Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Cohen offers two explanations for why purported US experts have been repeatedly surprised by what President Vladimir Putin does and does not do. First, they do not read or listen to Putin. In this case, when Putin began the air campaign in Syria in the fall of 2015, he said it had two purposes—to bolster the crumbling Syrian Army so it could fight terrorist groups on the ground and prevent the Islamic State from taking Damascus; and thereby to bring about peace negotiations among antiterrorist forces—which he hoped to achieve in a few months. In short, mission, in Putin’s words, “generally accomplished,” though you would not know it from American media reports. Second, US policy makers and pundits seem to believe their own anti-Putin propaganda, which has so demonized him that they cannot imagine he seeks anything other than military conquest and empire building, or concede any legitimate Russian national security interests in Syria.
Also as a result, they do not understand what Putin hopes to achieve: a demilitarization of the new Cold War. In particular, if the end of Russia’s Syria bombing campaign abets peace negotiations under way in Geneva, the diplomatic process could spread to Ukraine, another militarized conflict between Washington and Moscow, and in particular to the Minsk agreements, which the US-backed Kiev government has refused to implement.
Cohen points out that Putin’s decision to withdraw militarily from Syria, even though only partially, exposes him to political risks at home, where he is considerably less than an absolute dictator. Hard-liners in the Russian political-security establishment—de facto allies of Washington’s war party—are already asking why he stalled the achieved Russian-Syrian military advantage instead of taking Aleppo, pressing on toward the Syrian-Turkish border, and inflicting more damage on ISIS. Why Putin would again seek compromise with the Obama administration, which has repeatedly “betrayed” him, most recently in Libya and in Ukraine. And why, if Washington perceives the Syrian withdrawal as “weakness” on Putin’s part, it will not escalate its “aggression” in Ukraine. All this comes as Russia’s economic hardships have enabled his political opponents at home, the Communist Party in particular, to mount a new challenge to his leadership.
But, Cohen adds, the gravest threat to Putin’s clear preference for diplomacy over war may be less his domestic critics than the Obama administration, which seems not to have decided which it prefers.