1999 Putin vs 2013 Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed that was published in the New York Times this morning has been met with both much praise and much derision. My own Twitter feed has been filled with comments, jokes, and links to responses. However, what caught my eye early on was this comment from Steve Lee Myers, the acting Bureau Chief for the New York Times in Moscow:
As Prime Minister in 1999, Putin oversaw the Russian incursion into Chechnya in the name of state security. Many in the world community saw this as a cause for concern, and President Bill Clinton raised the issue when the two men met in Oslo in November of that year.
The emotional tone of the 1999 article [http://nyti.ms/1d6Z7LL%5D is the very first thing that jumped out at me. Putin begins by saying: “Because we value our relations with the United States and care about Americans’ perception of us, I want to explain our actions in clear terms.”
He then goes straight into a hypothetical scenario of a terrorist attack on New York City (something that is very odd to read 12 years after 9/11), and urges his readers to imagine renegade militias out of Montana running rampant across middle America and striking fear into the hearts of citizens. He compares this imaginary scenario to what Shamil Basayev was doing in Chechnya.
The whole essay is very artfully done. Putin appeals to Americans’ experiences in the post-Cold War reality. He cites incidents of terrorist violence on American targets around the world, and says, “Terrorism today knows no boundaries.”
He insists: “The antiterrorist campaign was forced upon us. Sadly, decisive armed intervention was the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists….”
And his ending paragraph reads in an odd mixture of defensiveness, and meekness:
“But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond. That is our purpose in Chechnya, and we are determined to see it through. The understanding of our friends abroad would be helpful.”
Contrast this with today’s article written in response to President Obama’s recent speech about Syria . Again Putin appeals to the American public as a whole, and not just their leadership, saying: “It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.”
The following sentence was especially noteworthy when compared to the 1999 article in defense of the Russian incursion into Chechnya: “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country.” Sound familiar at all?
Or compare the following two sentences. Putin in 1999 defending his actions in Chechnya: “Yet in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that.” And Putin in 2013 warning against targeted strikes in Syria: “No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”
As Presidents do not write their own speeches, neither do they write their own articles. Whatever the differences between these two articles, the authors of each one know their audience and worked hard to appeal to it.
The world has changed a lot in the last 14 years, and the reality today is much different than it was in 1999. President Putin has now been in power in one form or another for almost 14 years. Chechnya was destroyed and then rebuilt, but Russia is not really much safer than it was 14 years ago.
America meanwhile has had boots on the ground in Iraq for a decade, and Afghanistan for 12 years. Most Americans are not enthusiastic about becoming entrenched in another conflict overseas no matter how noble the arguments for involvement are. In that kind of environment, who could object to the following sentiment? “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
Putin’s appeal to the American public is not falling on fallow ground, as just skimming the 600 plus comments in his New York Times’ article will attest. And the article has spawned a “Putin For Peace” trend on Twitter, with rumors of a possible Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the offing. Mr Putin knows his audience, but does his audience know Mr Putin?