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MOSCOW—For those who live outside Russia and the enormous bubble of admiration inflated around President Vladimir Putin, this story may be a bit hard to believe. But there is a movement afoot here, apparently in all sincerity, to nominate Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize.
From the outside, one must wonder how the dossier for the former KGB operative might be prepared. Would it include the peace of the grave imposed on civilians in the Second Chechen War early in Putin’s presidency? Or would it be for backing quasi states broken away from the Republic of Georgia? Or, more recently, for the forcible annexation of Crimea and the instigation of a separatist war in Ukraine that continues to this day?
Or perhaps he’d win for Syria, where Putin is a strong supporter of the Assad dictatorship that has killed hundreds of thousands of people while half of the nation’s population has been driven into internal or external exile. Would that be the venue for Putin the peacemaker to earn his Nobel laurels?
In fact, through the looking glass of Moscow’s media and Putin’s supporters, Ukraine and Syria are held up as prime examples of his eligibility for The Prize.
The general secretary of the Russian-Turkish Public Forum, Sergey Markov, who is close to the Kremlin, tells The Daily Beast that there is no better candidate for the prestigious award than Putin: “Most Russian state officials believe that President Putin deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the world from a nuclear war during the crisis in Ukraine in 2014—for holding back and not bringing Russian forces to Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, [Ukrainian] cities full of Russian people,” Markov said, adding, “Of course Putin should be given the prize for solving the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, which risked taking thousands of lives.”
Forget U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to claim credit for a ceasefire deal with Ankara, Putin’s supporters in Moscow believe that it was Putin alone who managed to find the solution and negotiate a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that prevented a Turkish-Kurdish bloodbath.
Whoever is responsible, the arrangement is essentially on Erdogan’s terms, opening the way for ethnic cleansing as Kurdish troops withdraw, Kurdish civilians flee, and Erdogan plans to move millions of Syrian Arabs, most of them from other parts of the country, into what Erdogan calls a “safe zone.”
Yet Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the influential independent radio station Echo of Moscow, tweeted last week as that deal came down: “They tell me at the top: ‘Now you understand, Putin deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.’” He said his high-level sources were telling him Putin’s Syria deal was like “the new Camp David Accord,” putting it on a par with the 1978 agreement brokered by President Jimmy Carter that ended generations of war between Israel and Egypt.
In truth, the Russian leader has been looking to win The Prize for years. Ever since Time magazine put Putin on the cover as Person of the Year in 2007, the Kremlin’s ideologues have believed that the West recognizes Putin as the world’s preeminent politician—and peacemaker—and no wars in Georgia, Ukraine or Syria could dissuade them.
Putin’s greatest accomplishment on that score probably came in 2013 when President Barack Obama was weighing the possibility of major military strikes on the Bashar al-Assad regime to retaliate for its use of chemical weapons, and Putin stepped in with a better—or at least more peaceful—plan. He persuaded Assad, first, to admit he had a chemical arsenal, which he had never done before. Then Assad agreed to U.N. inspections as he eliminated everything he admitted to having, and by all accounts the vast majority of those gruesome weapons were destroyed. At the time, that seemed like a major war averted, and therefore a pathway to peace.
So at the beginning of 2014 a Russian advocacy group called the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of People put Putin up for the prize.
Unfortunately for Putin’s aspirations, there’s quite a long delay between the nominations at the beginning of the year, and the awards at the end, and Putin was not exactly making peace in 2014. Reacting to a popular pro-European, largely anti-Russian uprising in Ukraine, he seized the Crimean Peninsula, annexed it to Russia, and poured support into separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. The death toll soon climbed into the thousands, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced. In July 2014 a Russian-supplied missile shot down a Malaysian Airliner en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board, all of whom died.
If anyone argued in 2014, as Markov suggests, that Putin should have gotten a peace prize for not staging a massive, direct invasion of Ukraine to take the large cities of Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk, the Nobel Committee in Norway clearly was not persuaded. It gave the 2014 prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."
Russia’s record in Syria has been equally bloody since it entered the fight directly to support Assad in 2015.
One recent example was a Russian-Syrian military strike on a center for hundreds of displaced people in the town of Haas in Idlib that killed 20 civilians in August. A Human Rights Watch investigation published in October qualified the attack as “an apparent war crime.”
Sara Kayyali who monitors the violations on the ground for HRW, tells The Daily Beast that “Russian strikes on protected humanitarian infrastructure” have been common in the areas where they operate, with “severely negative consequences.”
Now, says Kayyali, “Russia has brokered an agreement with Turkey around a so-called ‘safe zone,’ but as history has proved again and again, safe zones are rarely safe.”
President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov gloated last week, saying, "The United States was the closest ally of the Kurds during the last few years, and in the end the U.S. ditched the Kurds and effectively betrayed them." By arranging for the withdrawal of the fighters, Peskov suggested, Russia is at least saving their lives.
The United States looks foolish and treacherous, to be sure. But some analysts suggest Russia’s schadenfreude is premature.
David Aaron Miller at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that among some in Washington, “Animosity toward Trump and Putin—richly deserved—is clouding the analysis on Syria and triggering overreaction about Russia’s gains.”
As Miller points out, “Russia has been the dominant external power in Syria since at least the 1970s. And the U.S. withdrawal has no doubt consolidated that and elevated Russia’s role in the region. But we shouldn’t overestimate Moscow’s gains. They now preside over a broken country that will take years and billions to heal. They are shackled with a pariah regime—both entitled and dependent—that will continue to alienate the majority of the Sunni population; they face a resurgent ISIS and are now shackled with responsibility for managing both the Turkish-Syrian-Kurdish triangle and a potential Israeli-Iranian conflict.”
“The idea of giving Putin a Nobel Peace Prize sounds ridiculous after years of this dirty war in Syria, the Russian military violating international law, using banned weapons, bombing hospitals and clinics,” Tania Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch Moscow, told The Daily Beast.
But still the dream lives on, revived by the agreement moving the Kurds out of the region near the Turkish border. Last week the Russian news agency riafan.ru headlined: “Foreigners propose to award Putin with a Nobel Prize for peace in Syria.”
The deadline for Nobel nominations is January 31. One can only guess at the peace initiatives Putin will carry out between now and then.