KEADY: Firing back
John McCain’s response to Putin’s NYT editorial hurts U.S./Russian diplomatic efforts
In light of the diplomatic agreement between the United States and Russia that aims to end the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it may seem as though the relationship between the two countries is improving. This assessment, however, does not reflect the bigger picture. There is still much tension between the two governments, as a recent exchange of editorials demonstrates. Before the resolution had been reached, Vladimir Putin, in a New York Times article, cautioned the United States against using military force in Syria. Several days after Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov announced the U.S.-Russia solution, John McCain told the Russian people they “deserved better than Putin” in Pravda, a Russian political newspaper, in response to Putin’s NYT piece.
While Putin’s statement criticized the United States policy, McCain’s patronizing message denounced the legitimacy of the Russian government. His article will further damage the relationship between Russia and the United States and prevent them from reaching further diplomatic agreements about the Syrian civil war in the future.
Addressing the Russian people, McCain said of the Kremlin: “They don’t respect your dignity … they rig your elections … To perpetuate their power they foster rampant corruption in your courts and your economy and terrorize and even assassinate journalists who try to expose their corruption.” While most Americans, and many Russians, would agree with McCain’s statement, it does not serve to fix any of the problems McCain listed. Rather, these public criticisms were intended to delegitimize the Russian government in the eyes of its people. McCain’s article strains diplomatic efforts between the two powers because it communicates a lack of respect. Without mutual respect, the two countries can easily cast off each other’s national interests, making effective compromise difficult.
I do not mean to say that McCain’s statements were unprovoked. Russia’s most recent election drew fierce protests and allegations of fraud. The imprisonment and neglect of Sergei Magnitsky (a Russian accountant turned whistleblower) and a stifling anti-gay law are also legitimate subjects of criticism. Furthermore, Putin characterized the U.S. as “relying solely on brute force” and calling American exceptionalism “extremely dangerous” in his own article. So I see why McCain felt compelled to respond in kind.
The better response to Putin’s statement, however, would have been silence. I believe few Americans read Putin’s New York Times piece and accepted his portrayal of the United States as accurate. There was no need for McCain to escalate the situation in a tit-for-tat response article, especially after a diplomatic success, and at a time when cooperation between the two countries is critical.
Both governments have invested a lot of interest in Syria — critical components of world security, such as preventing the rise of terrorist organizations and stopping a spillover of the war into the greater Middle East number among them. Because of this, the two countries are heavily involved with planning the Geneva II conference, a United Nations-backed peace effort scheduled for the end of this year.
The first of these conferences failed to create a plan to remove Assad from power. So will the second one, if Russia and the United States cannot garner respect for the other’s policies. Had McCain left Putin’s publication unanswered, the chances of finding a common ground would be higher. The two governments would likely remember the recent cooperation surrounding the chemical weapons calamity, as opposed to sharp criticisms by a prominent U.S. politician.
Under this light, the case for a U.N.-sanctioned peace process may seem unlikely. McCain’s letter, however, is not the end of the story. The Cold War gives an example of how the United States and Russia (then a part of the USSR) were able to be diplomatic despite disdain for each other’s governments. Moreover, with the ever-rising death count and use of chemical weapons, the Syrian civil war has escalated dramatically since the first U.N. peace conference in June 2012. The two governments must take these facts into consideration in preparation for Geneva II. In the meantime, bickering in each other’s newspapers will only make matters worse.
Walter Keady is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.