The Syria situation continues to generate bizarre, ironic, and outrageous developments. At the very top of the list was the sanctimonious op-ed piece in the New York Times of September 11 signed by Vladimir Putin and entitled "A Plea for Caution From Russia." In that article, Putin reaches out to the American people and the world in an attempt to paint President Obama as threatening to destroy the United Nations and throwing "the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
The article is well written. Having spent decades as a Washington lawyer dealing with high visibility public issues, I have no doubt that it was written by a Washington lobbyist or PR firm on K Street or on Capitol Hill being paid by the Russian government. They then slapped Putin's name in the piece. A reader is entitled to ask: Who really wrote this?
In evaluating Putin's effort to portray himself as a peace-loving statesman, the Russian leader's record should be scrutinized. He had a mediocre career in the KGB where he was midlevel functioning in East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back in Moscow he ingratiated himself to Boris Yeltsin and was appointed Director of the FSB, the new police apparatus of the Russian state.
Yeltsin next made the former KGB agent Prime Minister of Russia. And then he won the presidency in an election tainted by widespread fraud. To tighten his grip on power, this man of peace waged war on the Chechnyan rebels with a brutality that was even extreme by Russian standards. Innocent civilians in Grozny were bombed in a fashion exceeding Assad's brutal actions.
Putin is familiar with the impact of poisonous chemicals. To breach a hostage scene in a Moscow theater, he directed the insertion of deadly chemicals into the ventilation system which killed those attending the performance as well as the guerrillas who took over the theater.
At the same time, Putin has dashed the hopes of those who dared to dream of democracy in Russia. In a 2006 speech to those who criticized the rollback of democracy in Russia, Putin provided his response: "To hell with you."
Trampling human rights has been a specialty of Putin. He has regularly meted out punishment for those who criticized him. The punk rock group, Pussy Riot, performed an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow theater. Three of their members were arrested and sentenced to years in prison. Months later, the author of a satirical painting of Putin in lingerie was forced to flee the country and to seek asylum in Paris.
Our leaders, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, must never forget the character of this man whom they are counting on to rescue them from the Syrian quagmire. Mr. Putin is no white knight.
With respect to the substance of the op-ed piece, the sheer nerve of Putin in sponsoring this article is mind numbing. It charges that the Syrian conflict "is fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition." It conveniently omits that arms have been flowing to Assad from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Also conveniently, no mention is made of Assad's use of chemical weapons or dead children.
Putin would love to throw this entire conflict into the hands of the Security Council where Russia has a veto. We have witnessed Russia repeatedly thwarting UN Security Council action in the Iranian nuclear issue, for example.
The Putin op-ed piece underscores the deviousness of Putin in his desperate effort to save his Syrian ally Assad from a United States attack. If he indeed wanted to advance constructive negotiations to control Syrian chemical arms, then he wouldn't be placing articles in the New York Times attacking his negotiating partner.
Confirmation was provided by the headline in the Washington Post the day after the New York Times op-ed piece. "US Russia Talks On Syria Are Off To A Tense Start." Can any reasonable person possibly doubt that Putin will use these talks as a way of forestalling U.S. military action while he attempts to mobilize public opinion against what he described as "American exceptionalism" by which he meant arrogance.
At this point, the question of whether the U.S. should strike Assad is a very complex and difficult one. There are strong arguments for and against. They should be debated and decided in the U.S. Congress as President Obama proposed. We should not be distracted from this serious task by the sideshow created by Putin.