Robin Yassin-Kassab


with one comment

Over the last two weeks very many people have asked, is Putin rational? Worse, many have argued that Putin used to be a pragmatist, a master strategist, but that he’s suddenly gone mad.

Michael Flynn, Jill Stein, and Putin. Rightists and leftists united in useful idiocy.

In 1999 Putin was a little known prime minister aiming to become president. Then a series of bomb attacks destroyed residential blocks in Russian cities, killing hundreds. Many insiders blamed Putin and the FSB intelligence services for the attacks. One such insider was the defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who Putin’s men consequently murdered in London (in 2006). The FSB obstructed all attempts to investigate, so its guilt has never been proved. Observers must make up their own minds. There are many good sources of information on the topic. I first came across it in Masha Gessen’s excellent book “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

What happened next is not controversial. Putin blamed the blasts on Chechen terrorists, and on that pretext reinvaded Chechnya. The Chechen capital Grozny was leveled and tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Was this behavior rational? Well, it worked. It made Putin very popular in Russia, easing his succession to the presidency. It established his reputation as a patriotic strong man. It quelled Chechen independence.

In 2008 he exacerbated secessionist conflict in Georgia, and then intervened on the side of the secessionists. That worked too. Georgia, dismembered, was no longer in a position to move towards EU or NATO membership. No foreign power came to Georgia’s aid.

From 2011 onwards, Putin supplied diplomatic cover, media support, and offensive weapons to the Syrian dictator while the dictator was committing large scale atrocities against civilians, including with nerve gas. By 2015 it was obvious that the west would do nothing concrete to defend Syrians, despite the increasing traumatisation of the country and the resultant rise of jihadi groups. Iran was already pouring in militiamen to defend the regime, and the west was ignoring that. So Putin decided to intervene directly.

He declared he was going to Syria to fight ISIS, but over 80% of his bombs fell nowhere near ISIS territory. Instead the Russian strategy was to terrorize, demoralize, and drive out the civilian base of the Syrian revolution. Killing civilians was not an accident, but the strategic aim. Hitting bakeries, hitting schools, hitting hospitals. Hitting them repeatedly, day after day. Hitting several hospitals in the same day.

Was this rational? Well, it worked. It brought about the fall of Free Aleppo and the collapse of very many other cities, towns and villages. It crushed the democratic opposition, ending hundreds of local experiments in democracy. It caused the dispossession and exile of millions. As a bonus, some of these refugees were weaponised against the European Union. (The spectre of incoming Muslims helped the Brexit vote, for instance. See Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster of queuing Syrian refugees.) The bombing kept the client dictator on his much diminished throne. It won Russia an air base and a naval base on the Mediterranean, and a weapons-testing arena, and a pool of desperate men to use as cannon fodder in further colonial ventures. Reports say Russia is recruiting desperate Syrian men to serve in Ukraine today.

Putin was allowed to do this without consequences. There was no No-Fly Zone over Syria. On the contrary, the Americans and others made civilised agreements to share the skies with Russian and Syrian bombers. Turkey did shoot down one Russian plane in 2015, when it crossed into Turkish airspace, but then the US and France rebuked Turkey, their NATO ally. Understanding it would be left alone in any direct confrontation with Russia, Turkey then half-aligned itself to Russia, bought Russian weapons systems, and began distancing itself from NATO. Another win for Putin.

All the while the bombing continued, all the while desperate refugees from the carnage were trying to reach Europe, Europe was buying Russian gas and oil. The Nord Stream 2 project to import even more Russian gas got underway. London continued to serve as the prime money laundry for Russian oligarchs.

So, yes, the terror bombing certainly worked. Targeting schools, hospitals and bakeries turned out to be very rational indeed.

Today Putin looks irrational because he has miscalculated. He clearly didn’t expect the well-organized ferocity of Ukrainian resistance. Crucially, he didn’t expect the west to respond as strongly as it has. He didn’t plan for such severe sanctions or for such widespread public revulsion. He didn’t expect much pushback because he’d never encountered much before. Western policy, particularly in Syria, convinced him that he never would. And that’s the fault of the people who never pushed back.

Those who are actually irrational are those in the west who helped him. Those who defended him, or shared his media.

The leftists who swallowed and regurgitated his propaganda, who made common cause with, or were useful idiots for, or served, an obviously homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, gangster-capitalist, ethno-nationalist war-criminal and imperialist.

And the so-called ‘realists’, and the mainstream appeasers they advised, from Obama to Merkel, who preferred to look the other way but to keep on doing business, as all the time the monster grew.

And the ‘post-truth’ populists and far-rightists, from Farage and Orban to Salvini, Le Pen and Trump, who enjoyed or profited from a symbiosis with Putin’s neo-fascism.

And those like British Conservative MP David Davis, who today demands a No-Fly zone over Ukraine but who in 2016, at the height of the killing, actually went on a regime-organized propaganda trip to Damascus, and came back spouting the Kremlin-Assad line. Those who were too racist or Islamophobic or too lacking in imagination or too bereft of human feeling to care when children were incinerated or gassed in Grozny or the eastern Ghouta. Everyone who wondered aloud if the White Helmets were an al-Qaida front, or if President Assad were innocent of poison gas atrocities, or if the Syrian Revolution were a CIA-Mossad plot.

And those social media companies and politicians who allowed Putin’s propagandists to penetrate and pollute the western public sphere.

And those who until a few days ago spoke and acted as if a ‘humanitarian corridor’ were something other than a psychological terror tactic, despite all the Syrian evidence. As if Putin didn’t lie as a matter of course. As if he cared about human life. As if he were interested in preventing terrorism, or in stabilizing anything, or in rebuilding anything.

But calling these people irrational is in many cases to do them a favour they don’t deserve. Plenty of them were happy to profit from appeasement, politically or personally. Or financially. All the west has cared about for years is business. Russia could burn Syria, and dismember Georgia and Ukraine, and China could destroy the Uyghur people, but business with the murderers had to continue, because business was all that mattered. Now, as a result, the west is starting to worry not about business but survival.

Putin has bungled the start of the war and wrecked the Russian economy, but he is very unlikely to back down now. Perhaps there’ll be an uprising in Russia. Perhaps there’ll be a Kremlin coup. Perhaps, eventually. In the meantime, the world is heading into profound economic disruption, including a global grain shortage which will impact the Middle East in particular. Threats will proliferate. And Putin, with his back against the wall, is a character who might well at some stage of escalation introduce nuclear weapons into the theatre. Not because he’s irrational, but because his rationale is not based on humane values. His rationale is to win, whatever it takes.

Western societies can’t afford any more delusion.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 8, 2022 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Russia, Syria, Ukraine

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