PORTLAND – Several days ago I returned from living in Moscow. While the experience was at times quite difficult, it did grant me a greater understanding of Russia’s position on Syria.
From the outset, let me reaffirm that what is happening in Syria is truly a terrible human rights tragedy. Chemical warfare is indeed a line that should never be crossed. However, in this conflict, as in all conflicts, the question of how to proceed is complicated by many factors, many of which would not occur to Americans.
Some of these factors have little to do with the United States. Take, for example, Russia’s complete dismissal of U.S. evidence. To an American it looks a little extreme until you realize every Russian rejects every government-produced document.
This suspicion stems from the fact that, culturally, Russians tend to question a problem from all angles. As well, almost all of the statistics produced in Russia have been corrupted in some way.
My students laughed about how in the hours just after Vladimir Putin was declared president, the state news organization broadcast an image of what vote percentages went to what candidates. Which is fine, except the percentages added up to more than 100 percent. With such stories at home, of course Russians believe that any evidence coming out of the United States is fabricated.
Russians also understand the numbers in regard to human life differently than Americans. They could not help but do so after their history. They accept that people die.
Further, what it means to be a leader in Russia encompasses death. Many Russians still feel Josef Stalin was a great leader. Granted, he killed off a lot of his own people, but in their eyes Stalin also saved Russia from the Nazis and the rest of the world feared him. So to Russians, Bashar al-Assad killing off Syrians to maintain his power is terrible, but it’s also not so foreign.
And there are the practical reasons, some also Cold War-related. Russia was stuck with a huge number of weapons after the Soviet Union. Now the country is getting billions selling some of them to Syria.
However, all of these pale in regard to the most important reason why Putin will never condone boots on the ground in Syria: the utter disparity between how the United States sees itself in the world and how Russia sees the United States. I myself didn’t understand quite how vast the difference was until I met Alexei.
In February, that most miserable of months in Russia, I started teaching Alexei, a lawyer for Russia’s state-owned energy company, Gazprom.
Pale, intense and homophobic, Alexei embodies the paradox of modern Russia, simultaneously standing in two worlds. Gradually the lessons turned into long political discussions. I found Alexei’s understanding of the Unite States terrifying in its strangeness and in its resonance among other Russians.
For Alexei, the U.S. needed the USSR. He believes that one kept the other in check and indeed, balanced the world. The U.S. had its allies and the USSR had its allies, Syria traditionally being one of them.
With the fall of the USSR in ’91, the United States faced no opposition in global dominance. Russians have watched in fear at the rise of what they see as a bloated, unchecked behemoth. They see Syria as one in a long line of illegal U.S. military invasions stretching back to Kosovo. Further, they believe that these invasions were motivated by colonial goals.
Some Russians, among them Alexei, go a step further, believing that 9/11 was orchestrated by American banks as an excuse to go and then control Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps most Russians don’t go quite that far, but many believe that we used 9/11 as an excuse to invade and they are becoming increasingly wary. Russian politicians are warning Russians away from visiting the United States.
In his speech to the people Tuesday, President Obama touched upon the subject of America as global policeman. Despite our weariness with that role, there continues to be something about it that resonates.
And why wouldn’t it? American policemen are heroes who go in and fix a bad situation. Russians do not enjoy such a rosy picture of their police. The Russian policeman is corrupt, looking out only for his own needs.
So what are we, the American kind of policeman or the Russian kind? I no longer know. Either way, Putin has done the math, and for him it is more important to stop the unchecked policeman than it is to save Syrian lives.
Anna Nutter of Portland is a recent Bowdoin College graduate who has lived in Russia.