To understand why President Barack Obama’s Syria policy has failed so badly, look no further than the brutal regime crackdown on political protesters in Ukraine.
The link is Vladimir Putin.
U.S. officials foolishly banked on the Russian leader to squeeze Syria’s dictator into a political compromise at Geneva peace talks. But Putin — who prides himself on displays of bare-chested machismo — disdains political compromise. He prefers strongmen, whether in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere, and will back Bashar Assad, no matter his war crimes.
Similarly, Putin encouraged Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, to unleash carnage on civilian protesters this week. By so doing, he has sent a message the Obama administration can’t ignore as it tries to find a new strategy for Syria: Putin plays hardball. He will only temper his support for dictatorial allies if he’s made to believe the cost is too high.
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Putin’s modus operandi is clear in Ukraine. The current crisis began when the Ukrainian government seemed poised to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November. The accord appealed to citizens who hoped tighter ties to Europe would put brakes on a corrupt, nearly bankrupt government that was rushing toward dictatorial rule.
Putin, however, has dreams of creating a Eurasian Union, a vast political and economic bloc that relinks former Soviet states — including Ukraine. He offered Yanukovych a $15 billion bailout and cheap gas in return for spurning the EU offer. That sparked peaceful protests in Kiev calling for Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections.
The Ukrainian leader promised not to use force against demonstrators, but shifted gears after meeting with Putin in Sochi. On Monday, Russia gave Ukraine a $2 billion down payment, and Putin conversed by phone with Yanukovych. The next day came the crackdown.
Yanukovych appears to be going for “the full Assad” says the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill, co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “The idea is to have no compromise, even though there could have been a way out with the demonstrators.” A team of Russian “crowd control” experts is said to be aiding the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.
Russian government spokesmen are demonizing the Ukrainian opposition with the same language they applied to once-peaceful Syrian demonstrators, calling them “extremists” and “terrorists.” They also insist that the protesters are tools of the West.
But Ukraine is not Syria: Despite Putin’s blessings, Yanukovych can’t drop barrel bombs on Kiev. If no truce is accepted by both sides, he risks driving Ukraine toward civil war, as protesters from the pro-Europe west and center of the country resist efforts to draw it back into Moscow’s grasp.
Indeed, says Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, there are still ways to pressure Putin into recognizing the risks of backing Yanukovych. Prime among them: If the EU (with strong U.S. support) finally approves targeted sanctions against Ukrainian officials and its so-called oligarchs, super-rich businessmen who still support the regime. Deprived of assets abroad, and visas to Europe and America, these key players might turn against their president.
Fear of offending Putin has previously inhibited EU officials from imposing such sanctions, which might have prevented the current tragedy in Kiev. But the Russian leader’s open disdain for Europe may finally have goaded them to act.
Meantime, says Karatnycky, harsher crackdowns will only accelerate protests around the country; the safety of pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe could be at risk. Ukraine could soon become a drain on Russian resources. Putin’s dream of economic integration with Ukraine could “go by the boards, if Kiev becomes a quasi-Beirut.” As the costs of his neo-imperialism rise, Putin might consider an alternative candidate to lead Ukraine.
Forcing Putin to consider a compromise in Syria will be much harder after the administration’s feckless policy of the past three years.
When he was Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry understood what was needed. “Assad won’t (change) unless the on-the-ground calculations change,” he said in May 2012. In other words: Neither Assad nor his Russian backers will bargain at the negotiating table unless they fear he might lose on the battlefield.
But the White House has refused for two years to provide military aid to vetted and moderate rebels, even as Islamist groups flourished with aid from private Arab sources. Meantime Putin (and Iran) shoveled funds, guns, and manpower to Assad, who is winning on the ground.
As Obama reconsiders whether to help vetted Syrian rebels, he should recognize the lesson from Kiev:
The only way to dissuade Putin from backing dictators, whether in Syria or Ukraine, is to make the cost higher than he is willing to bear.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at email@example.com.