Shortly after the world found out about the massacre in Houla, Syria, in which more than a hundred civilians, including dozens of children, were killed, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met in Moscow with his British counterpart, William Hague. At the press conference afterward, the two spoke of a “constructive” meeting, but everything about the event indicated otherwise. According to reporters there, the atmosphere was tense, and Lavrov, the tanned and smarmy face of Russian diplomacy, was in fine form. He spoke, on one hand, of avoiding “all-out civil war and collapse” in Syria, but he also talked of shadowy foreign (read: American) interference. He also dropped some characteristically colorful quotes: “It takes two to dance—though this seems less like a tango and more like a disco where several dozens are taking part.”
More than anything, though, Lavrov insisted on towing the Syrian government line, suggesting that who had killed all those women and children was far from clear, since some died by artillery—which only the Syrian government has—and others execution-style. Who could have done that? “We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent citizens,” Lavrov said, contradicting the accounts of witnesses who blamed government forces and paramilitaries. He added, “Guilt must be decided objectively.”
Insisting on “objectivity” has become a favorite Kremlin weapon against outside criticism. Blaming the West, pointing out its flaws (the famous tactic known as “whataboutism”), searching for elaborate cabals behind even the fairly obvious—all of these are tried-and-true tactics, but, in recent years, “objectivity” has joined them. Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed English-language news channel, for example, operates under the slogan “Question more.” It is an admirable motto for any news organization, but in this case it is a bit like Fox’s claim of being “fair and balanced.” Consider an infamous advertising campaign that RT ran in the U.S. and England, in 2009, superimposing symbols that were seemingly diametrically opposed to each other, and then asking a rhetorical question that equated them. One blurred together the faces of Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?”
It’s a clever device, substituting counteritutiveness for objectivity, and it’s something one encounters a lot in conversations in Russia, a hairy land of slippery facts where Occam’s Razor doesn’t stand a chance. What happens if you turn X upside-down, and discover it’s actually a Q? The problem, of course, is that Q may not really be the answer, and that you end up in a small epistemological hell. But it certainly makes for good rhetorical theatre.
More often than not, however, it’s used, especially in the hands of Kremlin officials and the state press, as Russia’s answer to Western moralizing. When an international crisis strikes, leaning on “objectivity” allows Russia to present itself as the parent in a room of screaming, disoriented children. In fairness, Russia has had some wins; the Russian government appealed to objectivity of evidence in the runup to the Iraq War, and they were right: perhaps the Americans should have paused and taken a couple of deep breaths. “I like being counterintuitive,” Russia Today host Peter Lavelle told me a couple years ago. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”
For the sake of objectivity, however, we can’t lose sight of the fact none of this is being done for the sake of objectivity. One of the favorite refrains of Russia Today and other Kremlin apologists is that journalists, as fallible human beings, cannot be truly objective, and that objectivity itself is an artificial construct. (How’s that for objectivity?)
This posture is a defense tactic, the Kremlin’s way of adapting to a new post-Cold War geopolitical reality. “Whataboutism” was a popular tactic even back in Soviet days, for example, but objectivity wasn’t. It’s new. Why? Because “there was no pretense of cooperation,” Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says. “We were usually fighting each other in these proxy wars, in Nicaragua, for example. Before, it was a struggle of good and evil, whereas now it’s become a very nebulous thing. It’s no longer a cold war because we don’t have clear ideological markers that separate us”—both countries are, on paper, free-market democracies—“but we”—the Russians—“think that you’re using human rights to achieve your own geopolitical aims.” And so we appeal to objectivity, if there even is such a thing.
And so, when it comes to Syria, much as when it came to Libya, the answer is, Let’s all calm down and recognize that there are no saints here—and therefore no villains. “We need to choose—if the priority is to stop the violence, as everyone says, then we need to pressure the regime and the opposition and get them to stop shooting at each other and sit down at the negotiating table,” Lavrov said on Monday.
But this is a stalling technique, and stalling in such times can be quite dangerous. “The longer the Russians insist on waiting, the more likely it is that the Syrian opposition becomes the very radicals the Russians are warning against,” one Western diplomat told me this winter, a sentiment echoed in today’s statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Pointing to its notion of objectivity, Russia has stuck firmly to the Annan plan, which calls for observers and negotiations, for government troops to pull back, and for rebels to lay down their arms. But it has clearly become moot if—it was ever really workable. “It’s a very convenient position,” Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of International Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Science, says.
And what, objectively, is Russia’s interest here? According to Mirsky, the issue isn’t the Russian Navy port at Tartus, or even the arms sales to Assad—which, by the way, have not stopped—or even Russian Orthodox support of Syrian Christians. The issue is an appearance of strength and independence. “If Putin shows weakness on Syria, it will look like what happened with Libya,” Mirsky says, referring to last spring, when the Russians abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing intervention, rather than vetoing it. “And what it looked like at home was that [then President Dmitry] Medvedev surrendered Qaddafi. The Russian people didn’t know who or what Qaddafi was, but as soon as the American bombing started, given the anti-Americanism that exists in our country, Qaddafi became our man. And Medvedev surrendered him to the West.”
Putin, Mirsky argues, doesn’t need this. The current stance allows Russia to project an image of real concern for everyone’s human rights and safety, but if things—the Annan plan, the Assad regime—fall apart, objectivity becomes convenient in that it also absolves the Russians of any responsibility. The Annan plan didn’t work out? Too bad, that. Assad was toppled by an armed uprising? Well, we tried. For Putin, Mirsky says, “it’s better for Assad to hold on to the end, even if he loses. Because at least it will be clear that our government doesn’t follow the Western marching orders, that we are a sovereign superpower whose opinion is listened to, that Putin won’t follow American commands to follow the policies that America needs.” Meanwhile, objectively, the killing continues.
Russia’s Syrian Excuse [TNY]