Putin in Syria: Chechnya all over again

Oliver Bullough writes: Putin’s admirers often compare him to a chess player as a way of stressing his strategic nous (Barack Obama merely plays checkers). But that is to overstate his abilities. Any moderately capable politician could do what he does given a complicit media and control of all three branches of government. Where he does resemble a chess player, however, is in his insistence on linking unconnected issues: Ukraine, Syria, a joint U.S.-Russian program to dispose of radioactive material — all are pieces on his board, to be sacrificed for the ultimate good of the player, namely himself.

If Mr. Putin’s bombs allow his proxies to capture the square on the board labeled Syria, his Western admirers will hail him as a genius. But that victory would be as much a result of his weaknesses as his strengths. Seeing the world as a chess game means he believes the board is filled with pawns rather than people, with agency and ideas of their own.

In the fall of 2013, Mr. Putin thought he had convinced the Ukrainian government to reject a trade deal with the European Union and join a Russian project instead. He then promised it a $15 billion loan. But ordinary Ukrainians wouldn’t go along with the plan — they refused to be pawns — and their revolution ousted Mr. Putin’s allies in Kiev, turning his tactical victory into a strategic defeat.

In the years after Mr. Putin started his Chechen war in 1999, he had Chechnya’s leaders killed and imposed peace via a local strongman. The savagery necessary to maintain order has since driven out at least one-third of the prewar Chechen population, with most of them seeking asylum in Europe. The exodus continues today. Chechnya still requires vast annual subsidies from Moscow, and its peace remains just one assassination away from chaos.

Bombing Aleppo into submission and imposing Mr. Assad on the rubble via fake elections would allow Mr. Putin and RT to present the Syria problem as solved and give the Kremlin’s Western proxies an opportunity to praise their grandmaster’s cunning. But you cannot bomb someone into loving you. For as long as Putin fails to realize that ordinary people’s desires are ultimately more important than his own, any system he creates will remain as fragile as the one he built in Chechnya. [Continue reading…]

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