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Anatoly Adamishin

Honorary President of the Non-Governmental Organization "Association of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation", Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC member

The situation around Syria, in which Russia is now playing a particularly active role, makes one wonder, again and again, whether diplomacy can, in fact, be effective these days. I used to tell younger diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry what Lenin said (the parts that were worth quoting) that not more than 5 percent of the outcome of any foreign policy action depends on diplomats. The rest hangs on the balance of power. The bolder among them would respond: Is it worth the effort at 5 percent?

Developments over Syria and the effectiveness of diplomacy as a means of resolving a conflict situation reviewed by Anatoly Adamishin, president emeritus of the non-governmental Association of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia, and RIAC member.

The situation around Syria, in which Russia is now playing a particularly active role, makes one wonder, again and again, whether diplomacy can, in fact, be effective these days. I used to tell younger diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry what Lenin said (the parts that were worth quoting) that not more than 5 percent of the outcome of any foreign policy action depends on diplomats. The rest hangs on the balance of power. The bolder among them would respond: Is it worth the effort at 5 percent?

I would tell them then that, not infrequently, a conflict situation could be teetering, balanced 50:50, and that, in those circumstances, this proverbial 5 percent could be decisive. The key thing here is to try to balance the situation in such a way that diplomacy can have the greatest effect, and not to miss the moment and select the right moment to enter the fray. That’s what Russia tries to do. The first goal is to avoid the worst scenario, after that to try to find a political decition. That is why, without this 5 percent, overall success is unattainable. Done badly, the same percentage could thwart even a victorious war, and this is something that has, unfortunately, already happened in Russian history. Protecting the interests of an underdog requires particular skill. It is no accident that the best professionals in international law come from militarily lesser countries.

The key thing here is to try to balance the situation in such a way that diplomacy can have the greatest effect, and not to miss the moment and select the right moment to enter the fray. That’s what Russia tries to do.

From time immemorial, resolving international crises has been one of the principal missions of international diplomacy. These days, crises happen less often because as a result of conflicts between countries. Rather, they explode within a country. This kind of situation has rarely been handled by classic diplomacy. But today, we can hardly afford ourselves this luxury, particularly when an internal conflict ceases to be internal, which is what commonly happens.

Photo: Anatoly Adamishin

How should one proceed? The difficulties continue to accumulate as ever more actors start perceiving the conflict as touching upon their most vital interests.

Theoretically, diplomacy can proceed with three options: preventing a conflict, imposing a political solution on warring factions, and settling the conflict peacefully through negotiations.

The first option is that of preventive diplomacy, and it is no longer an option for Syria.

For decades, the so called international community has been calmly eyeing the despotic regimes in the Middle East, aware of the grapes of wrath maturing, but has not stirred a finger to prevent conflict. This shows their real “concern” for democracy. They only started to come to their senses with the advent of the “Arab spring.”

A brilliant example of preventive diplomacy was provided by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” which, if not removed altogether, has significantly reduced the probability of the most lethal, nuclear conflict. Certainly nobody wanted an apocalypse, but anything could happen in a situation of tension and hostility. The end of the global confrontation changed it all, and the United States and the USSR ceased to be sworn enemies. It is regrettable that in Russia and the US there are leaders who from time to time start nudging things back, falling back into old ways.

The alternative approach – bombing – is a very dangerous option.

A brilliant example of preventive diplomacy was provided by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” which, if not removed altogether, has significantly reduced the probability of the most lethal, nuclear conflict.

There is no way that, using force, you can continue to be unbiased, unless of course you bomb both sides. As a result, one side (the ‘good guys’) is chosen to receive political, military and diplomatic assistance to ensure its victory over the “bad guys.” However, in internecine and civil wars there are, as a rule, no good or bad guys, and responsibility is equally shared by all, although this fact is largely ignored because of the larger states’ current interests of principle powers.

Western nations proved this most graphically in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. The peace imposed by the Americans can be described as shameful. Serbia is still recovering from the ruthless NATO bombings, while Bosnia, which I visited recently, remains troubled, as does Kosovo. Our own relations with the United States and other NATO countries were also fundamentally affected.

If the Americans said that they would strike, sooner or later they will deliver, if only to soothe those who bemoan America’s dwindling influence over world affairs.

The United States would like to reproduce a similar approach in Syria today: air strikes, completely safe for them and supported on the ground – “where no American soldiers will set foot” – by opposition guerillas doing all the dirty work. I do not believe that the “punishment” for chemical weapons would have been limited to brief surgical strikes. It simply does not make sense: There would have been the same indignation and protests, whereas next to no support would have been provided to the other side. But I do not think that this adventure, brought to a swift halt by their own allies and congressmen, has been entirely wiped from the agenda. If the Americans said that they would strike, sooner or later they will deliver, if only to soothe those who bemoan America’s dwindling influence over world affairs. I would gladly be proved wrong on this, though.

Is this an impasse? I am afraid that it is.

The third option – peaceful negotiation without forceful compulsion – is rather problematic.

The sides start thinking seriously about peace only when they reach a military equilibrium.

I know from our experience with conflict resolution in Southwest Africa, in Tajikistan, and other post-Soviet countries, that the sides start thinking seriously about peace only when they reach a military equilibrium (do not forget that 5 percent!), when neither side can get the upper hand or when victory comes at too high a price. This is not the case now in Syria, and it will not be the case for a long time, unless there is a decisive, external, military intervention. I also factor in certain considerations, which appear rather accurate, offered by some experts who claim that this is, in fact, a religious war. This explains the support that Bashar Assad is getting from Iran, and his opposition from Saudi Arabia. Christianity faced something similar a few centuries ago when a sectarian war in Germany lasted for decades and was particularly cruel. The reason was quite simple, as the war was whipped up from outside by England and France. Thankfully, not Russia!

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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