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On the Record

Putin Takes Center Stage in Syria Crisis

Steven Pifer

Editor’s Note: In an interview with NPR’s Here and Now, Steven Pifer discusses Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent op-ed as well as the role that he has played in the Syrian crisis. Read the transcript below and listen to the full audio of the interview on the show’s website.

Jeremy Hobson, Host: Well, now let’s get to the war of words. The White House is reacting today to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times. If you haven’t seen it, Putin says in the op-ed that there is every reason to believe that it was the Syrian rebels who used chemical weapons, not the Syrian government, as the Obama administration says.

He thinks military action without U.N. Security Council approval would jeopardize the entire system of international law and the Middle East. And Putin takes exception to President Obama saying that U.S. policy in the world is what makes America exceptional. Putin says we must not forget that God created us equal, that’s a quote. He says it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional whatever the motivation.

Well, a White House official tells CNN’s Jake Tapper that the important thing is, quote, Putin is now fully invested in Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament. Everything else is irrelevant. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain calls Putin’s op-ed an insult to every American.

Steven Pifer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s with us to discuss this. Steven, welcome.

Steven Pifer: Happy to be here.

Hobson: Well, what do you make of this op-ed from Vladimir Putin?

Pifer: Well, you’ve seen over the last couple of weeks Russia trying to insert itself in a more meaningful way to become a bigger player in the Syria debate, and it’s had some success. And I think this is a case where Putin is basically trying to go around President Obama and appeal directly to the American public. The big question is, Vladimir Putin is not the most popular messenger in the Congress or with the wider American public, so is his message going to be discounted because of the messenger?

Hobson: But didn’t he get that bigger role in the Syrian crisis just a few days ago with this proposal about putting Syria’s weapons under international control? Why did he need to go to this step of writing an op-ed in the New York Times?

Pifer: Well, this may be a case where the Kremlin misunderstood the impact of something like this. Again, I think this was an example where the Russians, having regained a bigger role in Syria, may at least in the particular instance of this op-ed, be overplaying their hand in a way that may be counterproductive to their objectives.

Hobson: Well, talk about the precedent for this. We just saw Syria’s President Assad go on Charlie Rose to speak directly with the American people and then this op-ed. And I also remember Vladimir Putin speaking with Robert Siegel on NPR and taking calls from Americans back in 2001.

Pifer: Yeah, no, Putin has done this from time to time, although I think this is only the second time he’s had an op-ed in the New York Times, his first being back in 1999 when he was justifying Russian military action against Chechen rebels in southern Russia. So this was a calculated step by the Russians.

But it’s part of this bigger effort by the Russians to try to slow down what they were very worried about a couple weeks ago, was the United States going around the U.N. Security Council and perhaps using force against Syria in conjunction with France and some other countries.

The big question here, of course, is: Is this a real effort with the Russians ready to do some arm-twisting with Syria if that becomes necessary, or is this just a Russian effort to buy some time? And we don’t yet know that.

Hobson: Well, let’s talk about a couple of the points that Putin makes. First of all, as you mentioned, the importance of the United Nations, which is an argument that I’m sure will play very well in Europe and will play probably very well in many parts of the U.S., but there is a large contingent of people in this country who – for whom the United Nations is not wildly popular, shall we say.

Pifer: Yeah, and this is the real problem. I believe that the evidence is very strong that Syrian military forces used chemical weapons in Damascus on August 21. But the question that you have then is: Do you then allow that kind of behavior to go unpunished? The Russian argument is basically that military action can only be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, but the Russians have basically for the last two years been providing protection to Syria on this question.

So how do you hold up the norm about not use of chemical weapons? And that’s the problem here.

Hobson: He also takes a dig here, saying, quote, millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan you’re either with us or against us.

Pifer: I’m certain that this was something that the Russians wanted to get a bit of a dig on. It’s a little bit rich, though, coming from a country where unfortunately in the last several years you’ve seen a steady retreat on democracy within Mr. Putin’s Russia.

Hobson: There have been suggestions that this is a lifeline to President Obama. Talk about that. Do you think that’s the case?

Pifer: Well, my view is that I think the White House put itself into a very difficult position 10 days ago, where after building up momentum for use of force it then decided to go to Congress. And I can see the rationale for going to Congress because with congressional support the military strike would send a much stronger political message, but when the president decided to ask Congress to continue its vacation and then come back, he basically gave 10 days in which the momentum that he had built up the last week of August dissipated and 10 days for the understandable reluctance of the American public to see more military action in the Middle East to express itself and set himself on a course where I think he was headed for a potentially humiliating defeat within the Congress. This may be a life raft that the Russians are providing.

The real question that I think Secretary Kerry will be exploring with his Russian counterpart in Geneva the next two days is: Is this a real effort by the Russians to address the chemical weapons problem, or again are they simply trying to buy time for Assad?

Hobson: On the other hand, there are some who are looking at this and saying this is making President Obama look weaker. Senator Bob Corker, Republican, says there’s no question that President Obama is very uncomfortable being commander-in-chief. What do you think about that, that discussion that’s going on?

Pifer: Well certainly I think there’s evidence to the contrary. Certainly I think the president made a very bold and risky decision when he decided to send a SEAL team into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. But I would have to agree that this has not been handled in the best possible way.

And the decision at the last minute, when the president said on August 31 that he believes military force should be used to send a signal to Assad about the unacceptability of use of chemical weapons, but then asked for Congress, I think it did send a decision to both adversaries and friends alike of reluctance and perhaps indecision, and that’s not a good message to have going out to the Middle East at this time.

Hobson: Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

Pifer: Thanks for having me.