Owen Matthews Owen Matthews

How Putin outwitted the West

His Syrian intervention has made Obama and Cameron look weak and confused

Saddam Hussein hanged: is Iraq a better place? A safer place? Gaddafi murdered in front of the viewers: is Libya a better place? Now we are demonising Assad. Can we try to draw lessons?

— Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, United Nations, 1 October

Russia was right about Iraq and Libya, and America and Britain were dead wrong. Regime change doesn’t seem to have changed Middle Eastern countries for the better, as Vladimir Putin has been warning for years. His policy is not to support any armed groups ‘that attempt to resolve internal problems through force’ — by which he means rebels, ‘moderate’ or otherwise. In his words, the Kremlin always has ‘a nasty feeling that if such armed groups get support from abroad, the situation can end up deadlocked. We never know the true goals of these “freedom fighters” and we are concerned that the region could descend into chaos.’

Yet after a decade and a half of scolding the West for non-UN-sanctioned military interventions, Putin has now unilaterally committed Russian forces to what the former CIA director General David Petraeus calls the ‘geopolitical Chernobyl’ of Syria. Russia finds itself allied with Syria, Iraq and Iran — a new ‘coalition’ no less, as Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad described it on Iranian state TV last week. How and why did Putin fail to take his own advice about the unintended consequences that breed in middle-eastern quagmires? And most importantly, how has he managed — so far at least — to make Russia’s intervention in Syria into something close to a diplomatic triumph?

Russia’s decisive intervention has left Barack Obama and David Cameron looking weak and confused. When the usually steadfastly patriotic readers of the New York Daily News were asked whether Putin or Obama had ‘the stronger arguments’, 96 per cent said Putin. In Britain even hawks like Sir Max Hastings — no friend of the Kremlin — are arguing that Russia can help beat Isis.

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