Normally I would not make a single interview the subject of a post. I am going to do so in relation to the interview Putin gave to the Associated Press today because I think it is an important interview in itself in the context of the Syrian crisis and because it is not being reported correctly.
The interview has been reported as signalling a weakening of Russia’s stance on Syria and as containing a hint that Russia might be preparing to back down and to agree to military action against Syria provided this is done with the agreement of the UN Security Council. This is a misrepresentation of the interview. Here is what Putin actually said:
“AP: What would Russia’s position be if you became convinced that it was by the government of Syria, would you agree to military action?
Putin: I do not exclude this, but I would like to draw your attention to one absolutely key aspect. In line with international law, only the UN Security Council could sanction the use of force against a sovereign state. Any other pretext or method which might be used to justify the use of force against an independent sovereign state is inadmissible and can only be interpreted as an act of aggression.”
These words show that Putin was simply being careful to avoid the trap the French President Jacques Chirac fell into at the time of the Iraq crisis in 2003. In the run up to the Iraq war and whilst discussions on a possible Security Council Resolution authorising an attack on Iraq were still underway, Chirac appeared to say that France would vote against such a Resolution under any circumstances. This allowed the British government to claim that there was no point in going to the Security Council to seek a second Resolution because the French would veto it anyway regardless of what the facts were.
In reality Chirac’s words were misrepresented but the damage was done and Blair and his supporters were able to misuse Chirac’s words to get their way in the British parliamentary debate held on the eve of the attack on Iraq.
Of far more importance than Putin’s words about a hypothetical Security Council authorisation of military action against Syria was his careful use of the word “aggression” to define an attack on Syria that is not authorised by the UN Security Council.
“Aggression” is an international crime. The Nuremberg Tribunal said this explicitly when it defined Crimes against Peace:
“(I) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (I)”.
Moreover in the famous words of Robert H. Jackson, the chief US prosecution of the Nuremberg Tribunal
“To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.
Putin is not merely the President of Russia and a politician who choses his words carefully. It often gets forgotten that he is also a trained lawyer. By using the word “aggression” to describe an attack on Syria without authorisation from the UN Security Council he undoubtedly means what he says. Since that is precisely what is being proposed what Putin has just made clear is that in Russia’s view it is the US and its allies who are currently posing the threat to peace by their conduct of the Syrian crisis. In passing I would add that this is also the view of the Vatican and of parts at least of the UN Secretariat.
Putin has also gave in the interview a broad hint that in the event of such an “aggression” Russia would unfreeze deliveries of S300 missiles to Syria in order to help Syria defend itself. Though Putin obviously did not say so, it is likely that delivery of S300 missiles would be only part of the military assistance Russia would provide Syria in the event of an attack. In other words the pending US attack on Syria is going to intensify Russian military deliveries and support for Syria.
On the broader issue of Russia’s stance in the Syrian crisis and in the light of repeated comments from Patrick Armstrong and me to the effect that Syria is not Russia’s ally and that Russia is not defending Syria’s government but international law, here is what Putin said:
“Putin: We aren’t defending the government. We are defending something completely different. We are defending the contemporary order of the world. We are defending the modern international order. We are defending the discussion of the possible use of force exclusively within the confines of international order and international rules and international law. That’s what we are defending. These values are absolute. When issues related to the use of force are solved outside the UN and the UN Security Council, the danger arises that such illegitimate decisions could be made against anyone under any pretext…..”
Putin went on in the interview to discuss how precisely such a pretext was used to justify the attack Iraq.
As I have said previously (see my previous comment https://mercouris.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/russia-and-syria/) given how often Putin and Medvedev and Lavrov have explained Russia’s stance in the Syrian crisis, it really is astonishing that so many people including it seems from recent news reports Prince Bandar and the Saudis still refuse or are unable to understand it.
Lastly, Putin also confirmed what I and others (see my previous comment https://mercouris.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/syria-an-illegal-attack-intended-to-prevent-a-un-investigation/) have been saying all along, that the proper way forward is for there to be a full investigation of the incident on 21st August 2013 near Damascus by the UN investigators who can then provide details of their findings to the Security Council, which will then decide what to do. As Putin made clear the interview and as should by now be obvious, “intelligence assessments” based on secret and unexplained methodologies, which contain no evidence but which are built almost wholly on inference, are no substitute for a proper impartial and independent investigation carried out by trained and professional investigators on the spot.
Putin’s specific words were as follows:
“Putin: We will be convinced by a deep and specific probe containing evidence that would be obvious and prove clearly what means were used by whom. After that, we will be ready to take the most resolute and serious action”.
Elsewhere in the interview he made it clear that he expected this investigation to be carried out by the UN inspectors currently working in the country.
Russia and China have now both called for such an investigation. The point has often been made that the UN inspectors at present are merely authorised to establish whether chemical weapons have been used, not who used them. Earlier comments by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have confirmed that those responsible for limiting the remit of the UN investigators in this way are not the Russians and the Chinese but the western powers. From Putin’s latest comments it is now absolutely clear that those who are preventing an impartial and independent investigation from taking place to ascertain what really happened and who was responsible are not Russia and China or indeed the government of Syria but the three western powers on the UN Security Council: the US, Britain and France. If the western powers really want to find out what happened near Damascus on 21st August 2013 and to find out who was responsible, they would authorise the impartial and independent UN investigation to which Russia and China both agree and which is therefore on offer. It is extremely worrying to say the least that they do not. In the meantime it is essential to say that the reason such an independent investigation of the incident is not happening is not because of Russian “obstruction” or Russian or Syrian “intransigence” or because the UN Security Council is “paralysed” but because the western powers don’t want it. It is unfortunately also clear that the reason they want to attack Syria instead is not because they want to “punish” Syria for its use of chemical weapons but because they do not want an impartial and independent investigation of the incident on 21st August 2013 to take place and are using military action or the threat of military action to prevent it from taking place and so that they can instead impose on everyone else their own version of what happened.
Lastly I am sorry to say that this interview serves as a further example of poor news management or even news manipulation.
The full text of Putin’s interview was briefly available in an easily accessible form on the Associated Press’s website, which is how I was able to make the above notes. After a short time it appears to have been deleted. I have made many efforts to find it but cannot do so, which is why I cannot provide a link to it.
In place of the actual text of the interview, Associated Press now provides “summaries” of the interview, which report the interview in accordance with Associated Press’s own assumptions. It is these “summaries” rather than the interview itself, which are now being used by the rest of the media for their reports of the interview. These reports in turn add a further layer of interpretation to what Putin said. The result is that we get further and further away from what Putin actually said. This in turn leads to the absurd situation we saw this morning of the British government “welcoming” signs that Putin’s “support for Assad” is “weakening” and that Russia “may be willing” to “support military action via the Security Council”, when none of this in fact is true.
An accurate summary of Putin’s words would be as follows:
(1) the perpetrators of the incident near Damascus and the very nature of the incident are unknown. The incident should be thoroughly and impartially investigated by the UN inspectors to determine the truth. The various “intelligence assessments” published by the governments of the US, Britain and France are evidentially worthless since they are built on inference and do not provide the evidence on which they are based;
(2) no action should be taken before the investigation is completed and the investigators have reported their findings and conclusions to the UN Security Council. The only body authorised to act on the basis of those findings and conclusions is the UN Security Council;
(3) any action taken in the absence of authorisation by the UN Security Council is illegal and constitutes “aggression” and would therefore be a war crime and a Crime against Peace;
(4) in the event of such “aggression” Russia will act in accordance with its international duties and obligations and its security interests. This may include stepping up arms supplies and conceivably other support to Syria to enable Syria to defend itself.
Postscript: Thanks to the efforts of Mark Chapman and the person I know as Peter I can now provide a link to the complete transcript of Putin’s interview with Associated Press.
Apparently the transcript was shifted to a section of Associated Press’s website marked “Big Story”. I have been struggling today with internet connection problems, which have included accessing websites, and this may be why I struggled to find the transcript.