The Russian Proposal: Two Questions about the Syria Crisis that Matter

Last night, President Obama confirmed that he is in favor of giving diplomacy a chance to succeed in defusing a potential conflict with Syria. It was a relief for most people to think that there might be an alternative to a U.S. military strike, which could have brought with it a cascade of unintended consequences. However, it was somewhat disheartening that the president did not say more in recognition of the Russians’ initiative. Their proposal is not just a tactical opening, its a strategic one.

Earlier this week the Russians gave President Obama a gift — a way out of a potentially embarrassing failure to garner support in Congress for striking Syria. The president tried to spin the diplomatic development last night by saying it was a direct result of the administration’s “tough” position on strikes. This does not ring entirely true. The president’s campaign to gain authority to strike Syria was not a credible threat. Russia had only to read the public opinion polls, as well as the Washington Post to see the daily head count on Congressional votes.  The support simply wasn’t (and isn’t) there. Given the budget, sequester and debt ceiling talks that are in the offing, it is unimaginable that Obama could have ordered air strikes over the objections of Congress.

Now that this proposal is on the table there are two important questions that arise: Are the Russians sincere in trying to find a solution to this crisis? And is their proposal to identify and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons feasible, given the magnitude of the undertaking, especially in a war zone?

As someone who has spent more than twenty-five years of my career travelling to the former Soviet Union, I can offer one overarching principle regarding the Russians—an observation shared by nearly every person who knows them well. The Russians are not easy to work with when they are being forced to comply with orders from elsewhere and when they feel they are being treated in a patronizing or disrespectful way. But, they can be counted on in big ways when they feel that a plan or a proposal is truly in their best interests. (For further reading on this see my book, Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War—only one book among many that makes this point.)

Is the effort to identify and destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons, then, seen by the Russians as decidedly in their interest? I think so.

First, the Russians would probably like to know for sure where all those weapons sites are. Right now we may overestimate how much they know about the exact whereabouts of this material. They have an overarching interest in the country as well. There are Russians living there and they have an important naval port at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.

Second, the Russians would want to make sure that those stockpiles don’t end up in the hands of Sunni Islamic radicals, fearing that in a worst-case scenario these extremists – with probable ties to Islamic radicals in Chechnya and the former Soviet Union – would pose a threat to Central Asia and Russia.

Finally, the Russians would like to reestablish themselves as players on the international scene. This episode has put President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, back into the public eye as diplomats – in contrast to the shoot-first-and-ask-for-the-UN-report-later Americans.

Contrary to the credit the president took for himself last night, the Russian initiative is not the result of a warm or particularly constructive relationship between the two presidents. It was an agile attempt by the Russians to take up Secretary Kerry on his off- hand comment that dismantlement might be the one thing that would avert the strikes. Whatever the reason for it, it is a welcomed effort. And it is that effort that holds the key to the second question: is such a proposal feasible?

Disarmament experts have warned about the complexity of identifying and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons—and they are correct in that. It is a very big tactical consideration, which would entail a great deal of time, resources, and personnel. But the Russian initiative has uncovered two factors of strategic importance. First, the Syrian government has finally admitted the existence of its stockpile, and second, the Russians, if given an incentive to do so, are apparently willing to leverage their relationship with the Assad regime to find a resolution to the current crisis. These are not necessarily the intransigent Russians National Security Advisor Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power say they are.

In the last fifteen to twenty years Russia has been largely ignored on the international stage. There is no real downside to making them feel important again. The last two decades of U.S./Western interaction with the Russians have been rife with perverse incentives. Let’s now work with the Russians to see if, through them, we can bring to closure the arrangements with Assad on chemical weapons and move toward a broader approach to ending the civil war– not to mention helping to make the UN Security Council functional again. If they have some “skin in the game” they are more likely to use the United Nations in a constructive way.

Let’s try and restore the spirit of cooperation with Russia that made it possible for us to successfully meet earlier U.S. goals: to build an international space station; to secure weapons of mass destruction with Russia through the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs under the Nunn-Lugar initiatives; and to negotiate and ratify the New START Treaty. With the right diplomatic approach to the Russians, we can use their Syrian initiative as a way to meet our larger more enduring objectives. It will be challenging, but as the old adage goes: you can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.

18 thoughts on “The Russian Proposal: Two Questions about the Syria Crisis that Matter

  1. My draft comment suddenly disappeared as I was re-reading it to make corrections, if

  2. Susan, great piece as always. As a sequel to your commentary & my personal reply to honour the 150th Gettysburg celebration, I,for the life of me, cannot recall a contingent of Syrians that fought in OUR CIVIL WAR!! Religious war in the Middle East & USA involvement therein DRIVES ME CRAZY!!! Considering Christian USA (not understanding at all)the FIVE SECTARIAN FACTIONS in Syria who have been killing each other for at least 2000 YRS!! As you know SO WELL, Nothing political is ever as it appears. As much of an Obama fan as I am, This Syria “thing” is about 1)our failed $$$$$ investment in rebels whoever we decide they are, 2)IRAN posturing w/nukes &, 3)the ISRAELI LOBBY $$$$$ in the USA!! And PALEASE for the “love of GOD”, allow John McCain’s & Lindsay Graham’s grandkids to be the” VERY 1st BOOTS ON THE GROUND IN DAMASCUS” after all negotiations/air strikes “fail”. Susan, keep trying to speak truth to power & hopefully change the world in the process.
    As always be well,
    Rick Jones(Gettysburg, PA)

  3. Susan, a truly perceptive piece, one of the very best I’ve read on the issue. National interest almost always determies policy and in this case Russian interests seem in tune with our own.
    We should see this as well as a great and long overdue debate on America’s role in the evolving multipolar world. I feel that we should only act militarily in concert with others when the stability of the international order is threatened or to avert humanitarian calamities.
    Don Webster

  4. It is so refreshing to hear a sane perspective. It seems to have been buried beneath our years of demonizing one philosophy, one leader, one nation after another. Of course, Ike’s “Military-Industrial Complex” has been an integral part of our mental disintegration, as profit has over-ridden humanity in so many ways. I was struck while watching Daniel Ellsberg’s story by a woman from India, who was saying something like “In our culture, we have no word for the concept of ‘enemy.'”

  5. What UN report are you looking for? That the Syrians have and are using CW, which they’ve denied on both counts until agreeing to the Russian plan? So now that they magically have them (since the Russians say they do) who is going to verify that they’ve been penned up under international supervision or destroyed? The Syrians or the Russians or the UN, the latter which did such a sterling job in Iraq? As far as Obama avoiding “a political embarassment”, is that what this is all about? That sorry ship sailed sometime ago. Amazing how a John Kerry gaffe, which State did their best to walk back, once touted by Russia has become a stroke of genius so much so that we have Obama telling Gwen Ifil that it was something he and Putin had already discussed. Really?

  6. Thank you for your insights, Susan. There are many times that we have cooperated with the Russians in the past and in this case again our interests overlap. I was shocked by the response of Representative Peter King (R,NY) who said “Sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil” referring to Putin. So much for diplomacy.

    When I was doing nuclear physics research at the Niels Bohr Insitute in Copenhagen early in the history of space exploration the Russian in our group would bring in a bottle of brandy to celebrate with our afternoon tea when the Russians had successful space launch and I would do the same when there was a successful American launch. We did not worry about who was the leader of the world..

  7. Susan, I agree totally. The very idea at this point in our history that our muscle flexing over a “limited” strike is so flawed as to be laughable! I for one thank Russia wholeheartedly.

  8. Susan Eisenhower was our featured guest speaker at a conference of the “Neighbor America” program of the German State of Rheinland-Pfalz, in Mainz, Germany which I helped organize. Today I posted her above post on my facebook pages with these comments that she might find interesting:

    From my facebook page –

    Some very wise words on Syria and the Russian offers from President Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower. I had helped organize a conference in Mainz where she was the guest speaker and I hold her in high esteem. Back in September 1962, on my way to start college at Denison University, I crossed the Atlantic on the SS America. President Eisenhower, then retired and Mrs Mamie Eisenhower came on board at Southampton, England, along with 2 of their grandchildren, maybe Susan was one of them. Some of their luggage was stored outside my cabin (my stand by reservation turned out to be a cabin on a first class deck – but converted to double occupancy and closed off to first class by a small gate – which we often crashed). I met my ex on this voyage, but just like the vessel America, washed up since 1994 on the rough coast of Fuerteventura , Canary Islands, that marriage washed up as well, and as I write this I realize both ended the same year, 1994. The voyage itself was beautiful, great food, with “access” to first class we had the run of their dancing lounge and their outside decks, we passed the fringes of a hurricane, and a great landing at the Hudson River docks in New York City.

  9. As per usual Susan…absolutely right on target!
    As your Grandfather so eloquently warned all future generations,The Military Industrial/Congressional Complex (as he really wanted to put it) is somehow always in the mix.

    Amazing, how so many want to jump to put our country into yet MORE Trillions of Dollars in debt for the Pentagon and it’s contractor’s sake. Yet, they are disturbingly SLOW in deciding what’s best for our very own Domestic issues…such as improving our own infrastructures, education, job creations, and our course Health Care.

    This pause, is certainly just as you shared it. Putin had said just a week and a half ago, (not reported in the U.S. media) that if we struck Syria for “these” reasons, the Russian Military would be put on high alert to strike Saudi Arabia…God help us all…

    Certainly wish Susan that you were on an advisory team. Your expertise is greatly needed in a situation like this.

    Thanks again Susan,
    For being who you are!

  10. Knowing your long career studying Russia, this reasoned explanation of the opportunity at hand is promising.

  11. Susan,

    This is a very perceptive analysis based on your detailed and extensive experience with the Russians and is right on target.

    An additional point that should be made is that, since the rebels purport to be so horror struck by the human suffering that the chemical attack inflicted, logically they should welcome and support any and all efforts by the international community to rid the battlefield of these weapons.

    If, however, the rebel forces refuse to accept any partial cease fire arrangements or other measures designed to protect UN or other international efforts to secure and destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles and attack those engaged in this process, the world community must demand to know why.

    In my view, the only answer to that question that makes sense is that the rebels think that having chemical weapons in play is to their benefit and, as Assad has said and the Russians have confirmed, Assad’s forces were not behind last months the chemical attack, the rebels were.

    All the best,

    John Egan

  12. I didn’t read Obama’s speech this way. I read Obama, from the beginning, as proposing a limited response to an undeniable evil. Wrath to the ancients was considered a virtue. Wrath to them was the “resistance of the soul to the unacceptable.” Gassing civilians and then not taking responsibility should be unacceptable to any rational human being. Wrath is good.

    But after wrath comes wisdom. I’m happy Obama made this initiative, drew a red line, stood by it, and proposed a limited strike…for which NO ONE knows the consequences, good or bad. The direct result of this verbal threat was Putin’s offer, which likely we’ll find out much later, was promoted by Kerry, the Euros, and Obama, or a combination of all three, in St. Petersburg. If this works out and poison gas weapons are eliminated from Syria, then everyone is the winner, the region is slightly more stabilized, and Obama can rightly claim credit for a risky policy that bore fruit.

  13. Susan, you are right on ,and I value your opinion. You are certainly in a position of knowledge on this.
    Most sincerely,
    Sunny Scribante

  14. Ms. Eisenhower, I have been thinking all morning about you. This article confirms my opinion that you should be advising the President. I doubt if many American diplomats and administrators have your depth of understanding of the Russians or your skills in diplomacy. Thanks for the article. Best, Anita Thompson Monroe

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