America has long anchored its foreign policy in moral terms, usually to protect people in harm’s way or to promote universal rights. “We are the force for progress, prosperity, and peace,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton as she left the State Department in February.
That’s far from the approach of Russia under Vladimir Putin. His decision this week to send sophisticated S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Syria’s embattled regime shows a moral indifference to human suffering and popular demands for democracy. The surface-to-air missiles not only prop up the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad against the majority of Syrians who seek freedom, their 125-mile range also puts Israel’s civilian aircraft at risk.
Mr. Putin’s foreign policy consists mainly of seeking practical interests for Russia. The S-300s will prevent “some hotheads” (namely, the West) from setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, as one Russian official put it. They will help maintain access for the Russian Navy to the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean.
Most of all, if the Assad regime survives, that will help Iran in its desire for influence in the region and keep the United States tied down in solving Middle East problems. The US will then be less focused on Russia and its growing dictatorship and meddling with its neighbors.
These kinds of amoral geopolitical moves by Putin come out of Russia’s historical feelings of vulnerability as a large and exposed landmass. China, too, feels encircled by US forces in Asia. It has supported Moscow’s policy toward Syria as one way to prevent the US from focusing more on China and its aggressive attempt to usurp American influence in Asia.
Putin also knows that President Obama and the US public have little appetite for military intervention in Syria, despite any American outrage over a war that has taken more than 80,000 civilian lives and forced 1.5 million to flee. Only Britain and France show a strong interest in sending arms to anti-Assad rebels.
The Russian decision to send the missiles could end up being merely symbolic. Israeli war jets will likely take them out before they become operational. Twice this year, Israel destroyed lesser-quality missiles in Syria as they were shipped from Iran to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. And deployment of the S-300 missiles could take up to a year.
Putin could be seeking only a temporary diplomatic advantage in the run-up to talks being planned in Geneva aimed at a negotiated settlement for Syria. Nonetheless, his decision sets up a stark contrast between a moral approach toward ending Syria’s slaughter and the kind of amoral posturing by Russia for its basic interests.
With the US now inclined to focus more on building up its economy, Russia and others see the US legacy of acting on humanitarian or idealist grounds as in decline – despite the 2011 military intervention in Libya. In the global maneuvering of big powers, “weakness is provocative,” as former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once warned.
The US need not militarily intervene in Syria. But it cannot afford to create the impression of moral indifference toward the mass killing of Syrians. Indifference invites meddling by other powers. At the very least, the US must somehow convince Putin not to send the S-300 missiles. Then it must step up its diplomatic and economic pressure on Damascus