Why Putin sets Russia apart from US on Syria

For more than an hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alone in the late-summer sun, patiently awaiting the arrival of his guests. He struck a solitary figure, looking proud and purposeful, perhaps a little aloof, definitely not someone to be messed with.

He was receiving world leaders here in his hometown of St Petersburg, and welcoming them to his presidential residence, the Konstantinovsky Palace.

The palace was built early in the 18th century and intended as a summer home for Russian czar Peter the Great. It was Mr Putin who ordered it refurbished in 2001 for presidential use. In 2006, he hosted G-8 leaders here. Last Thursday, he welcomed leaders from the G-20 countries, as well as six specially selected non-G-20 guests, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for a two-day summit.

The ornate Marble Hall, where the leaders held their meetings, has been painstakingly restored, reflecting a deep sense of Russian pride. Indeed, the nation's rich heritage is evident throughout this city, which served as Russia's czarist capital for 186 years, from 1732 to 1918, until Lenin's Bolsheviks launched their revolution here in 1917 and moved the capital to Moscow.

The city of five million is often dubbed the "Venice of the north" not only for its rivers and canals, but also because of its many grand buildings. These include the imposing Hermitage, Russia's answer to the Louvre museum in Paris, and the famed Kirov Ballet's home at the Mariinsky Theatre, which opened a new wing in May.

At the golden-domed St Isaac's Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood - so called because it was built on the site where czar Alexander II was assassinated - I found impressive mosaics and paintings of Christian figures, dating back centuries, which have been well preserved.

"Restoring history is an investment in the future," said a notice on the ongoing restoration efforts. In a way, Mr Putin is an embodiment of this Russian pride, imbued as he seems to be with an abiding sense of his country's historical place in the world. Like him, many of the Russians I met over the past week, while adopting the trappings of the modern world with their mobile phones and stylish fashion, seem also to set themselves apart from it. Few speak any English, for example, and see little need to.

I pondered this over the past week as I watched Mr Putin set himself against what he sees as the United States' rush to judgment in concluding that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 of his own people, including many women and children.

The Russian leader has sought to portray Mr Barack Obama as yet another American president throwing his weight around all over the world, rushing headlong to war, without the backing of the international community at the United Nations.

He dismissed the evidence presented by the US as "absurd" and "utter nonsense", arguing that government forces had no reason to resort to the use of chemical weapons since they were winning against the rebels. He even went so far as to suggest that US Secretary of State John Kerry had misled Congress when pressing his case for a US-led military strike on Syria.

"He is lying, and he knows that he is lying. This is sad," Mr Putin said last Wednesday, tossing diplomatic niceties to the wind.

As Russia has long been an ally of Syria, it is hard to say how much of Mr Putin's strong support now stems from an inflexible desire to stand by an old friend, or an equally instinctive wish to thumb his nose at an old Western adversary or, most likely, both.

Against this backdrop of a stand-off with the US, the Syria question loomed large at the summit, even though leaders spent much time also discussing efforts to boost the global economy and create jobs. Several warned that war with Syria would jeopardise a fragile economic recovery. Views on Syria were "voiced trenchantly", as Mr Lee put it when summing up the discussions, which dragged on way past midnight. There was no meeting of minds, he said, but the session helped clarify perspectives all round.

Most countries appear to accept that the use of chemical weapons, which has been outlawed under international law, cannot be condoned. But disagreement begins when the discussion turns to who is responsible, and just how to respond.

These differences remained even after Mr Putin finally held a one-on-one meeting with Mr Obama on Friday, which many had been calling for in the hope that they might narrow the gulf between them. For most of the conference, it seemed like the two men were trying hard to avoid each other.

Tongues were set wagging when Mr Obama turned up late for a leaders' dinner meeting on Thursday, during which Syria was to be discussed. He sauntered in about half an hour after Mr Putin had ushered in all his other guests. Some saw this as a deliberate snub to his host, although others suggested that the US leader had been busy lobbying US congressmen ahead of a crucial vote on Syria this week, or sorting out an issue with his Brazilian counterpart.

 

So what did Mr Putin make of his 30-minute face-off with Mr Obama? "He disagrees with my arguments, I disagree with his arguments, but we do hear, and we try to analyse," the Russian leader said, adding that their talks were "cordial and constructive".

But he remained combative, insisting that most at the summit shared his position on Syria, even warning that Moscow would come to the aid of Damascus if it were attacked. "You said views divided 50-50, that is not quite right," he told a reporter, listing only the United States, Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France as countries supporting an intervention. German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained "careful", he said, while British Prime Minister David Cameron supports the strike but does not represent the "will of the people" since the British Parliament had rejected intervention.

Meanwhile, China, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Italy were "against military action", he noted, adding that even in the countries which were in favour of military action, "the majority of the population is on our side", opposing it.

"Using force against a sovereign state can only be done in self-defence, and Syria is not attacking the United States," said Mr Putin, arguing that such action could only be approved by the UN Security Council. "As one participant said on Saturday, those who do something different are placing themselves outside the law."

Indeed, small countries such as Singapore know only too well how critical upholding the rule of international law is for their survival, as Mr Lee noted on Friday. For this reason, Singapore could not countenance the use of chemical weapons, he said, adding that whoever was behind the attack "could not go unpunished". But here lies the rub: establishing beyond doubt who was responsible for the use of sarin gas on the night of Aug 21 on Ghouta in eastern Damascus will not be easy. Nor will achieving a consensus on how to, or who should, go about meting out the punishment.

Doing so will be all the more difficult given that the question has become caught up in the age-old rivalry between Russia and the US, and what appears to be a deepening sense of dislike and distrust between their two leaders. Alas, a few sunny days together in St Petersburg did little to help.

This is a pity, for unlike in Iraq a decade ago, where Saddam Hussein was only presumed to have had a hidden stash of deadly weapons, there seems little doubt that weapons of mass destruction, in the form of toxic chemicals, have actually been used on a large scale on innocent civilians in Syria. This is one of those times when you might wish that world leaders would speak as one.

warren@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.