The PJ Tatler

'That Giant Sucking Sound...'

Here we are, not quite a quarter-century past the end of the Soviet Union, and look who’s ba-aack!

Saddam Hussein hanged: is Iraq a better place? A safer place? Gaddafi murdered in front of the viewers: is Libya a better place? Now we are demonising Assad. Can we try to draw lessons?

— Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, United Nations, 1 October

Russia was right about Iraq and Libya, and America and Britain were dead wrong. Regime change doesn’t seem to have changed Middle Eastern countries for the better, as Vladimir Putin has been warning for years. His policy is not to support any armed groups ‘that attempt to resolve internal problems through force’ — by which he means rebels, ‘moderate’ or otherwise. In his words, the Kremlin always has ‘a nasty feeling that if such armed groups get support from abroad, the situation can end up deadlocked. We never know the true goals of these “freedom fighters” and we are concerned that the region could descend into chaos.’

Yet after a decade and a half of scolding the West for non-UN-sanctioned military interventions, Putin has now unilaterally committed Russian forces to what the former CIA director General David Petraeus calls the ‘geopolitical Chernobyl’ of Syria. Russia finds itself allied with Syria, Iraq and Iran — a new ‘coalition’ no less, as Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad described it on Iranian state TV last week. How and why did Putin fail to take his own advice about the unintended consequences that breed in middle-eastern quagmires? And most importantly, how has he managed — so far at least — to make Russia’s intervention in Syria into something close to a diplomatic triumph?

The answer is: he has taken the measure of his principal potential adversaries — the U.S. and Britain — and has found them wanting. Putin, a former KGB officer (and there is no such thing as a “former” KGB officer), was raised in the era and ethos of great-power politics and loves playing the old Great Game, even against pathetic opponents like Obama and David Cameron. It’s like stealing candy from a baby, but the opportunity to humiliate men without chests and gain some measure of revenge for the past is just too good to pass up. Plus, you get to keep the candy.

Russia’s decisive intervention has left Barack Obama and David Cameron looking weak and confused. When the usually steadfastly patriotic readers of the New York Daily News were asked whether Putin or Obama had ‘the stronger arguments’, 96 per cent said Putin. In Britain even hawks like Sir Max Hastings — no friend of the Kremlin — are arguing that Russia can help beat Isis. And most importantly, Putin stole the show at the United Nations General Assembly last month with an impassioned speech denouncing the whole US-backed project of democracy in the Middle East at its very root.

The Arab Spring has been a catastrophe, Putin argued, and the western countries who encouraged Arab democrats to rise against their corrupt old rulers opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. ‘Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,’ he told assembled delegates, in remarks aimed squarely at the White House. ‘Nobody cares about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced this situation, do you realise what you have done?’ It was quite a sight: a Russian president taking the moral high ground against an American president — and getting away with it.

That, however, is what happens when one man believes in something and the other believes in nothing.