Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 13, 2015

The Cold War Quagmire

By David K. Shipler

                You’d think with all the hand-wringing in Washington over Russia’s foray into the quagmire of Syria that some Middle Eastern plum was about to fall into Russia’s lap—at American expense. And so it would be if the Cold War rivalry were still operating, when every gain by one superpower was considered an equivalent loss by the other. But that’s not the case now, and it’s time for both Russia and the United States to abandon the zero-sum game in favor of a more carefully calibrated set of calculations.
                The two countries’ interests are not identical, their strategies differ, and their motives diverge. They are headed for a proxy war, each arming different factions. But their fundamental national security concerns overlap significantly, and both would surely find solace in a stable Syria—even a secular dictatorship—where ISIS, the Islamic State movement, had been crushed. American ideals notwithstanding, a Jeffersonian democracy in Damascus is not in the cards. So there is room for inventive Russian-American cooperation.
                Vladimir Putin doesn’t do democracy—not at home, not abroad. He doesn’t accept the American faith that a pluralistic political system will naturally arise from the ashes of a destroyed dictatorship. It is painful to recognize that he has a point, at least as witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. The next country on that list would be Syria, should President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown. One form of autocracy would surely be exchanged for another.
Putin comes out of a deep Russian culture that abhors a power vacuum and fears anarchy—especially when they occur in his own back yard.
He seems very Soviet in his geopolitical reflexes, representing a continuity of concerns from the communist era.
Among them was a wariness about the Middle East as a tinderbox. This was explained to me over lunch one day in the late 1970s by a senior editor of Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, who began by expressing surprise at how angry the United States got in 1975 when Cuba sent troops to fight in the Angolan civil war. Africa is where we play the game, declared the editor, who was authorized to discuss Moscow’s official thinking at the time.
The game of jockeying for advantage could be played safely in parts of the world that didn’t touch the nerves of either superpower’s security, the editor went on. With a few notable exceptions—Cuba, most vividly—Latin America was left to Washington with little intervention by the Soviet Union, he explained, just as the United States left Eastern Europe in Moscow’s court. Not since the abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956 or the Cuban missile crisis of 1963 had either superpower stuck its fingers so deliberately into the other’s sphere of influence. The modus vivendi avoided existential challenges.
But the Middle East, the editor warned, was a place of close, clashing interests. Geographically, it was in the Soviet Union’s back yard—look at a map, he suggested—yet a source of oil for the United States. It was polarized by client states well armed by both sides and so held much danger, he observed. We had to tread with great care.
Against this background, Putin may seem reckless sending planes, Scud missiles, and other military assets into Syria. But he has watched the United States and its partners fumble around there as the chaotic void has been filled by violent purveyors of a brand of totalitarian Islam that could threaten Russia at least as dramatically as the United States. That risk did not exist forty years ago.  
It informs Putin’s stated rationale for direct military involvement. “There are more than 2,000 militants in Syria from the former Soviet Union,” Putin told the interviewer Charlie Rose last week. “So instead of waiting for them to return back home we should help President al-Assad fight them there, in Syria. This is the main incentive that impels us to help President al-Assad.”
If that’s the “main incentive,” the gambit in Syria makes complete sense and coincides with American interests. Further, his reference to militants “from the former Soviet Union” surely embraced more than the obvious. American listeners might have thought first of Chechen Muslims, who are Russian citizens and fought a nasty civil war on Russian soil. But it’s a good bet that he was also including militants from Uzbekistan and other Muslim Central Asian countries that were once Soviet republics—“from the former Soviet Union.” Russia is understandably worried that extremist movements could arise there.
Granted, it’s hard to take Putin at his word. His credibility has been near zero since he pretended not to be fomenting the secessionist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Nor was his sincerity bolstered by Russia’s initial bombing runs in Syria, which reportedly hit non-ISIS areas occupied by American-backed rebels. Still, his rhetoric on defeating ISIS—which he also delivered to the U.N. General Assembly—gives Washington leverage to hold him to the goal, even at the cost of a modest gain in Russia’s influence in the region.
Putin’s statements over the years reflect an acute desire to restore Russia’s dignity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to salve the wounds of humiliation by swaggering back onto the world stage. He is clearly bent on reassembling some of the shards of the shattered Soviet empire, as in parts of Ukraine and Georgia, and more quietly in Central Asia. In Syria he has his eye on cultivating an alignment with Iran—which also supports Assad—and on Russia’s historic compulsion to secure access to warm-water ports.
                This is uncomfortable for the United States, whose global reach has gone unchallenged in the last 25 years. But unlike the Soviet Union, Russia does not have the strength to recreate bipolar competition around the world. It can make mischief and inflame local conflicts, and that’s bad enough. But it is no longer driven by an ideology with global adherents. It is no longer the evangelical power seeking to project its system and recruit swaths of client states. It has no ideology except its own security and pride, and—short of a nuclear war—its capacity to damage American security is limited.
                Plenty of contradictory predictions have been heard about Russia in Syria: Backing Assad will prolong the carnage and make Russian interests a target of Sunni militants. Russia will be sucked into a swamp, as in Afghanistan. Or, a resurgent Russia will establish a new foothold in the heart of the Middle East.
                Those are all possible outcomes, even if Washington and Moscow work together, as they should, to coordinate military, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts toward a resolution in
Syria that would be mutually agreeable.
There and elsewhere, finding coinciding interests is the way to break the syndrome of contention that has now gripped Russia and the United States, according to Kenneth S. Yalowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. Remember how Putin negotiated Assad’s relinquishing of chemical weapons, and the key role Russia played in helping negotiate the Iran nuclear agreement. Yalowitz sees potential in the Arctic as well to avoid superpower conflict as the melting polar ice opens navigation routes and increased exploration for oil and gas.

Otherwise, the two powers are sliding back into that zero-sum, Cold War mentality, which is a psychological quagmire of its own.

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