Russia's Putin Adds Another Voice To Debate On Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has written an op-ed piece for Thursday's New York Times. He's calling on the U.S. to forgo military strikes on Syria. For Russia's view of the Syrian conflict, Renee Montagne talks to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Readers of this morning's New York Times will find an unusual contributor to the op-ed page: Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's calling for the U.S. to forego military strikes on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, his Syrian ally.

INSKEEP: Putin warned that an American military strike would destabilize the Middle East and, quote, "unleash a new wave of terrorism." And he again questioned allegations that the Syrian army was responsible for unleashing a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians.

MONTAGNE: To talk about these developments, we reached Dmitri Trenin. He's director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Welcome to the program.

DMITRI TRENIN: Hi. Glad to be on the program.

MONTAGNE: What do you make of this New York Times op-ed by President Putin? I mean, what strikes you the most about his message?

TRENIN: I think he believes that the United States is too important to the world for U.S. foreign policy to be discussed by Americans alone. He wants to add another voice to the debate.

MONTAGNE: President Putin speaks here as a champion of the U.N., yet he has blocked U.N. Security Council efforts to condemn the Assad regime, and even just threaten sanctions. He has continued to arm Syria in a war that's cost 100,000 lives. How can he have it both ways?

TRENIN: Putin believes that U.S. policy toward Syria has been completely misguided. He sees the opposition on the ground in Syria to be dominated by al-Qaida and its friends. So he believes that sanctioning Assad and forcibly replacing him would lead to a result that would be essentially counterproductive.

What he is saying in that piece is that Russia is not supporting Assad as an ally. Rather, it's supporting a certain world order, and that world order, for Putin, is centered on the United Nations Security Council.

MONTAGNE: But he has also been supporting the Assad government, and that's a government that has stopped at nothing to fight this uprising.

TRENIN: Well, I think that he has no illusions about the brutality of the Syrian regime. But his counterargument would be that the United States is supporting al-Qaida. He wouldn't seriously say that the United States has an alliance with al-Qaida, but the United States and Al-Qaida are on the same side against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, since Russia first put forth this proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, the big concern has been that perhaps Putin doesn't mean it, that it's a just a tactic to put off and prevent an American strike on Russia's ally. Do you think something will come of this proposal?

TRENIN: Putin has decided to put his own prestige behind this proposal, not in order to score some tactical points. He wants the tide in the Syrian situation to be turned from ever widening and deepening war, to some kind of a political process that will result in a transition to a more representative government in Syria.

MONTAGNE: These last couple of weeks have seen a series of lightening moves, a kind of geopolitical chess match. Any idea what Russia's next move will be?

TRENIN: Well, I think Russia will be working hard to get the international inspectors to arrive at the Syrian chemical weapons facilities and take control of those facilities. I think the Russians will be engaged full-time now in an effort to channel the situation toward a political solution. That, I think, will be the Russian objective.

MONTAGNE: So, not to put a fine point on it, but you do believe that President Putin is in this for real.

TRENIN: I think he is in it for real. Otherwise, he could have let the foreign minister handle it, and he can always say, you know, we tried very hard, but you see what the Americans are, and, you know, they - but they will reap the fruit of their actions themselves. So we tried, but we couldn't help it. No, he decided to put himself squarely behind it. And, for him, it's also about Russia's role in the world, Russia's prestige. It's about the world order, centered on the U.N. Security Council. That's his goal, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, speaking to us from Moscow. Thanks very much.

TRENIN: You're most welcome.

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