Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Time to put the foot down on Putin

Time to put the foot down on Putin
Published 14 Oct 2016 

Matthew Dal Santo’s analysis of diplomatic tensions between the US and Russia over Syria makes the argument that diplomatic talks must resume, but he really hits the mark when he says that 'a diplomatic solution was from the start a mirage at best and a trick at worst'. 

Russia cannot be dealt with in the same way liberal democracies deal with each other. As the editorial team of the largest Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, recently put it: 'Russia is an impossible partner. It is a saboteur that must be dealt with and spoken to, but never rewarded with concessions.' 

Such language from a Swedish newspaper demonstrates that the closer you get to Russia’s borders, the less trust there is in diplomacy and the sharper the language gets on Russia’s intentions. As Dagens Nyheter wrote, 'it was clear that Russia was never going to keep any promises in the (Syrian) cease-fire. Comparisons can be made with the illusionist case of Ukraine':

The US has interrupted the diplomatic talks with Russia over Syria, and the only strange thing about this is that it didn’t happen sooner. Since President Vladimir Putin isn’t interested in peace in saving the power of the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s, the negotiations had no significance. 

Dal Santo considers a war crimes investigation into the recent air attack on a UN convoy outside Aleppo 'a mistake'. However, just because we are dealing with Russia does not mean we should disregard war crimes. It was, after all, a UN convoy with UN personnel which was attacked (whether it was by the Syrian regime or Russian forces remains to be established) and John Kerry is rightly underscoring this fact. When we start making concessions simply for the fact that we are dealing with Russia, we have let go of the whole humanitarian crisis rulebook. 

Moreover, ignoring war crimes means surrendering the Syria narrative to Russia. [fold]

Russia has often played a victim role, accusing the world of growing ‘Russophobia’. Yet a few weeks ago, when there was a robust response from various UN delegates putting the blame on Russia for the barbarism taking place in Aleppo, the West got the upper hand. This was evidenced by the desperate call by Putin to withdraw from the nuclear security treaty, citing 'hostile actions' by the US. 

Russia’s intimidation tactics also need to be taken into account. It was recently revealed that Finland, the only Western country in possession of BUK missiles such as those which shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in July 2014, was involved in the MH17 investigation led by the Netherlands. This resulted in Russian fighter jets violating Finnish airspace. The most worrying development, however, is Russia’s move to transport Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, creating a ‘strategic wedge’ which puts most of Northern and Eastern Europe within range, Berlin included. 

All of this is evidence of the fact that Russia is not fearful of using extreme means to achieve its political goals. The more concessions that are made, the bolder Putin grows. Ultimately, the golden rule of diplomacy might have to give way to the only language Putin understands. It is time the West put its foot down by creating its own strategic wedges before the military threat from Russia gains further ground. 


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