UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan is in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin aimed at intensifying pressure on the Syrian regime through UN Security Council sanctions, but Russia expert Dimitri Simes says that while Russia might at some point get fed up with Bashar al-Assad and see that his government is losing ground, it isn’t "as opposed to the Damascus regime as the Obama administration and many other governments." Putin is generally committed to "maintaining the sovereignty of existing states," especially since "most of the regimes that were changed after the Cold War were the regimes that were friendly to Russia," says Simes. Additionally, says Simes, Putin "is more skeptical of U.S. and Western intentions, particularly U.S. intentions," than former president [Dmitry] Medvedev, who had forged a good relationship with President Obama.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has indicated that Russia is not going to change its position about sanctions. Why is Moscow so supportive of the regime of Bashar al-Assad?
I don’t think they’re that supportive of the Damascus regime. A better way to put it is that they’re not as opposed to the Damascus regime as the Obama administration and many other governments. Clearly, Russia has a rather different view of Assad. I don’t think you can say Assad is a Moscow client. He certainly was not taking guidance from Moscow. He also for a number of months has stopped paying his bills, so he’s not a reliable customer. He also is an embarrassment in terms of Russian relations, not only with the United States, but with most Arab countries and with Israel, a country economically more important to Russia than Syria.
Then explain Moscow’s resistance to taking more concerted action against Syria.
The Putin government is opposed to the concept of regime change because Russia has a more traditional view of international law. Their emphasis is not on humanitarian principles, but on maintaining the sovereignty of existing states. After the end of the Cold War, most of the regimes that were changed were regimes that were friendly to Russia, whether you’re talking about the Balkans, with the ouster of President Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia, or whether you’re talking more recently about Libya.
How much is the loyalty to Assad due to weapons sales?
If Russians are viewed as totally unreliable by such governments, their whole arms trade may go down the drain, and this is an important source of their income.
Assad is not in a position to buy new Russian weapons, but Russia has legal obligations under old contracts. It’s already difficult for Russia to sell weapons abroad because their weapons are considered of inferior quality, certainly less reliable than those made in the West. One reason the Russians are still able to sell their weapons internationally is that they sell their weapons to governments that are not popular in the United States and NATO. If Russians are viewed as totally unreliable by such governments, their whole arms trade may go down the drain, and this is an important source of their income.
Russia and China abstained a year ago when the Security Council passed a resolution for a no-fly zone that allowed NATO military force to be used against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces. Does Putin, who was then prime minister and is now president, regret not vetoing the resolution?
I was in Moscow when this resolution was passed, and I talked to a senior foreign minister official who told me that they could not vote for the resolution as drafted. He supported the resolution’s intent, but said the resolution required a lot of work because of too many ambiguities that could be interpreted by the United States and NATO in a more far-reaching way than Russia was comfortable with.
The next day, I went back to the ministry. By that time Russia had already abstained on the resolution. I bumped into the official I saw the day before, and he looked at me and smiled. He said, "Our president has his way of making decisions." Then I talked to people who were more representative of Putin’s thinking, and they were quite flabbergasted. They said that this was Medvedev’s decision, that President Obama talked to President Medvedev and proved to be very persuasive with him. They felt Medvedev was too deferential, and they predicted the United States would not be satisfied with the kind of conservative interpretation of a no-fly zone, and that it would inevitably lead to a NATO aerial assault. They were proven right. The Libya episode energized the Putin camp, and gave them evidence that Medvedev could not be trusted to stay as president and to run Russian national security.
How would you describe U.S.-Russian relations right now?
Putin was one of the first who called President George Bush after September 11 and offered his support. So it was not as if Putin had started as a dedicated opponent of the United States. But then his relationship with the Bush administration went downhill. President Putin, as did many in Russia, came to the conviction that Russia was not treated sufficiently as a great power by the United States, and that the United States was more committed to changes around Russia, [such as] bringing former Soviet republics and allies into NATO or the European Union, than in having a constructive relationship with Russia.
Despite the "reset" under President Obama and President Medvedev, many people around Putin were not persuaded that there was a qualitative change in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
Despite the "reset" under President Obama and President Medvedev, many people around Putin were not persuaded there was a qualitative change in the U.S.-Russian relationship. The bottom line is that Putin is more hard-nosed; he is more skeptical of U.S. and Western intentions, particularly U.S. intentions, and he’s not personally mesmerized by President Obama the way Medvedev was.
Russia has proposed extending the UN observer mission in Syria, which is due to expire on July 20 unless it’s extended. Lavrov suggested that the Western countries are trying to blackmail Russia by saying that they would not vote for an extension of the observer mission if Russia did not support the resolution to put more sanctions on Syria.
Shaming Russia publicly, the way Secretary Hillary Clinton has done on several occasions, [is] unlikely to work on Putin and only toughens his stand. What may change the Russian perspective is what is happening inside Syria. If you look at Russian TV coverage of Syria, it is quite clear that they’re now hedging their bets, that they understand Assad is losing ground; they’re reporting recent prominent defections from Assad’s inner circle.
At some point they may decide to give up on him and to start looking for bringing about regime change. They’re not quite there yet.
At a certain point, Russians may say to themselves that the game is all over in Syria, or at least almost over. They would not want to be the last ones to be committed to this man who is not viewed in Moscow as the same kind of villain he’s viewed as in Washington, but he’s not quite a hero either. At some point they may decide to give up on him and to start looking for bringing about regime change. They’re not quite there yet. Movement in that direction is driven by opposition successes on the ground, not by public pressure from the Obama administration. Also, Russians think the Obama administration is a little hypocritical, because as they have told Washington, [if] it is so committed to removing Assad, they certainly can do it the way it was done in Iraq, the way it was done during the liberation of Kosovo from Serbia, without Security Council blessing. The Russians are saying it would be a mistake, they would criticize it, but they would not resist it militarily, and it would not be a defining issue in the Russian-American relationship. Russian officials believe the Obama administration really does not want to intervene in Syria, but they’re using Russia as a whipping boy, to blame on Russia what the Obama administration does not quite want to do itself.
What does Washington say?
The administration acts under the assumption that they can have their cake and eat it too in relations with anyone in the world, including proud powers such as China and Russia. Secretary Clinton, for instance, while she’s trying to persuade the Russians to support a tough Syrian resolution, at the same time went to St. Petersburg and organized a meeting with opposition activists and promised that the United States would find some creative way to support Russian opposition groups despite new legislation passed by the Russian Duma, which requires such groups, if they accept foreign money and engage in political activity, to be registered as foreign agents. Do I like this legislation passed by the Russian Duma? Absolutely not. This legislation is counterproductive for Russia and will be a problem in the U.S.-Russian relationship. But at the same time, if Syria is such a central problem for the United States, wouldn’t it be wise for the secretary of state on this particular trip to Russia not to meet with opposition activists? Because it creates an impression in Moscow that the only reason the United States is not calling for an end to the Putin government is because Russia is a major nuclear power. That impression certainly does not make Russia more forthcoming on issues of concern to the United States.