It is shocking how little empathy the world has for the dramatic events in Syria, for a population that has been gassed, raped, tortured and bombed for years. It’s as if we have all become oblivious that the land of these tortured people is our own cradle. Both the birthplace and the future of humanity. Yet, instead of progressing and becoming more human, we are silently watching the massacre of yet another piece of our collective body; first by a dictator, then by crazy extremists, and then by the bombs coming from countries who claim to be helping save Syrians from the terrorists and the dictator.
For many decades, Syria lived in almost total isolation. Who ever met a Syrian before they started this exodus of biblical proportions? If not for their history and art, we wouldn’t know their faces. We hardly know any of their names. There aren’t many movies or books from contemporary Syria. Just a lonely memory of a truck driver from Damask who stopped on the road a few miles before reaching Cairo to change a tire, and then prepared a somber meal for himself on a small cooker attached to his toolbox beside the truck. That was years ago.
There are many more Syrian faces now. We can see them all over Europe – most of them in the north, where money is still plentyful and where the colder climate helps them forget the sound of shooting and bombing, the odor of smoke and burning of their heated homeland.
Now that their crumbling country is emptying out, a new power, with plenty of weapons to sell, decided to empty it even more. This time it comes in a form of a man who likes to ride horses shirtless, who likes to think of himself as a master of martial arts, a man from the steppes – who shapes himself in the image of Genghis Khan, a conqueror. Or better, as he has described himself for the last couple of years: the liberator of what is left of Nazism. His name is Vladimir Putin – once a troubled kid, then a KGB officer. A friend of the West when he first kept fragmented Russia together, then its number one enemy when he revealed his imperial ambitions. Well, this man of absolute power, who dares to host the Winter Olympics in a summerville, hopes to make his victorious, Napoleonic horseback entry into Syria while riding over the ruins of one of the latest graveyards of human culture. He’ll be able to do this because he got sucked in by the vacuum of world power, by the fact that at least half of the polarized world wants a new powerful leader, a man with an iron fist.
How did all this happen again? How can one part of the world admire an angry Putin while another part is listening to an arrogant and ignorant Donald Trump? Is it because the world’s societies are no longer run by talent, but governed by mediocrity, while a polarized world is crying out for leadership that can put things in order again?
This tendency had already shown itself seven years ago in the way that the world offered itself to President Obama when he was elected in 2008. But while Obama made some marvelous speeches, he missed an opportunity that was offered to him on a gold platter. He never became a world leader. It all looked good when he first started to deal with the financial crisis, when his administration managed to stop the downfall and bleeding of the American – and consequently of the world’s – economy. But then, he missed his chance and the world lost its hope for a new, smart leader. He did not reform and regulate Wall Street, as he had promised he would during his election campaign. The first year after election, Obama had enough political capital and a strong enough position to do something that would make history, perhaps stopping the escalation of the wealth gap that is currently tearing the world apart. Obama turned from a new messiah into a hated man, part of that evil America that was born under George W. Bush and that – in the world’s naive perception – he promised to change. Part of Obama’s domestic legacy is an incredibly confused political situation dominated by mediocrity and political corruption, that – with the election in 2016 – will give America no capacity to move on. And yet, one can’t say that Obama is or was a bad president. It is just that the zeitgeist was against him, or perhaps that he was simply unable to turn it in his favor?
Unfortunately, the times favor people like Putin and Donald Trump. While there is still a slight, year-long hope that Donald Trump will not become the next U.S. president, Putin is still here, already in power, and we are forced to think of him.
Political predictions range from fear of a looming World War III to arrogant declarations that Putin’s intervention in Syria will lead to the implosion of Russia.
If one reads between the lines and believes the Economist to be accurate, then Russia is not an economic power now and will become even less of one over the next decade. So while supremacy on the world stage will be fought over by the U.S. and China, with India coming around the corner, one might well ask what are the real motivations for this incredible Russian escalation that caught the world’s attention.
In a conversation with Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, David Remnick, editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, describes Vladimir Putin’s long metamorphosis in detail. After coming into power in 1999, Putin was heard saying that Communism had been a blind alley, far away from mainstream civilization. Later on, in an interview for BBC, he envisioned Russia as part of European culture, saying, “I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world. So it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” Years later, when he returned to power in 2012, he put Russia at the center of an anti-Western, socially conservative axis, treating Russia as a bulwark against a menacing America.
Remnick’s piece of fascinating reading opens in 2012, with Ambassador McFaul’s arrival in Moscow. MacFaul is a political science professor at Stanford University, and his arrival in Moscow is somehow reminiscent of Berlin 1933, when William E. Dodd, a mild mannered professor from Chicago, became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany — a scene described in Larson’s historical novel In the Garden of Beasts. There is no explicit mention of this historic event in the piece, and I am far from saying that Russia is a Nazi country. But McFaul’s arrival in Moscow does coincide with the rise of Russian nationalism under Putin’s second rise to power, when the Russian leader turned angry towards the West.
While Remnick hints that the reason for Putin’s ideological turn was his intense reading of the Russian Empire’s history, Joseph Burgo suggests in his article for the Atlantic Monthly that Vladimir Putin might actually be a narcissist. Basing his argument on the findings of Masha Gessen, a talented Russian journalist who recently published the book A Man Without a Face, Burgo writes the following:
Due to the advanced age of his parents (both turned 41 in the year of his birth) and the fact that no one seems to remember him before he began attending school, there has been a persistent but unproven rumor that Putin was actually adopted at the age of 9 or 10—which might have been a cause of further childhood trauma. But Putin’s childhood was almost certainly marked by trauma in any case. In her recent biography of Putin, Masha Gessen paints a grim picture of the Leningrad complex in which the family lived, typical of the city during the post-war period. Crumbling stairwells and courtyards strewn with trash. Cramped, filthy, and crowded rooms. Families piled one on top of the other, sharing and fighting over a communal kitchen in the hallway. Post-siege Leningrad was “a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children.”
Burgo hypothesizes that childhood trauma like this could have caused Putin to become a bullying narcissist. “He is in flight from himself,” Burgo writes. “His entire personality expresses an ongoing, relentless battle to ward off unconscious shame and a sense of internal defect, which accounts for his inability to take criticism or tolerate the smallest of slights. To deny the unconscious sense of being small, defective, and vulnerable, he projects a self-image that conveys his superiority.”
Narcissism and a sudden embrace of Russia’s imperial identity are just two of the many theories about why Putin made this desperate move, which seems so distant from his declared intention of fighting off the horrific Islamic State.
“The region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not,” Andrew Tabler, an expert on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy (FP). Tabler argues that “Even if you don’t back what the Russians are doing in Syria, people admire them because they are willing to put their money where their mouth is — as well as troops.”
Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, both conservative scholars, have a wider view but similar logic as FP, claiming that Putin “certainly means to deter the U.S.-led coalition from attacking the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, establishing any sort of no-fly zone, or taking any meaningful action that might harm Assad’s forces. He also means to forge a counter-alliance consisting of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah and demonstrate that his coalition is more effective than the West’s. He intends, finally, to establish a permanent foothold in the Middle East from which he can threaten NATO’s southern flank directly, project power into the Mediterranean and the Arab World, and generally re-create Russia’s aura as a global power.”
This kind of geopolitical discussion, which includes the possibility of reopening an arms race and the analysis of the warfare capacity of a renewed Russian military, are now on the daily agendas of experts, politicians and pundits.
I personally am shocked by how fast the world’s opinion is changing, ready to embrace the rise of this new strong man — or, if you prefer, the gestures of a narcissist. Or possibly by the hatred on the part of the U.S., who leads everyone in their lack of strategy to deal with Putin. To me, this is all just a cock fight in some small, dusty farm courtyard, while we are totally forgetting how deep a hole the human race is digging itself into with every new day.