By Ivan Krastev
OCT. 7, 2015
Last week, after Russian planes bombed antigovernment forces near the Syrian town of Homs, a senior American official complained to me: “What Russia is doing in Syria is not an effort to fight the Islamic State; it is not old-fashioned realpolitik. It is not even a cynical attempt to make us forget about Ukraine. Putin simply wants to hurt us.”
This notion of Russia as a “spoiling power” is a popular sentiment today in Washington. But what does this spoiling power actually want? Is Russia in Syria simply for the sport of watching a humiliated President Obama? Is damaging the value of American power the only purpose of Russia’s “spoiling”?
It’s more accurate to say that the Kremlin is in Syria for pedagogical reasons: It wants to teach Americans a lesson, and a valuable one. It wants to show that America should either be prepared to intervene in any civil war that follows a troubled revolution inspired by its lofty rhetoric, or it should quit goading people to revolt. “Do you realize, what you have done?” was the most memorable line of President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
The situation in Syria may have an element of realpolitik to it, but it is also about two worldviews. Indeed, the differences between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama can be boiled down to opposing theories about the sources of the current global instability. America sees global instability primarily as the result of authoritarians’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow blames Washington’s obsession with democracy.
If the Soviets appealed to proletarians of the world to unite, the Kremlin today appeals to governments of the world to unite — all kind of governments. History is indeed “irony on the move.” Russia, the successor of the revolutionary Soviet Union, has given up on the power of the people.
Most of the popular history books on the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 you can find in Moscow bookstores today tell the story of Lenin and his comrades not as a popular uprising, but as a coup d’état, engineered by — and here you have a choice — the German general staff or British intelligence agents. Any time and any place when people demand power, the situation gets worse. Loyalty and stability are at the center of the Kremlin’s universe, a universe dominated by insecurity and fear of the future.
And what is on Kremlin’s mind is not Syria, or even Ukraine, but Central Asia, a part of the post-Soviet space in which authoritarian leaders are aging, economies are stagnating, millions of restless young people are unemployed and eager to emigrate, and radical Islam is on the rise. Russia sees itself as the guarantor of stability in the region, but it fears instability coming. Central Asia today reminds the Kremlin of the Middle East a decade ago. Could Syria teach America to watch its words and mind its business when the next crisis comes?
President Putin wants to teach America a lesson, but he also speaks to a Europe flooded by a million refugees and haunted by the specters of radical Islam and demographic anxiety. Yesterday the European Union hoped to transform its neighbors; today it sees itself as a hostage. Mr. Putin wants to persuade Europe that, as brutal a dictator as Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya was, he was willing and able to protect the borders of Europe, something the new democracies could not do.
Is a badly shaken Europe prepared for this message?
Yes and no. Most European leaders hope for U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria as the only way to end the conflict. They want Moscow on their side. Many blame the hyperactivity of George W. Bush and the inaction of Barack Obama for the turmoil in the Middle East. They hope for the return to the days of Soviet-American détente, when, as the historian Jeremi Suri has written, “Leaders abandoned their hopes for political change in order to smother the challenges they faced at home.”
That, at least, is “Putin’s hypothesis” — that Europe will accept a more powerful Russia as a guarantor of stability, even at the cost of a European retreat from its values and ambitions.
But can Mr. Putin deliver? His call for absolute stability is emotionally attractive but impractical. If in the straitjacket of the Cold War it was enough for the Soviet Union and the West to cut a deal for instability to recede, this is no longer the case. The world is no longer defined by East-West dynamics: Social, demographic, cultural and technological changes have made world stability a much more complicated puzzle. We live in the age of disruption.
And though Russia is right to argue that what we see in Syria today is not a clash between a repressive government and its freedom-loving people, it is also not a clash between legitimate government and a bunch of extremists, as Moscow insists. It is worth remembering that the vast majority of refugees in Europe are running not from the Islamic State, but from the Assad regime, and its hold on power means that they could stay in Europe forever.
In other words, Mr. Putin’s pedagogy is appealing, but it is not, ultimately, persuasive. It will take more than a change in American policy for people to stop revolting against ugly governments.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.