That Awkward Time Putin Called for Military Intervention in the New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "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. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."

But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.

Today, Putin is much more concerned about the civilian toll of military action, and questions the use of force entirely. "No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect," he writes -- this time not as a reason for caution, but rather as a rationale for opposing intervention. Elsewhere in the world, he writes, "force has proved ineffective and pointless."

In 1999, Putin justified the "decisive armed intervention" in Chechnya as "the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists." "[W]hen a society's core interests are besieged by violent elements," he wrote, "responsible leaders must respond."

That's not unlike the case President Obama made on Tuesday. The use of chemical weapons in Syria demonstrated "why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits -- a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war," Obama said. In that speech, the president laid out his case that the enforcement of the international ban on chemical weapons is, to borrow Putin's words, one of society's core interests. "As the ban against these weapons erodes," Obama said Tuesday, "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians."

Putin claims in his editorial to be more interested in protecting the United Nations, where Russian obstinacy has consistently blocked Security Council proposals for sanctions. This week, the Russian delegation said it would veto a Security Council resolution to enforce the terms of a chemical weapons disarmament plan being worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. "No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," Putin writes today. As for what leverage the United Nations -- which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday had suffered a "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria" -- should apply to Syria, Putin did not address that in his editorial this morning.



How Does a Country Develop a 60 Percent Rape Rate?

The shocking findings of a study on sexual assault in Asia, published Tuesday in the Lancet Global Health journal, have been generating a lot of buzz, particularly the figures on Papua New Guinea, where 59 percent -- yes, more than a majority -- of men admitted to raping sexual partners.

The researchers involved in the study, which is part of a wider United Nations campaign to track and study sexual violence in the Asia-Pacific region, interviewed men aged 18 to 49 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. To control for some variation, the investigators used only male interviewers and did not use the word "rape" explicitly, asking instead if the subjects had "forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex." 

By any measure, the numbers are unsettling. Across the region, 10 percent of men said they had raped a non-partner, and almost one in four -- 24 percent -- admitted to raping a partner. But one of the most striking parts of the study -- the largest of its kind ever conducted -- is the variation in frequency of sexual assault across countries. Percentages of non-partner rape, for instance, jump from 5.4 percent in rural Bangladesh to 23 percent in Jayapura, Indonesia to a staggering 41 percent in Papua New Guinea. All of which raises a question: What could possibly account for such a huge disparity in cultural propensities toward rape?

It's an incredibly complex question to tackle -- and far from a new one. In the late 1970s, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday emerged as a pioneering scholar on the socio-cultural context of rape, taking on academics who studied the subject from an evolutionary and socio-biological perspective and found it to be, as a New York Times review put it, a "reproductive strategy for sexual losers."

Sanday dissected the cultural variables that made societies more or less prone to rape, arguing that ideologies of male toughness, traditions of violence, and a lack of female participation in politics were key factors in "rape-prone" societies.

Some of these variables appear to be at play in the Lancet study as well. Sanday, for instance, has observed traditions of "raiding other groups for wives" in the groups she studies; the Lancet study, similarly, hypothesizes that "the high prevalence of rape in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) and Jayapura (Indonesia) could be related to previous conflict in these settings."

Sanday's studies also find a correlation between low rates of female political participation and high rates of rape -- a link that is echoed by the Lancet study's findings. In the U.N. study, the country with the worst rape statistics by far was Papua New Guinea, which also happens to have the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of the countries studied, with female MPs making up a mere 2.7 percent of Parliament.

Sanday's scholarship has also focused on the variables that discourage sexual violence, and she claims to have found an almost rape-free society in the Minangkabau culture in West Sumatra -- a matrilineal society where women make many major decisions, including those relating to marriage (in stark contrast to traditions like arranged marriages and bride prices, which some scholars believe have contributed to gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea). In the Minangkabau culture, women also wield considerable control over land and home ownership, with men moving into their wives' homes after marriage. It's a fundamental reversal of the dynamics that academics have criticized in countries like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where women's reliance on men often often acts as a deterrent in reporting abuse and rape (which, in turn, only encourages gender-based violence).

Sanday has her fair share of critics, and her work on the societal factors behind rape is by no means exhaustive -- she doesn't discuss the role of laws and severe legal sentencing in the rates of sexual assault, for example. But the most distinctive characteristic of her scholarship -- and the root of most of the criticism directed at her -- is its focus on rape primarily as an expression of social forces. The U.N. effort to track sexual violence, which was partly initiated in response to the fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in 2012, is part of an international push to explore that same idea. And if the findings so far are any indication, the campaign could have a real impact on discussions of how to combat sexual violence worldwide.