Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Op-ed page of the New York Times last week to directly address the American people and challenge President Obama and today Sen. John McCain struck back. A Russian website published a blunt editorial by McCain informing that country that their leader is corrupt, repressive and violent.
McCain used the forum, Pravda.ru, to deliver a scathing critique of the Russian leader’s foreign policy and blasting him for human rights abuses, cronyism and election-rigging.
While Putin used the New York Times Op-ed to portray the Obama administration as warmongers and himself as a peacemaker in Syria, McCain was having none of it. The Arizona senator said Putin was “supporting a Syrian regime that is murdering tens of thousands of its own people to remain in power and by blocking the United Nations from even condemning its atrocities.”
“He is not enhancing Russia’s global reputation. He is destroying it,” McCain wrote. “He has made her a friend to tyrants and an enemy to the oppressed, and untrusted by nations that seek to build a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world.”
The timing of the McCain piece may not be helpful to Obama, as he is struggling to work with the Russians to curtail Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Putin published his essay in the Times on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, positioning himself as the great negotiator, saving innocent lives in Syria by heading off an American military attack pushed by Obama.
Putin openly countered the narrative Obama established in his speech to the nation on Tuesday night and appealed directly to the American people by raising the specter of increased resentment and terroristic incursions against the U.S. if Obama hits Syria. Indeed, in a flourish of extreme hyperbole, Putin said an American strike could upset the balance of the entire globe.
“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders,” Putin wrote. “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Putin challenged the points Obama made in his speech when he said Syria had to be punished for a chemical weapons attack on its people, killing more than 1,400.
“The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk,” Obama told the American people. “On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.”
“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
But Putin had a different take.
“I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Putin made a direct appeal to the fears of the American public—and a direct challenge to Obama in his attempt to sway the public.
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it,” Putin wrote. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’ But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.”
In his Pravda piece, McCain focused on the human rights record of Putin’s government. He pointed out he had been invited by the editor of Pravda.ru to write an editorial because he is “an active anti-Russian politician.”
“I am pro-Russian, more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today,” he wrote. “I make that claim because I respect your dignity and your right to self-determination. I believe you should live according to the dictates of your conscience, not your government. I believe you deserve the opportunity to improve your lives in an economy that is built to last and benefits the many, not just the powerful few.”
In response to the McCain editorial, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said his boss would read the article but would not be responding.
“We will definitely read it,” Peskov told Russian media. “McCain is well-known for not being a fan of Putin. It’s unlikely we will enter a polemic, as this is the view of a person who lives across the ocean. As for what Russians deserve, they can answer this question for themselves and do so when there are elections.”
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, went on Twitter to mock McCain for publishing his piece on Pravda.ru, which he implied doesn’t have any readers—although it is known to Americans because its newspaper was the former mouthpiece of the Soviet rulers.
“McCain rebutting Putin via Pravda? He is really stuck in 1980s,” Trenin wrote. “I only realized that Pravda still existed when they accepted McCain’s offer.”
But though he wanted to mock McCain, the piece is being reported on by every major publication in the free world—meaning Putin and probably billions of others will surely read the senator’s words.