Russian President Putin with his Prime Minister Medvedev
The international deadlock over Syria has, in a dreadful way, provided balm for old grievances in this city. After years of fuming about Western-led campaigns to force leaders from power, Russia has seized the opportunity to make its point heard.
This time, its protests cannot be set aside as they were when NATO began airstrikes in Libya or when Western-led coalitions undertook military assaults in Iraq and Serbia. Instead, the international community has come to Russia’s doorstep.
On Friday, a top State Department official visited Moscow, presumably seeking to persuade the Kremlin to reconsider its stance and contribute to an effort to engineer a transition from the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a longtime Russian ally. In remarks after the meeting, Russia’s top negotiator was implacable, telling a reporter that Moscow’s position was “a matter of principle.”
Russia’s leaders have said repeatedly that their goal is to guard against instability, not to support Mr. Assad. They have signaled that Russia would accept a change of leadership in Syria, but only if devised by Syrians and not imposed from outside, an unlikely prospect in a country riven by violence.
Alongside the satisfaction of putting its foot down, Russia is incurring substantial risks. Having positioned itself as a key player in the conflict, the Kremlin is under pressure to present alternatives. Moscow faces frustration in Western capitals, where it is seen as complicit in the killing of civilians by forces loyal to Mr. Assad, and a deepening alienation among Russia’s partners in the Arab world, who see Moscow as coming to the aid of dictators.
“In most Arab countries, the majority of the population, of course, supports the rebels and opposes the dictator, so our reputation has suffered badly,” said Georgy Mirsky, a leading Middle East scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “If Bashar Assad manages to win the war, if he remains in power, the majority of the population in Arab countries will blame Russia for this, of course, and our reputation will suffer. But if he is overthrown, also, many people will blame Russia anyway.”
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were portrayed in Russia as largely organic, driven by young people frustrated by their economic prospects. But the Syrian conflict is seen completely differently, as orchestrated by other countries in the West and the Arab world and aiding the rise of radical Islam. As the death toll has mounted in Syria — the United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed — Russian officials have consistently argued that the fall of the Assad government would usher in something much worse.
“You know, when we had the war in Chechnya, what we heard was that we were using excessive force, that civilians perished,” Aleksei K. Pushkov, the head of Russia’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, said in a recent interview. “But what was at stake was whether we will follow the Yugoslav scenario or not, and the Yugoslav scenario was far more bloody.”
However, a recent upsurge in violence by the government’s security forces, frequently aimed at women and children, has put Russia on the spot to offer alternatives.
Friday’s talks between a senior State Department envoy, Fred Hof, and the deputy foreign ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, were an attempt to forge a consensus on a transition. One analyst recommended the model of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended a vicious ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. Russia could serve an essential role in guaranteeing order during a political transition because it has deep connections with Syrian military officials, many of whom were educated in the Soviet Union.
“What is needed for Syria is something like the Dayton agreement, not just to remove Assad but to work out a new model of rule in Syria, because democracy will not lead to a solution,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “Russia has more influence on Assad than anyone else. The question is whether anyone would be patient enough to try to implement this.”
After emerging from the meeting on Friday, Mr. Bogdanov said he did not foresee moving beyond the six-point cease-fire plan of the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, which does not call on Mr. Assad to leave power.
Mr. Bogdanov put the onus for the continuing violence on opposition forces and foreign countries, which, he said, “flirt with extremists and radicals of various kinds for the purpose of achieving their own goals.” Asked what would happen if international forces intervened without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, he said it would be “a disaster for the entire Middle East region.”
If the costs to Russia are mounting, President Vladimir V. Putin also has compelling domestic reasons for refusing to budge. His predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, lost face among hard-liners in the government for his decision not to block the Western intervention in Libya, setting into motion events that culminated in the killing of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, another Russian ally. Agreeing to a transition plan in Syria would risk consigning Mr. Putin to a similar fate. It would also mean backing down from a stand that is still being cheered in foreign policy circles here.
“Without Russia’s support he would have been pulled down, and the intervention would have followed,” said Vitaly V. Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Without Russia’s support he would have been toppled. Thus, Russia has proved that it can prevent certain events in the region, which, in our opinion, are not only not desired — not because we adore Assad — but because we want stability in this region, and we think this kind of political engineering may lead to catastrophic consequences.”
This analysis was published in the New York Times on 09/06/2012