Vladimir Putin’s proposed deal on Syria’s chemical weapons unveiled this week is Russia’s strongest bid yet to reemerge as a power broker in Middle East politics — ironically on the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the last US-Russia confrontation in the Middle East.
But however suspicious to Western eyes, this bid reflects far more than just Russian imperial impulses going back to the czars. Nor does it spring from any desire to uphold any standards of international law that Putin mentioned in his recent op-ed in the New York Times — standards the Russian president has flaunted many times himself.
Instead, it reflects a very real fear that Obama’s policy in the Middle East is out of control, and Russia will end up paying the price.
“In Russia, the United States is seen more and more as a source of global instability,” notes Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s premier think tank, The Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Russians have watched the Obama administration lurch from one mismanaged Mideast crisis to another, from Libya and Egypt to Syria — as well as abandoning Iraq even as the country threatens to slide back into chaos.
Next year Obama will be abandoning Afghanistan the same fate. “Russia does not know how to work with such a partner,” Lukyanov notes, and the confusion has had a profound impact on Russia’s view of its own future.
The threat of Islamic radicalism in Russia is not theoretical. Afghanistan sits directly on Russia’s border, as does Iran — another place where Obama policy has been erratic and slipshod and, in Russians’ eyes, needlessly confrontational but without a credible military solution.
In fact, Russia’s southeastern border is ringed with Muslim states, while of the Federation’s 182 ethnic groups, fifty-seven are Muslim — all of whom have a rising birth rate while that of ethnic Russians continues to fall.
Moscow itself now has an Islamic population of two million, which together with another two million Muslim migrant workers, makes it the largest Muslim European city outside Istanbul.
Some experts both inside and outside Russia have speculated that by 2050 Russia could become a majority Islamic country. Serious demographers dismiss these fears as wildly exaggerated.
Even so, Putin has already fought one bloody war against radical Islam, in Chechnya. The possibility of a dozen new Chechnyas springing up inside Mother Russia keeps lights burning in the Kremlin, and Vladimir Putin visiting Tehran to keep the mullahs there happy. It also has him shipping arms to Assad’s army.
Which brings us back to Obama. Everywhere Putin looks, he sees Obama destabilizing existing Middle East regimes, encouraging radical groups like the Moslem Brotherhood, and even threatening to arm rebels linked to al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Obama continues to let Iran build nuclear weapons — a genuine long-term worry for the Kremlin — even as he threatens a military strike in Syria that Iran says it would trigger a worldwide retaliation.
It’s all evidence, says Lukyanov, “of a strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower,” and that threatens to engulf its former Cold War antagonist in an Islamicist tidal wave.
Indeed, this current offer to trade Assad’s chemical weapons for a US pledge not to launch any military strikes, reflects Putin’s new overriding priority — reining in a clueless American president before he does any more damage.
Further, a deal over chemical weapons that ends up in the United Nations, gives Putin the chance to offer his new brand of leadership to the rest of the world, as well.
It’s one he believes will appeal, in Putin’s own words, to “people who value their sovereignty ... and have the courage to make decisions for the benefit of their own countries”–meaning China and every other nation-state that values stability over everything else.
It’s not a prospect that holds out much hope for human rights or democracy. But there are plenty of Russians who believe it will mean the survival of their country.
And how many others will start to wonder whether Putin’s new world order won’t work out better than Obama’s has?Arthur Herman's "Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II," is now available in paperback. He is currently working on a biography of General Douglas MacArthur and among numerous other works authored "How the Scots Invented the Modern World."