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Putin’s Cat and Obama’s Cook
What Russia’s Aesop can teach us about how to stop Moscow’s Middle East meddling.
For over a decade, as he solidified presidency-for-life and modernized Russia’s armed forces, Vladimir Putin has been seizing every opportunity to implement what I called the Putin Doctrine: the recovery of geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state after 1991. He has been patient, alert, and bold. His move into Syria is yet another step on this road: regaining the stature of a (if not the) dominant outside player in the Middle East by saving its oldest continuous regional client. Providing “comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria,” Putin declared in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly Monday, is of “utmost importance.”
By contrast, his “partners,” as he likes to call them, in the White House appear to be perennially baffled as to “Mr. Putin’s intentions” and, in their reaction to Putin’s moves, often swing between shameless, obsequious cajoling and sanctimonious lecturing. “We … cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion,” President Barack Obama boldly stated in his speech at the General Assembly. “The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.” Most of all, he wanted Putin to understand that the United States does not want “to isolate Russia.” Quite to the contrary: America wants “a strong Russia that’s invested in working with us to strengthen the international system as a whole.”
I don’t know how many Russian cargo planes, filled with soldiers, tanks, and howitzers, landed in the Russian base outside Latakia, Syria, in the short interval between Obama’s speech and Putin’s retort. What is clear, though, is that they will keep coming.
As he steadily marches toward implementing his vision of Russia’s glory, Putin’s deliberate deafness to the White House’s strictures and appeals to common morality brings to mind a canonic fable by Russia’s Aesop, the 19th-century poet Ivan Krylov.
The story begins when a cook in a nobleman’s house steps out of the kitchen to visit the tavern for a drink or two. He leaves his cat, Vas’ka, in charge of the kitchen. When the cook returns, he sees the cat, purring with pleasure, finishing off a fried chicken. The cook begins to berate the cat: “You are a scoundrel! You are a thief! You must not be allowed in the house, much less into the kitchen!”
The cook is magnificently eloquent in his noble indignation and his admonitions of his pet. The hungry cat, of course, is unfazed; he doesn’t stop eating until he has chewed the last bits of meat off the fried bird’s bones. A Vas’ka slushaet da est — “but Vas’ka is listening and eating” — became a Russian proverb.
Krylov concludes the fable with this moral: “For some cooks/I would have etched this on the wall:/Do not waste your breath/Where you should use power.”
President Obama may want to ask his Russian-speaking national security aides to read Krylov in preparation for the next round of “engagement” with Russia.
Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images