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For Putin, Principle vs. Practicality on Syria

Vladimir Putin speaks with his hand on the Constitution during his inauguration ceremony as new Russia's president in Moscow Monday, May 7, 2012. Putin has been sworn in as Russia's president for a third term after four years as prime minister. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press Service)
Vladimir Putin speaks with his hand on the Constitution during his inauguration ceremony as new Russia's president in Moscow Monday, May 7, 2012. Putin has been sworn in as Russia's president for a third term after four years as prime minister. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press S

By ELLEN BARRY (NY Times): MOSCOW — For months now, Western policy makers have been racking their brains to figure out what strategic interests have made Russia so intent on supporting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad — a leader who, facing a popular uprising, seemed to be on his way out anyway.
It is an understandable question, but perhaps the wrong one. Decisions are flowing from President Vladimir V. Putin, whose career has left him overwhelmingly wary both of revolutions and of Western intervention.

This is a man who, during the death throes of the Communist system, personally defended the K.G.B.’s headquarters in Dresden against an angry crowd of Germans. And Mr. Putin’s already suspicious view of street politics only deepened with the “colored revolutions” of the mid-2000s, in which pro-Western protests, some supported by the United States, ousted a series of Moscow-friendly leaders.

Since the recent Arab uprisings began, Russian leaders have viewed them through this lens — as a product not of social change but of interference by the West, intended in part to damage Russia.

Mr. Putin takes little interest in the nitty-gritty of foreign policy, but this notion touches him personally. He memorably blew up in April 2011, when NATO warplanes were attacking Libya against Russia’s protestations, delivering a speech that scoffed at the notion that Western intervention aimed to advance democracy.

“Look at the map of this region, there are monarchies all around,” he said during a visit to Denmark. “What do you think they are — Danish-style democracies? No. There are monarchies everywhere, and this basically corresponds with the mentality of the people, as well as longstanding practice.”

“Libya, by the way, has the largest oil and the fourth-largest gas reserves in Africa,” he added. “This immediately presents the question: isn’t this the basis for the interests of those now messing around there?”

From the first, Russia’s Middle East experts, most of them Soviet-trained, have been suspicious of the notion that street politics had the power to change governments.

In February 2011, when crowds of more than a million were thronging Tahrir Square, a Russian deputy foreign minister visited Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. He delivered the soothing message that Egypt’s domestic crisis should be settled through dialogue, and affirmed Russia’s firm stance against foreign intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs. As it turned out, it was Mr. Mubarak’s last meeting with a foreign envoy — he stepped down two days later.

It is impossible to fully disentangle these reactions from what has been going on inside Russia over the last year, as a decade-long contract between Mr. Putin and his citizens began to fray.

Though there is little comparison on the ground between the Arab uprisings and Russia’s unrest — the Russian opposition movement remains small, Moscow-centered and moderate in its tactics — the sudden change has left the government wary of legitimizing any popular dissent. State-controlled media paints a bleak picture of Arab countries that have seen uprisings, and Russian diplomats have approached new authorities in the Arab world slowly and awkwardly.

Meanwhile, Russian leaders fear that rising Islamism in the Arab world will breathe new life into the armed insurgency in the northern Caucasus, which is mostly Sunni.

In short, Syria has provided Russia with an opportunity to say no — to Western intervention and to the specter of revolution.

The argument has been framed as a matter of principle, making it difficult to dial back. Leonid Medvedko, who covered Syria for Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, said Russia could not publicly call for Mr. Assad to step down, because it would create “a very serious precedent for anyone who doesn’t like their government.”

“I don’t want to allow such ultimatums, because they could then be presented to any country,” said Mr. Medvedko, who is now a regional analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We cannot allow this precedent to be established. Now they don’t like Assad. Next they may not like someone in Lebanon. We’ve already seen how they didn’t like someone in Libya — we saw the fate of Qaddafi.”

Nevertheless, Russia is backing away from explicit support for Mr. Assad, albeit at a glacial pace. Last week, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said that to accommodate the factions in Syria “it is necessary to have a transitional period, this is obvious.”

Each incremental move is followed by demonstrations that Russia is standing firm: for instance, its refusal, last weekend in Geneva, to approve language suggesting that Mr. Assad could not be part of a transitional government. These tactics serve to draw out the diplomatic process for weeks or months — not such an inconvenience, perhaps, for Western governments that are themselves deeply conflicted about intervening.

As the body count rises, one of Moscow’s real concerns may be the hardening of Arab public opinion against Russia, said a senior Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with protocol. With the increasing reach of news channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya — which regularly run gruesome video of massacres in Syria — Russia’s officials have been forced to accept that “unlike the last four decades, now the Arab street has a voice,” the diplomat said.

“I think they are now waking up to a new reality,” the diplomat said. “They are realizing that their analysis was wrong and they have to take a new approach.”

This realization conflicts with the desire to stand on principle, and to repay the abject humiliation of being ignored on Libya, he said: “The question is, will they make a stand in Syria to the end?”

The answer will hinge on the calculations of Mr. Putin. He may judge that bending to Western pressure would hurt him more than losing Syria. Or, if he accepts the idea that Mr. Assad cannot extend his rule past the end of the year, he may seek to trade Russia’s stand for a concession.

All that would remain would be to sit back and watch in silence as opposition crowds celebrate their victory. Not a simple choice for the man who, two decades ago in Dresden, spent panicky days inside the K.G.B. compound, burning documents that represented years of work. Then — convinced he had been abandoned by the country he served — he walked out to defend himself and his colleagues from the crowd outside.

Published Date: Wednesday, July 4th, 2012 | 02:46 PM

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