Stuart Williams, AFP
Last updated: 8 March, 2012

Putin’s Russia stares down West on Syria

Russia is still not flinching in the face of Western and Arab pressure to change its stance on the Syria conflict and its defiance may yet increase as Vladimir Putin heads back to the Kremlin.

Western powers have queued up to tell Putin it is high time, after his crushing election victory, for Moscow to start exerting pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and support sanctions over the bloody opposition crackdown.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also heading to Cairo on Saturday for crunch talks with foreign ministers of Arab countries who have been bitterly critical of Russia’s intransigence.

Russia has offered the occasional tantalising glimpse of a harder public tone towards the Assad regime’s use of military force against protestors but so far there has been no hint of a shift in its policy.

The Russian foreign ministry has already sternly warned the West not to indulge in “wishful thinking” by expecting its position to change after the election and saying its policy was not determined by “electoral cycles”.

Lavrov appeared this week to caution against expecting a breakthrough deal at the Cairo meeting which he described as “an important opportunity for an all-round analysis of the situation.”

“I do not think that new initiatives are needed — there have been enough of them,” he said.

Putin’s impending return to the Kremlin in May is hardly auspicious for the prospects of a rapprochement between Russia and the West on the issue, given the reputation of the ex-KGB agent for needling his Cold War era foes.

“Russia’s position on Syria after the elections is perhaps only going to get tougher,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Middle East research.

Outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev, who tried to “reset” the prickly relationship between Russia and the United States, as recently as October bluntly called on Assad to carry out reforms or quit.

But Russia’s position has since hardened substantially, with the more moderate Medvedev now all but silent on foreign policy issues as he prepares to cede the Kremlin to Putin at a May 7 inauguration.

“I do not think that Russia’s position on Syria will change after the elections,” said Boris Dolgov of the Middle East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Russia’s position is clear against the inadmissibility of foreign intervention.”

Russia is haunted by the ousting of its ally Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi after a NATO-led air campaign that Moscow initially allowed to go ahead — an issue that sparked one of the few public clashes between Putin and Medvedev.

Syria is still a major arms client and regional ally of Moscow, which has kept strong ties with Damascus going back to the alliance between the Soviet Union and Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.

Russia has in recent weeks called on the Syrian government to halt the military action but — without exception — has always balanced this with a similar call on the opposition to stop fighting.

Putin last week said Russia had “no special relationship” with the Syrian regime but accused the West of worsening the crisis by helping arm the rebels and putting pressure on Assad.

A call for a halt to violence “from whichever source it may come” has now become a familiar phrase in Russia’s diplomatic lexicon and repeated like a mantra as Moscow distances itself from the West’s support of the rebels.

Lavrov said on March 5 that Russia agreed with the need to “strongly demand” that the Syrian government halt military activity in cities.

But he said it was unrealistic to expect that the Syrian government forces would pull out only to let the opposition occupy the territories which they had left — something Russia clearly fears could lead to regime change.

James Nixey, research fellow at Chatham House in London wrote in a report on Russia under the new Putin presidency: “It is curious that Russia supports a regime with a presumably short life expectancy, against the tide of events.”