Nobody, not even his missus, will mistake Vladimir Putin for a humanitarian. He doesn’t want the not-so-huddled masses from Syria, and his deployment of the Russian army to Damascus is hardly out of concern for the human suffering from a brutal four-year civil war. But he may in the long run be seen as the man who ended the mass migration of shell-shocked Syrians. While President Obama has joined other European leaders to wring his hands and view with alarm, Mr. Putin’s reinforcement of Syrian President Bashar Assad could be the difference-maker, ending the strife and enabling desperate Syrians to stay put.
Mr. Putin concluded a chilly meeting with Mr. Obama over the Syrian crisis last month and immediately dispatched Russian fighter-bombers to action against the Islamic insurgents in Syria. He demonstrated determination, and not from behind, to fill the leadership vacuum that is the legacy of Mr. Obama’s refusal to act decisively in the Middle East. Mr. Putin spoke of no fictitious unacceptable “red lines.” His decisiveness will have lasting repercussions across Europe.
When the waves of refugees fled Syria, trying to get to safety in Europe, Russia stood apart from the Western powers, pointedly refusing to join any international scheme to harbor the migrants or even to lend humanitarian assistance. Mr. Putin blamed the West for inflaming regional turmoil, saying the crisis was “completely predictable.” His spokesman at the Kremlin said coldly that the cost of providing for the refugees “will fall on the countries linked to causing the catastrophic situation.”
The distance between Syria and Russia is less than a thousand miles — half the distance between Damascus and the German border. Yet the Kremlin has accepted only a handful of refugees, and only two of those have been granted asylum. The cold inhospitality is cruel, but Russia is particularly wary of taking in Muslims, having fought two wars with Muslim-majority Chechnya in the 1990s, and numerous bloody terrorist attacks from Islamists. When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said a fortnight ago that Russians acts in Syria were “tantamount … to pouring gasoline on the fire,” he nevertheless acknowledged “that they have experience with Islamist extremism, also. Sad and bitter experience. So, I can well understand.”
If demography is destiny, Russia is on course to confront a transforming cultural clash in the coming years. If comparative birthrates hold for Russian ethnics and the Muslims, the nation could be transformed into a Muslim-majority state by mid-century. Mr. Putin is obviously reluctant to add to the coming turmoil by sheltering more Muslims from Syria.
Fleeing for their lives to a strange and unwelcoming land with little more than the clothes they wear is something everyone in the region dreads. Mr. Putin sees the suffering Syrians with the compassion of the Russian bear. It’s one of the ironies of our time that he would be the man to bring the bloodshed in Syria to an end, motivated by coldly calculated national interest. That is something beyond the ken of America’s “peace president,” as he stands aside and clucks his tongue at the Russian assumption of the role he abandoned in the Middle East.