What Putin's Op-Ed On Syria Was Really About

Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged to write a rare New York Times op-ed addressing the American people on Wednesday. Ostensibly, the piece was crafted to discuss bilateral relations and the Syria issue during a particularly delicate time in U.S.-Russian relations. But the 1,000+ word editorial does not, in fact, provide much information of significance on those issues. Instead, when read between the lines in Russian political context, the piece offers some rare insight into Putin's stance in the global order that is actually quite telling.

With a noticeable lack of acknowledgement of the grave atrocities perpetrated by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Putin's column says little of note with respect to Syria. It is unclear if Putin's call to remove Syria's chemical weapons arsenal will genuinely work, and his appeals to a "diplomatic solution" simply offer more political bluster at this point. But0 without revealing much new about Syria, Putin's piece perhaps inadvertently implies interesting facts about Russia by almost ironically appealing to the power of international law and the United Nations, elements of the modern world order the Russian state has traditionally been skeptical of and largely opposed to.

Russia and its Security Council ally China have, for the most part, been hesitant to support the perceived "liberal internationalist" slant of the United Nations as an organization which, the regimes have consistently suggested, is bent on chipping away at fundamental respect for state sovereignty.

But, despite Putin's traditional criticisms of the UN and blockage of myriad proposals for UN action, Putin uses UN principles and international legal norms as a cornerstone of his argument for non intervention in Syria, invoking the organization and laws it has been critical of, and using them to the regime's advantage.

In some ways, the approach painfully exposes the United Nations' Achilles heal. The UN has long asserted hypocritical and conflicting claims, and Putin's twisted approach lays them bare.

The UN was founded on principles of sovereign inviolability, largely meaning world leaders have a fundamental right to manage their own affairs. And yet it has simultaneously attempted to frame modern international laws and institutions to protect human rights and self-determination of peoples, including the hotly contested "responsibility to protect" principle, that draw a fuzzy, contested line at which this sovereignty can be shattered.

Reasserting traditional respect for state sovereignty has been a major theme of Russian policy for years. But this approach nothing new. It is based in a widely-accepted respect for the sovereign right of global leaders to be free from outside meddling that has long been a foundation of international law. The international system was, in fact, founded on the fundamental principle of sovereign inviolability. The 1945 United Nations charter guarantees the "sovereign equality" of all states to manage their own affairs. The concept has been critical while developing post-colonial laws and norms aimed to protect weak states from the imperialist tendencies of the strong. 

Putin's op-ed is a vestige of this traditional respect for state sovereignty above all else, but remarkably uses the language of modern respect for international law to stake his claims.

"The United Nations' founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America's consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter," Putin writes. "The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades."

Russian reaffirmation of the power of UN in authorizing war through the Security Council is notable, given that Putin, along with his Chinese counterpart, has abstained from or vetoed almost every UN proposal to authorize force in humanitarian disasters and claimed that foreign states do not have a place interfering in the affairs of sovereign states.

Some scholars theorize that Russia and China's modern defense of sovereignty is linked to their own concerns about domestic requests for self-determination within their own borders. Putin's claim over the Chechan people is inextricably linked to claims about sovereign authority.

But what is fascinating about Putin's article is the rare deference, at least in rhetoric, for international law and diplomatic functions. "We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement," Putin writes, in a remarkable call for liberal international order based on United Nations rules and diplomacy rather than based on traditional notions of power and force.

But what does this mean for Putin's own domestic policies, that many reputable international human rights organizations consistently claim violate international laws every day on a range of issues? 

Those who interpret Putin's move on Syria as merely to provide the Russian leader the
so-called "upper hand" in the conflict would do well to look a little deeper between the lines. His editorial offers little of note on the undoubtedly complex and difficult crisis involving chemical weapons and mass slaughter in Syria. With Syria, actions will speak louder than words. But Russia's leader has been forced to discuss Syria policy based on the language of international law, diplomacy, consensus, and this provides some glimmer of hope as a win for human rights in the long run.