President Putin’s “plea for caution” to the U.S. in the New York Times raises two questions – one a matter of fact, the other a question of sincerity.
The factual question concerns the attack itself. Putin acknowledges that someone used poison gas in Syria but argues that “there is every reason to believe” it was the rebels. He offers no support for this key assertion.
The Russians are capable of amassing evidence. They have already done so in the case of the possible chemical-weapons attack March 19 in Khan al-Assal in which 26 persons were killed. Their 100-page report was presented to the United Nations with its principal conclusions released on the eve of the G-20 St. Petersburg summit. Why then, despite having excellent sources in the Syrian government, are they unable to provide any evidence to support their arguments in the case of Ghouta where the death toll was 1,429?
The other question raised by Putin’s op-ed is that of sincerity. Putin discourses at length about the importance of the United Nations, where Russia has a veto, and of international law. But is it reasonable to trust the stated defense of international law by a country which is itself completely lawless?
In December, 2012, the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act which provided for a travel ban and the confiscation of assets of Russians implicated in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed a massive tax-cheating scheme run by high-ranking Russian officials. Were Russia a law-based state, its leadership would have been grateful to the U.S. for this added assistance in bringing criminals to justice. Instead, the leadership defended the criminals and retaliated against the U.S. legislation by banning the adoption by American families of Russian children.
Russian officials have a lot of experience in making themselves plausible to Westerners. They write op-eds, give interviews, and have even organized the “Valdai Discussion Club” where selected Russia experts are propagandized in luxurious surroundings. But the essence of dialogue is good faith and there is no evidence of this in the Russian approach to Syria or in Putin’s op-ed.
— David Satter is a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale).