On Monday, Russian forces bombed a humanitarian convoy in Syria. They destroyed 18 aid trucks and killed 20 civilians. But to understand why the Russians did so, you should first search “Putin pen” on YouTube. Watch the final 45 seconds and you’ll see two central tenets of Putin’s personality: first, his hard-edged sense of humor; second, his cultivation of varying images of himself. Putin wants some to view him as a tough-headed realist. He wants others to see him as a servant of the common man. And most important, he wants his adversaries to believe he is a leader who cannot be deterred from his destiny.
That cultivation of his image is exactly why Putin bombed this convoy. The Russians are denying that their aircraft were operating above Aleppo during the strike, but they know the U.S. government quickly figured out that they were responsible. After all, every time the Russians or Syrians launch jets, U.S. radar and intelligence assets carefully monitor them, warning U.S. forces of any deliberate Russian or Syrian air strike. The monitoring also provided valuable intelligence on where Russian military attention is focused. Regardless, Putin knows the U.S. employs these capabilities and that we would have been focused on Russia’s heavy air coverage of Aleppo. And that leads to the key takeaway: Putin just doesn’t care that he’s been caught. On the contrary, his strategy is actually served by his lack of concern. As I noted at NRO when the cease-fire began last week:
As with the little boy in Aleppo, the innocent victims of chlorine attacks, starvation, and barrel bombings are means by which Russia can pressure the West to yield and accept Assad as Syria’s perpetual ruler. Borrowing from Mao’s adage that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Putin uses civilian carnage in Syria to augment his diplomatic leverage. And it is working. Putin has no strategic interest in helping improve the civilian situation in Syria. This deal will not hold because ultimately he does not want it to hold.
In destroying the humanitarian convoy, Putin has simply reinforced his longstanding message to the West. In many ways, it is pitch-perfect. An aid convoy is not off-limits, Putin is telling President Obama — which means that we should expect worse to come. In other words, unless the United States accepts keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Putin will continue to burn Syria. And Assad — totally undeterred by the pathetic weakness of U.S. deterrent power — revels in this longstanding slaughter strategy. Russia might hint that this attack is retaliation for the accidental U.S. bombing of Syrian soldiers, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was pure Putin: deliberate and brutal application of force in the service of a long-term strategy.
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Of course, this raises another question: If Putin’s interests are served by this strike, why is Russia denying involvement? The answer is simple: Putin knows that President Obama knows, and that’s all that counts. To preserve a pretense of moral credibility, Russia is employing its familiar disinformation strategy to deny responsibility. These denials will cool or distract some of the international public anger against him. But Putin also predicts that two developments will now follow. First, the U.S. won’t provide evidence of Russian culpability. Second, the U.S. will continue dancing Russia’s diplomatic waltz by redeploying John Kerry into another round of pointless negotiations.
The U.S should defy Putin’s expectations in both cases. We should use the U.N. Security Council to confront the Russians with evidence of their culpability. The U.S. should also suspend all cabinet-level discussions with Russia on Syria’s future. Instead, we should escalate our support to moderate rebel factions. For some groups, that support should include the provision of man-portable surface-to-air missile systems.
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The whys behind this latest Russian aggression are not complicated. In the end, it’s just another product of President Obama’s foreign-policy lethargy. As in the Baltics, Putin continues to hold the reins. And so, Assad’s confidence — and the fuel his regime gives ISIS — grows ever stronger. And U.S. credibility — moral and strategic — grows ever weaker. And the overflowing morgue that is Syria grows ever more desperate.
— Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. A former panelist on The McLaughlin Group, he is a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. His homepage is tomroganthinks.com.