- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning’s New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism…. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention — in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it’s different.
Today, Putin is much more concerned about the civilian toll of military action, and questions the use of force entirely. "No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect," he writes — this time not as a reason for caution, but rather as a rationale for opposing intervention. Elsewhere in the world, he writes, "force has proved ineffective and pointless."
In 1999, Putin justified the "decisive armed intervention" in Chechnya as "the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists." "[W]hen a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements," he wrote, "responsible leaders must respond."
That’s not unlike the case President Obama made on Tuesday. The use of chemical weapons in Syria demonstrated "why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war," Obama said. In that speech, the president laid out his case that the enforcement of the international ban on chemical weapons is, to borrow Putin’s words, one of society’s core interests. "As the ban against these weapons erodes," Obama said Tuesday, "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians."
Putin claims in his editorial to be more interested in protecting the United Nations, where Russian obstinacy has consistently blocked Security Council proposals for sanctions. This week, the Russian delegation said it would veto a Security Council resolution to enforce the terms of a chemical weapons disarmament plan being worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. "No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," Putin writes today. As for what leverage the United Nations — which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday had suffered a "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria" — should apply to Syria, Putin did not address that in his editorial this morning.