of the setback it suffered in the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution. Russian President Vladimir Putin's revenge for what happened in Kiev's answer to Tahrir Square -- while he was preoccupied with the Winter Olympics in Sochi -- may yet come.

The United States and the European Union are aware of the painful instruments of revenge that Putin has at his disposal, as they are aware of the limits of European economic power and U.S. political power under President Barack Obama. For this reason, Western powers are walking a tightrope in dealing with the developments in Ukraine, all while stressing that this is neither a strategic confrontation nor a return to the Cold War.

For its part, Moscow interprets the events in Ukraine differently, and is suspicious of Western intentions there. However, Moscow also recognizes that resorting to revenge would be a double-edged sword in its backyard in Ukraine as in Syria, which has become an arena for Moscow's regional and international resurgence and also in the context of the relationship with the U.S.

For these reasons, the Western-Russian dialogue may produce accords that include Ukraine, Syria, and cooperation on issues like Iran and others. Yet the tone of revenge may prevail instead, with the differences leading to escalation and confrontations in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond. This will depend not only on what the Russian president has up its sleeves, but also on what President Obama has in mind vis-à-vis the Ukrainian and Syrian revolutions, and U.S. strategic foreign policy as a whole.

One of the remarkable scenes during the Ukrainian revolution was how members of the Berkut, Ukraine's notorious riot police, kneeled down to apologize to the people for the deaths that occurred during the crackdown and assault on the protesters. This is something that would be a rare sight in the Arab region. Military defections during and after the revolutions in the Arab region were important no doubt, and are close to being apologies and rectifications. But kneeling down is probably the most eloquent form of rare apology. If only the Arab forces of repression would kneel down before their peoples. If only the army forces bombarding the people and the leaders that are starving them kneel down and apologize.

The other important event was that the Ukrainian parliament called for referring ousted President Viktor Yanukovych to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to hold him and anyone else participating in the murder of more than 100 protesters and wounding more than 2,000 in Kiev last week accountable. This is also an important chapter in accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes, which most Arab parliaments would not be able to demand because the majority of Arab countries did not rarify the Rome Statute establishing the ICC. The regimes themselves have rejected this court fearing for themselves. Instead, referring those who commit such crimes to the ICC in their case requires an UN Security Council resolution.

There is an important demand making its way to the United Nations -- and facing fierce opposition -- to prevent any of the five permanent members of the Security Council to veto resolutions pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Christian Wenaweser, the president of the Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court and Ambassador of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, and Prince Zeid bin Raad, Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations, are leading the effort to remove war crimes and crimes against humanity from the grip of Security Council vetoes and place them solely in the hands of the ICC. This is a commendable effort because holding rulers and anyone who resorts to rape and starvation -- in addition to the usual criminal methods -- as a war tactic accountable, is now the sole purview of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. It is time to liberate these issues from their grip, especially concerning what is happening in Syria , and the Russian-Chinese stance on the Syrian question, at the Security Council.

On Saturday, February 22, the Council passed resolution 2139, which calls for securing humanitarian aid to the Syrians -- including across the border -- after a surprising unanimous vote. The timing of the vote was an important factor in securing a consensus, as the Western and Arab countries backing the draft resolution insisted on putting it to a vote before the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Russia. The goal was to use this time margin to embarrass Vladimir Putin, who was adamant about polishing Russia's reputation during the games.

The protests in Kiev's Independence Square and the Western-Arab efforts to vote on a draft resolution concerning the humanitarian tragedy in Syria in New York has put Putin effectively in the jaws of a vise. Ukrainian developments has focused the spotlight on Putin and intensified Western pressure on him. The Syrian developments would have exposed Putin internationally even more if he had prevented the UN Security Council from passing a humanitarian resolution. The timing of the push for resolution 2139 was therefore right, but other factors have also played a role.

True, the Western-Arab draft resolution was stripped of references to punitive measures in the event of Damascus's non-compliance. True as well, it removed references to Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Qods Force in the context of the broader terrorist intervention in Syria. And true, negotiations over the resolution were fierce, in order to open the door later to its interpretation in the battle of interpretations. But the fact of the matter is that the grip of the Russian-Chinese veto on UN Security Council draft resolutions on Syria has been relaxed for the first time in the wake of the dual vetoes that have been wielded three times so far -- bar the resolution on dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons, as the U.S. backed down from carrying a strike against Syria, passed by the Council last fall.

China played an important role in gathering consensus on resolution 2139, making it clear to Russia and other members of the Security Council in New York that it found it difficult to veto a humanitarian resolution that does not contain references to subsequent measures or any action that would force the stakeholders to implement the resolution.

China has always let Russia lead on the Syrian question, even hiding behind Russia's leadership. This time, China stuck out its neck outside the pit where it was burying its head. The reasons for this are not entirely clear -- as usual when it comes to China -- and China's most recent position may not be a major factor that prompted Russia to adjust its position. Instead, it could be that Russia and China are playing different roles in coordination with one another.

Perhaps Vladimir Putin has taken stock of the shifts in the U.S.-Saudi relationship as regards the Syrian issue, after Riyadh criminalized for Saudi citizens to join the fighting in Syria, and transferred responsibility for the Syrian dossier from Prince Bandar bin Sultan to Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. These are reassuring indicators, because, for one thing, they illustrate the Saudi determination to stop any contribution coming from its side to the "Afghanization" of Syria.

However, President Obama's visit to Riyadh late next month has opened the door to making strategic U.S.-Saudi understandings. This concerns Moscow, which wants to monopolize the Syrian issue to the tune of American isolationism and its evasion of its responsibilities in Syria.

In other words, Moscow might be reassured by any Saudi contribution in repelling Islamist extremism, especially Salafist extremism, in Syria and beyond, because Moscow has decided that its interests are best served by fighting a war against growing Islamist extremism and the prospect of it spreading to its territory and vicinity, including in Chechnya.

But the Russian leadership fears that the U.S.-Saudi accord could lead to supporting the secular or moderate Syrian opposition, and supplying it with weapons like Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to shoot down Russian-made airplanes used by the Syrian regime to drop explosive barrels on civilians. Moscow wants to continue supplying the regime of Bashar al-Assad with weapons and wants the U.S. to remain hesitant about supplying the Syrian opposition with advanced weaponry.

The current U.S.-Saudi talks are a source of concern for Moscow and Vladimir Putin, who is now on alert amid signs of a change in the positions of Barack Obama on the Syrian issue. But Putin is fully aware that Obama's attitudes and sentiments regarding the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 are completely different from those of his predecessor President George W. Bush regarding the Orange Revolution also in Ukraine in 2004.

Indeed, Bush had adopted the slogans of freedom, democracy, and the fight against tyranny as core American values. Obama is averting Bush's policy and believes that those slogans are not the concern of the U.S. and that the American people do not want to get involved in them. Obama is weighed down by President Bush's legacy, by the fear of instability, and by his concern of a clash with Russia over Syria or Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin may decide to build on Obama's doctrine in foreign policy, especially as regards Syria and Ukraine. But this will require him to shed some of his arrogance, intransigence, and excessive nationalistic attitudes at the expense of others, because Barack Obama will not be able to extend his arms to embrace Putin's doctrine in Syria and Ukraine. He is prepared to show so-called pragmatism in the two issues, opening the door to successive accords and also grand bargains. But no doubt, this requires Putin to pursue a different approach on the two crises without necessarily compromising Russian interests.

Putin may choose heavy-handedness and revenge for being placed in an "Olympic corner" to pass a resolution forcing the Syrian government to facilitate the passage of aid across he border, and for being put in a Ukrainian corner by overthrowing his suzerainty over a regime toppled by Kiev's Independence Square.

Ukraine under Russia's tutelage almost resembles Lebanon under Syrian tutelage before the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, which immediately followed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin sees Ukraine as a natural extension of Russia, and he controls keys to either accelerate Ukraine's economic collapse, rendering it a bankrupt nation in every sense of the word, or to save Ukraine from bankruptcy and partition.

Even Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, who recognized the benefits of capitalism, launched a process of economic liberalization, and precipitated the collapse of the superpower, sees in Vladimir Putin a hope for reviving Russian nationalism. Gorbachev, who was the guest of honor at the third edition of the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF) in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates earlier this week, told Al-Hayat that "Putin has worked hard to restore Russia's fundamental international role, and I believe that he achieved many things and must continue...."

What road will Vladimir Putin take on his way to restoring Russia's international role? Certainly, Ukraine is essential in this road and so is Syria. In both cases, Putin's options are not open-ended; but rather, U.S. and European attitudes have a great role to play -- in addition to the fundamental role of the people in Ukraine and Syria.

The European Union acted arrogantly last year when it set the condition on Ukraine to prove itself before lifting a finger to save it from bankruptcy. Putin intervened and offered a huge aid package, causing the deposed President Viktor Yanukovich to choose Russia and move away from integration with the European Union. People revolted against him, and made it clear that they wanted to be affiliated to the West not the East, angering Moscow which believes that events in Ukraine are a Western plot to bring Ukraine into NATO.

The uprising in Kiev gave the European Union a second chance, but Europe is divided and it is dithering. It wants the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be a key partner in providing economic aid to Ukraine. Europe also fears Putin's economic retribution against Ukraine, if he severs the close Russian-Ukrainian economic ties.

Putin is biding his time, waiting for European mistakes, divisions, hesitancy, and fears that prevail in NATO countries. It may be sufficient for him to exact revenge though economic -- rather than military -- means.

On the Syrian issue, Putin may find his cards are more limited, especially in light of indications that there is a new Western-Arab policy in Syria. It may also prove difficult for him to manage both crises, especially since actors in both cases are not limited to governments but also peoples and the popular will.

There are prospects for prudence to prevail, and to lead to changes in policies and adapting with new realities all the way to reaching new understandings. But there also are prospects for vindictive policies, leading to further confrontations and miscalculations.

The battles for Kiev and Damascus are caught between prudence and heavy-handedness, in a polarization that is fateful not only for Ukraine and Syria, but also for the relationship between Russia and the West. It is a phase of anxious repositioning.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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