Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also a former president and prime minister of the vast Eurasian country, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the September 11 New York Times that readers could have mistaken for a parody. Putin is a former officer of the Soviet Union's feared KGB intelligence agency and has ruled Russia under various titles since May 2000. During his time in office, his government has been accused of serial human rights abuses and even targetted assassinations of political opponents and journalists who point out the failings of a country that since the end of the Cold War has sequed from totalitarian communist rule to petroleum-based oligarchy.
So it was that the title of Putin's article, A Plea For Caution From Russia, could be mistaken as a cruel parody.
Putin's article argues against a strike by the United States in Syria, saying that an attack would only escalate the situation, and that the world is against it. Perversely, Putin also says he believes the gas attack was not carried out by Syrian President Bashr Al-Assad, but by rebels hoping to provoke an intervention. This comes from a man who ordered the use of poison gas during a hostage situation in his own country, which resulted in the deaths of innocent people. The Russian leader is frequently accused of orchestrating political murders. For example, Russian journalist Alexander Litvenenko on his deathbed publicly accused the government of Russia for poisoning him with toxic plutonium. Incidentally, a former president of Ukraine is believed to have survived a poisoning ordered by Putin.
Putin wrote, "No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored."
The claim may persuade some, but will not sway the Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have repeatedly said the U.S. has evidence linking sarin gas to the Assad regime. That includes panicked phone calls intercepted from the Syrian Defense Ministry to a chemical weapons unit demanding answers after the strike on Aug. 21 in addition to video and physical evidence. A report on the incident prepared by the United Nations is due to be released next week. Comments leaked from the international body suggest that UN inspectors have concluded that the strike came from Assad.
But it is the final paragraph in Putin's missive that is the most droll, not only for Putin's personal record of stoking a personality cult to himself and Russia's nearly non-existent experience with authentic freedom. Putin uses the article to directly confront Obama and his speech of September 10 while at the same time scolding the United States over its identity and core beliefs.
The former Russian spymaster wrote, "My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American Exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
The world was stunned this week when Russia offered to secure Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, even after both countries had earlier denied that there were such stockpiles in the first place. Whether Putin actually comes through with his offer has yet to be determined, or whether it is still another joke on an American president who appears increasingly deaf to American public opinion opposing war with Syria.
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