The Vladimir Putin Show

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is the type of politician that inspires strong opinions. In his own country he has been a symbol of hope, strength and progress since he first took the presidential chair in 1999. He dealt with the chaotic economic heritage of the Yeltsin years, and stopped the impending disintegration of the Russian state.

At the same time, he turned into the embodiment of the semi-autocratic systems that were established in the post-soviet space behind the veil of democratisation processes. Putin tweaked the Russian constitution several times to increase his own power position, paid little attention to basic democratic principles and enforced laws that clearly violate human rights.

So you can say what you want about the Russian leader, but you have to admit that he has an extraordinary sense for self-promotion and timing. The way Putin positioned himself in the Syrian crisis, especially in respect to the use of chemical weapons against civilians, is just another example of his successful self PR.

In an extensive guest commentary in the New York Times, President Putin defended Russia’s UN veto, and appealed to the American people and their political leaders to refrain from a military intervention in a foreign internal conflict, as this would only lead to more innocent victims and another wave of terrorism. He hit a nerve with the war-weary American public, as well as with the rest of the world that couldn’t believe that all other diplomatic options had truly failed.

Ironically, every single diplomatic initiative suggested in the UN Security Council over the past two years has flatlined – due to Russian and Chinese resistance.

While American President Obama went into defence in face of public anti-war protests, Putin saw a political opportunity and took it. On 15 September, Russia and the United States reached a deal on a framework to take inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons in order to eliminate them, and threatened to impose penalties on the al-Assad regime should it fail to comply with the terms of the framework. While the agreement indeed put plans of a military intervention on hold, it was internationally received with scepticism. It was called infeasible and a justification of the al-Assad regime.

Putin is by no means a “peace dove”.

Russia vetoed a military intervention in Syria in order to protect its old ally al-Assad; to maintain its influential position in the Middle East and to keep the Syrian harbour Tartus as the Mediterranean base for the Russian fleet. Putin’s moves are highly calculated, and designed to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical power position and re-establish the country as a counterbalance to the United States. In contrast to President Obama, he aims to appear as master of the situation, the voice of reason and defender of international law. Not exactly a role he usually plays on the international stage, but at the moment it serves his purposes, and it has got him a significant raise in global popularity ratings.

Still, this thinly veiled self-interest managed to get something moving, and raised the question whether the Syrian crisis really has to be met with further violence.

If the agreement on recording and eliminating al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal will do anything to improve the horrific situation in Syria is very questionable. The killing with conventional weapons continues every day. The West and Russia still disagree on whether the al-Assad government or the Syrian rebels are to be held accountable for the Sarin attack.

 There is no end of the crisis in sight. But in the meantime, hats off to Vladimir Putin for an exceptional stunt of house advertising.