Not many years ago, a Russian President held a late-night meeting with his special representative and asked him to fly at once to meet with an Arab dictator – to give him a personal warning on an impending American attack. If the Arab autocrat would step down from his post as President voluntarily and allow democratic elections, the Russian President’s secret message went, he could stay on in his country and keep his party post. The dictator was Saddam, the date was February 2003, and the President’s envoy was Yevgeny Primakov.
And the President was Vladimir Putin. Maybe this little tale should be in Barack Obama’s file in St Petersburg. It was Primakov, who was former head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, a former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, who revealed the secret Putin initiative in his sadly neglected (in the West, at least) book, Russia and the Arabs, which contains many a cautionary tale for Arab leaders – and for arrogant Western ones – about Moscow’s dealings with the Middle East, not least Putin’s. The latter had instructed Primakov to give his warning directly and firstly only to Saddam, not to his Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz. Putin wanted the proposal to be put to Saddam “as dramatically as possible”. It might, the Russian President said, be Saddam’s last chance to avoid an American attack.
The Iraqi dictator came out with a stream of accusations against Russia: that it was trying to deceive him once again, just as it did when it told him that if he withdrew his troops from Kuwait in 1990 America would not attack Iraq. Primakov told him he waited too long to stage his withdrawal. Saddam did not say anything. He just patted Primakov on the shoulder as he left the room. Tariq Aziz called after him, loud enough for Saddam to hear: “Ten years from now, we’ll see who was right – our beloved President or Primakov.” Well, we know the answer to that one.
Now I suppose it is possible that Obama might like Putin to send his present Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, off to Damascus with a similar message for Bashar al-Assad. After all, Putin’s reason for telling Saddam he could stay in his party role was to avoid post-regime instability in Iraq. The problem in Syria is that the instability started in 2011 and has since turned into one of the region’s ugliest civil wars.
But Putin is not without his progressive side. It was he, after all, who talked of establishing uranium enrichment facilities on the soil of the recognised nuclear powers for nations which have nuclear facilities but don’t want nuclear weapons – this was one of Putin’s initiatives on the Iran crisis (which is partly what America’s proposed attack on Syria is all about).
There is another side to Putin. In Cairo, several Egyptian politicians call him al thaaleb – “the Fox” – and you can almost see Putin in the snow, bushy-tailed and tough-whiskered, his narrow, slightly frightening eyes darting from his narrow face. He has no truck with Muslim politicians he distrusts. He replaced one dictator in Chechnya with another nastier one and Russia had no hesitation in letting the ruthless Mohammed Najibullah take over in Afghanistan when its army left. Why did the West support rebels, he asked not long ago, that eat their enemies? He was referring to the frightful video of an Islamist fighter apparently eating the liver of an executed Syrian soldier.
But Putin has never been squeamish about using extreme violence himself. His army’s outrageous behaviour in Chechnya has been little different from Saddam’s in the suppression of Iraqi rebels in 1991 or the Syrian regime’s war on its own rebels. And didn’t the Russians, not so long ago, use their own form of gas to fight their way into a Moscow theatre when armed Chechen rebels took it over? If the Syrian regime used sarin gas last month – and Putin still says he has seen no convincing evidence – would that really worry the Russian President?
Oddly, the Western television networks have fallen into a rut over St Petersburg, asking if Obama can “narrow the gap” between himself and Putin. I’m not at all sure if Putin wants to narrow any such gap. He knows that the US President’s “red lines” and “options on the table” and all the other Obama-isms that are talking the Americans into yet another war against Arabs, have given him a powerful card. He knows that the Syrian war is about Iran. And he was perfectly able to entertain Iran’s awful former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Moscow. His slouching figure beside Obama at the Fermanagh summit told you a lot about his feelings for America’s Punisher-in-Chief. After all, that was the role he himself adopted in Chechnya.
And as he looks south from the Kremlin, he can see Chechnya on the horizon and – just 800 miles further away – Syria itself, where Assad is fighting rebel forces that include Chechens. He may certainly point out that Obama is planning to fight on the same side as al-Qa’ida – which is perfectly true. But is he really going to line up behind America’s latest crusade? I rather suspect – since he’s a self-taught expert on fighting Islamist “terror” – that he might let Obama sweat it out.
He’ll be asking, no doubt, what America’s permitted 60 days of “limited” attacks will achieve. And what happens when it’s over and Assad is still in Damascus and gas is used all over again?