Sergey Ivanov: About Saddam Hussein, refined liberals, the law of the jungle, foreign policy ambitions and lessons of history
- The world learned that Russia was about to go to war against the Islamic State in Syria when you presented the president's request for permission to use the armed forces outside the national territory to the Federation Council (upper house of parliament). You were the one who broke the news, so will you please tell us: 'Why now?'
- Let's begin at the beginning. Memories are still green of how our US partners and colleagues in the late 2000s were explaining to me in great detail how very important it was to bring democracy to the Middle East. Now they've brought it there… For the whole world to see the results.
The operation Enduring Freedom lasted in Afghanistan for thirteen years. The United States launched it in response to 9/11. It was the longest war the United States had ever fought. Its ultimate goal - victory over the Taliban - remained unachievable.
As long as Saddam stayed in power, no one ever had the slightest idea some kind of terrorist groups might crop up in the territory of Iraq
I don't think I'll have to explain to anybody what the Americans have plunged Iraq into more than a decade of chaos and lawlessness. One should remember that Saddam Hussein hated Al Qaeda and all other terrorists. Take it from me. True, while fighting against them he employed methods one can hardly call democratic. He was sending them to the gallows and he had them shot without inquest of trial. That was his way of settling scores with opponents. As long as Saddam stayed in power, no one ever had the slightest idea some kind of terrorist groups might crop up in the territory of Iraq. But then Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows himself. With all the ensuing consequences.
Next, to Libya. The country has now been turned into another Somalia. This says it all. The goal of North Africa's and the Middle East's conversion to democracy was again offered as the underlying motif
Or take Egypt. Now it is somewhat outside the spotlight of public attention. Some other trouble spots are far hotter. But just recently, in 2012 the CNN was telecasting hours-long bombastic reports about waking popular masses in Cairo, and at times it came pretty close to presenting the Muslim Brotherhood as refined liberals and democrats… To cut a long story short: but for the courage and far-sightedness of the then Egyptian defense minister, General El-Sisi, the country these days would have been looking very much like Libya. In that situation there might've followed a merciless free-for-all. Mind you, Egypt is the most densely populated country of the Middle East with a population of more than 80 million. It was fortunate history turned it another way…
Now, we have Syria…
- I'm not sure about the 'now' part. The civil war there erupted back in 2011.
- Correct. The conflict there has lasted for several years now. A large territory of the country is under the control of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. It's a hard fact! All of us have been witnesses to how very successful the international coalition has been in its more than twelve-month-long military campaign against the IS.
- Are you being ironic?
The way I see it, the world is at a turning point in international relations. On the one hand, there are the universally recognized institutions, like the UN Security Council. But for them all of us would've had a really hard time these days. And on the other, there are individual countries which position themselves as benchmarks of democracy and offhandedly defy international law. There is no written law they may agree to recognize. In fact, the sole rule they agree with is: "Might makes right." And that is a real menace. After all, the place where we all live is not the jungle, and nobody should feel free to ruin the established world order.
In a sense, Syria is a litmus test. I won't be retelling now what exactly President Putin told the UN General Assembly session, or review in detail the background of his request to the Federation Council for permission to use our armed forces to help the government in Damascus. I will just say once again that Russia in this particular case is pursuing no foreign policy ambitions whatsoever. It is crystal-clear that military means alone will never bring about a settlement in Syria. In the final count a political solution will have to begin to be looked for. A future solution will be complex and hard to achieve, but Syria as such is a no simple country. By the way, originally, the idea of an intra-Syrian alliance in the struggle against the Islamic State was not ours: it came from the French President, Francois Hollande. He speculated that the government troops under Bashar Assad and the so-called Free Syrian Army might present a common front. Of course, if the latter does exist in reality, and is not a virtual brainchild of some armchair pundits in the West. Any sensible opposition can be negotiated with and compromises are to be mutual - that's pretty clear.
In the meantime, while this is still a matter of distant future, I would mention one more argument why Russia had to intervene in the Syrian conflict. As you may have heard, there are thousands of Russia or CIS-born people fighting for the Islamic State. So will you advise us to just watch and wait for them to be trained there and then get back home?
Many are still not in the mood of saying certain things aloud. They just don't dare state them outright. But I will… Crowds of refugees from the Middle East are now heading for countries in southern Europe, hoping to cross it to Western Europe. How can one be sure that among the migrants there are no "sleepers" - sleeping agents or undercover terrorists who are on the way to the Old World for the purpose of settling down inconspicuously somehow and waiting for the D-day to come? And on that D-day they will emerge in the forefront again to play the very well familiar role. For instance, of a suicide bomber who is prepared to give up one's life for faith and take as many other human lives as possible? I wouldn't like to utter gloom prophecies, but I personally have no doubts it will happen this way. I am dead certain!
- But aren't we provoking these radicals by getting involved in this war? Didn't the just-prevented terrorist attack in Moscow ring the first alarm bell?
- We will do our utmost to ensure that nobody ever comes to Russia from the Islamic State, that all of them remain in Syrian soil.
- But you haven't answered the question what was the reason for us to join the fight at this particular moment.
- The situation has turned intolerant.
- Some western media have been quoting anonymous sources - traditionally anonymous, I should say - in the Kremlin that President Putin was talked into beginning an air operation in Syria by a trio of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and you. Was that really so?
- I believe I should thank you first for mentioning me in such a good company… I am being ironic again, don't you see, so will you please forgive this habit of mine. Making serious comments regarding such "leaks" is always very hard. But if we are to stay neutral and discuss only the hard facts, I will say this: the mentioned "anonymous sources" got it all wrong. How it all happened was very different.
- So, how did it all happen? Conspiracy theory fans are claiming that Syria is just a decoy operation, launched to switch attention from the east of Ukraine to the Middle East, to push Donbas into the background.
- It's absurd to refute plain gossip. I've already explained why we found it right and appropriate to respond to the request from Syria's legitimate leadership for help in fighting against terrorists of all sorts. What attempts to switch attention are you talking about? Look here, it was not us who staged the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev, right? I am ready to discuss the theme of Ukraine in greater detail, if you wish. Just as our efforts to get out of the so-called isolation no matter what. I love history and I do know that Russia has always been looked at as a threat and with great suspicion, to put it mildly. That was so when Russia was an empire and ruled by tsars, it was so throughout the Soviet years, and we still see the same today. Alexander Solzhenytsin said perfectly well that from time immemorial the West had felt scared of Russia's enormity. Enormity, mind you! We saw sanctions taken against us back during the rule of the Romanov dynasty. There's nothing new about them. Trade barriers were put up and financial obstructions posed again and again… Those measures were far harsher than the current ones. But we managed. We didn't get scared in the past, and we will stay firm this time. The West grossly exaggerates the influence of the latest sanctions on the Russian economy. True, they do pose certain hindrances to us, it would be foolish to deny the obvious, but I will say again and again that in the past we lived through far greater problems.
Attempts to punish Russia are senseless and ineffective. Take the expulsion from the G8. Some must've thought we would get very much upset. But the G8 is certainly not the place where we would like to get back. Honestly! In the 1990s Russia spent much time and effort for the sake of being admitted to this club of select few; it eventually got there only to see for itself that the G8 was no longer capable of addressing any of the fundamental issues humanity was confronted with at the current stage. True, it is possible to get together to talk about the western attitude (western, mind you) to this or that issue, but the world today is very different. The G20 - that's the worthy level. It is there that truly important themes are being discussed and solution mechanisms can be devised. Here is a Syria-related example. The need for eliminating the arsenals of chemical weapons in that country was agreed on within the G20 format, and not the G8 or G7 group. So there no regrets about the demise of the G8, believe me.
As for the procedure employed to make the decision to dispatch a Russian air group (which in the past would've possibly been called a limited troop contingent) to the base near Latakia, there was no haste or anything spontaneous. All steps had been considered well beforehand and agreed with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. It is common knowledge that the combat aircraft and some special units of the Russian armed forces had been dispatched to Syria well in advance…
- Although we kept denying everything at first.
- We didn't. We neither confirmed nor denied the reports. We merely refrained from comment. That's standard international practice. And quite legitimate, by the way. But let's be realistic: everybody understands that the redeployment of several dozen planes cannot be kept secret. Everything can be seen well from space.
The final discussion on the operation in Syria, with senior military officials taking part, was held at a meeting of Russia's Security Council late in the evening on September 29. We considered all the pros and cons, all strengths and weaknesses once again. The presidential request to the Federation Council followed only after that. I brought the text to the FC building in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street early the next morning…
- The Americans have already predicted the losses the Russians will soon sustain in Syria. It's clear that there can be no war without losses, but how large is the risk of such developments? What do you think?
- As I've said, we gauged all likely risks. Our troops will not be involved in clashes on the ground. We declared that from the outset and in very clear terms. The air base from where our planes fly combat missions is inside an area under the full control of Syrian government forces. There is a certain level of protection, and a very serious one. Apart from the air pilots and the maintenance personnel based in Latakia there is a small commando unit responsible for guarding the airbase. That's a natural precaution and any other country would've taken it. So I wouldn't say there is a serious risk of an attack against the Russian air group in Syria. Theoretically everything is possible, but all precautions have been taken.
As for what has been said about the expected losses, we'd prefer to be more tactful and to avoid counting the US Marines who've already lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.