Julia Ioffe talked to some Russian officials and experts about the silly idea that refusing to attack Syria in 2013 encouraged Russian intervention in Ukraine, and this is what they told her:
“Wow, it’s kind of a revelation what you just said,” said a very surprised source from the Russian Foreign Ministry, who was not authorized to speak on the record, on hearing the question. “It’s not tied to any kind of reality. These things are not connected to each other in any way.”
“It is absolutely made up,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the equally surprised editor of Russia in Global Affairs, who has a reputation for channeling the Kremlin view. “You shouldn’t think of Putin as such a primitive guy. It’s totally clear that the Syrian and Ukrainian crises had nothing to do with one another.”
Of course the two crises had nothing to do with each other, and it was always absurd think otherwise. This was the argument that Syria hawks trotted out in early 2014 to claim vindication for their support for bombing Syria and to chide Obama yet again for “weakness,” and so it was an extremely self-serving idea from the start. It was based on the bogus idea that attacking Syria would deter Russia in a different part of the world in an unrelated crisis where it had far greater interests. That isn’t how other governments view these things, and it is a complete misreading of Moscow’s view of the Ukraine crisis to think bombing Syria would have stopped Russia from doing what it did in Ukraine in early 2014 and afterwards. I said this repeatedly back in 2014:
Far from discouraging Russian interference in its neighbor’s affairs, an attack on Syria would have provoked Russian hostility to any government perceived to be “pro-Western” in its vicinity and further fueled the Kremlin’s paranoia about Western intentions. Except for giving an undesirable boost to Russian propaganda, attacking Syria would have changed nothing in Ukraine. At the same time, intervention in Syria would have created a new rift between the U.S. and many of its other European allies and diverted additional attention and resources away from Europe shortly before the Ukraine crisis began. Dragged into a new conflict against its will, the public would be even more averse to involvement in Ukraine. This doesn’t even begin to account for the unintended consequences that a Syrian war would have had.
Attacking Syria in 2013 would have been a serious error in its own right, but it would have also made it even more difficult for the U.S. and its European allies to respond to the Ukraine crisis.
Ioffe also found that the official Russian view of U.S. refusal to bomb in 2013 was quite the opposite of what Syria hawks claimed:
The source from the Foreign Ministry echoed that sentiment. The action Obama did take—avoiding a strike on Syria and instead forging a deal with Russia to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons—represented not weakness but an unusual moment of reason, in Moscow’s view [bold mine-DL]. “It showed everyone in the world that, if there is a will in these two countries, any problem can be solved,” the Foreign Ministry source said. “It was very constructive work. … Everything was done to help the administration get out of the corner they’d backed themselves into and to get them back into the zone of international law.”
I made a similar point more than once before. In Moscow’s view, the U.S. has engaged in multiple lawless and unnecessary wars in the last twenty years, and it has consistently condemned those interventions. Why would Russia become less antagonistic and more cooperative if the U.S. had done the same thing again in Syria? Attacking Syria would have soured U.S.-Russian relations even more in 2013, and would have made Moscow even more suspicious of Western intentions toward its clients. How could that possibly have made Moscow less inclined to react with alarm to the protests and toppling of the government in Kiev? How would it have discouraged Moscow from acting to shore up what it saw as its security interests in a neighboring country? It couldn’t have done, and it wouldn’t have.
Ioffe reminds us that the Russians have always perceived the Ukraine crisis very differently from Washington:
If anything, in Putin’s view, it was American actions in Kiev, rather than its inaction in Syria, that prompted Putin to grab Crimea and invade east Ukraine.
Because hawks almost always interpret the undesirable actions of foreign governments as proof of America’s perceived “weakness” around the world, they usually can’t grasp that other states are sometimes acting because they perceive the U.S. doing too much and interfering where it shouldn’t. Because they can’t bring themselves to fault U.S. policy for any bad outcomes, and because they never see our meddling as unwarranted, hawks are more blind than most to how other states see things.
It was always extremely convenient that our own hawks “knew” that Moscow viewed both the Syria and Ukraine crises as proof of Obama’s fecklessness and lack of “resolve,” but the reality is that the hawks were just very confused or were making this up when they claimed this. Hawks are often very certain they understand how foreign leaders view U.S. actions, but they never have to back up these insights that they must have gained via telepathy. When someone bothers to check their self-serving theories with people that would know how the foreign government in question sees things, their argument completely falls apart.
Probably the silliest version of the Syria-Ukraine link argument came from Anne-Marie Slaughter in the spring of 2014 when she argued that the way to oppose the Russian intervention in Ukraine that was already underway was to start bombing the Syrian government then. This “killing Syrians for Ukraine” approach was just as detached from reality as what other Syria hawks had been saying about U.S. “credibility” for months at that point, but it was more obviously nonsensical.
It’s long past time that we dismissed such shoddy “credibility” arguments all together, and Ioffe’s report makes some progress towards doing that. Obsessing over “credibility” as so many hawks do is not only a waste of everyone’s time and energy, but it is also harmful because it confuses our understanding of these issues and encourages reckless and unnecessary action. In this case, there was never any reason to believe that Russian actions in Ukraine were linked to the U.S. decision not to attack Syria, and that was obvious at the time. As usual, the Syria hawks were wrong.