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Reading Putin

Vladimir Putin

On Monday during the Syrian National Council’s visit to Moscow, Vladimir Putin’s remarks to the diplomatic corps made his most decisive statement yet on the crisis in Syria, “I am convinced that we must do everything possible to force the conflicting sides to find a peaceful political solution to all the disputed issues.”

As the international community meets again this week to discuss the stalemate in Syria, increasing attention has been focused on the Kremlin to take more decisive steps, which up until recently Russia has proved unwilling.

For months, Hilary Clinton has led a sustained diplomatic overture- arguably, the toughest negotiations in her time as Secretary of State- to bring her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov to Washington’s position. The Secretary’s meetings on the side-lines of international conferences, in addition to President Obama’s own meeting with Putin at the Rio G20 Conference in Cancun, have produced though very few shifts in the Russian position, except for a few small rhetorical steps, including the endorsement of UN Monitors, support of a UN Resolution condemning violence, and endorsing a settlement to the crisis.

Putin’s statement on Monday raises an important question on whether the Kremlin will take more decisive steps to bring their main ally in the Arab world to heel. An open secret in Moscow is Putin and Lavrov’s building impatience with the Assad regime. As much as Putin distrusts the Arab Spring, recognizes the strategic and economic value of Moscow’s relations with Damascus, and sees this as a further opportunity for Russia to play a leading role in global affairs, the Assad regime has not proven to be that pliable or reliable. The Kremlin is not so much concerned about how Assad is committing massacres in Syria, but more that his actions have been unable to contain the situation in Syria and are potentially, putting Moscow’s interests at peril.

This sharper tone (building up in the past few months) has been accompanied with Putin’s willingness to engage the opposition. The SNC’s visit to Moscow is not as much a sign that Putin supports the opposition or a democratic process in Syria, but more an opportunity to maintain their status quo position in Syria. Lavrov and Putin are also likely to have expressed their concern about the potential impact of political Islam on Syria’s politics. In a piece written for the Huffington Post last month, Lavrov warned against the rise of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring, reflecting the Kremlin’s fears of the Arab Spring inspiring resistance in Chechnya and the Caucuses.

Moscow announced as well during the SNC’s visit that any new arms sales will be suspended until the situation becomes “clearer” in Syria.

Moscow announced as well during the SNC’s visit that any new arms sales will be suspended until the situation becomes “clearer” in Syria. These arms sales have been crucial to the “modernization” of Syria’s military since the 1950s. At the same time, Putin has deployed a large fleet of warships to the eastern Mediterranean with some expected to be stationed at the Russian military base on the Syrian cost in Tartus. The Russian Navy has described this flotilla deployment purely as conducting manoeuvres, but the size of the fleet arguably is a message to the international community that the Kremlin will not support any moves to intervene in Syria’s domestic affairs. This is also importantly a message to Ankara that despite the increased tensions on the border with Syria after the downing of a Turkish fighter jet, Russia will not tolerate a Turkish intervention in Syria. Also, on Tuesday, Russia proposed a draft UN resolution supporting the Annan peace initiatives, but leaving out any threat of sanctions if the peace plan fails (despite other members of the UN Security Council who have pushed for a more coercive resolution).

These mixed messages to the Assad regime, to the opposition, and to the international community may on first glance appear to be contradictory, but reflect, instead Moscow’s growing impatience with the crisis and willingness to push the Assad regime to take more serious steps to reach a political settlement under the auspices of Kofi Annan that would keep Russia’s interests intact, but equally, so their unwillingness to allow the international community to break the stalemate of Annan’s struggling peace plan by taking more punitive measures- expanded sanctions or an international intervention in Syria.

Russia’s hope that the Assad regime may settle the political crisis as a result of its more pronounced pressure is arguably a failing proposition. It’s very unlikely that Bashar al-Assad could settle the crisis in Syria without relinquishing power, which he and his family are unwilling to do. While Russia’s arms are important to the Syrian military, the smaller arms and other arms that are used by the Assad regime’s formal and informal defence forces come from other sources- notably, Iran. It’s also unclear how long the Kremlin will keep its suspension if the impression becomes that other states are providing more arms to the rebels. It’s highly unlikely as well that Moscow would ever shift in supporting tougher sanctions on the Assad regime or a military intervention, unless the Assad regime’s position becomes so uncertain that Moscow concludes that it’s safer to back the opposition to preserve interests. Even then, a Libya-style intervention would be out of the question.

An important question then is raised: how influential is Moscow in shaping Assad’s behaviour? Considering how little results Moscow’s pressure on Assad to take the Annan Peace Plan seriously have achieved and how Moscow’s position in Syria increasingly looks imperilled, it’s unlikely that Moscow, despite the international community’s belief in Russia’s influential position, could force Assad to step down or let alone end the violence. Arguably, for Putin, it’s better to give the impression of influence, by emphasizing that Russia’s position matters than to admit that Russia’s own influence and control over the events in Syria are quite limited. His warship manoeuvres may be a contingency cover to shore up Russia’s military base and evacuate its citizens in Syria if the situation further falls apart.

Putin’s position serves well his domestic audience which has long ties with Syria (as noted in Ellen Barry’s article in The New York Times) and gives the impression to his international audience that Russia is a global player. Putin hopes to use this crisis as an opportunity to stake out Russia’s alternative international position on the Arab Spring. But, in the end, Moscow is as much at the mercy of the events in Syria as the rest of the international community, and at the moment, signs are pointing to both Russia’s interests at risk and its global influence further in decline as it’s likely that Putin’s tough position on Syria will not deliver any positive resul

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Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen is Scholar for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He regularly writes, teaches and consults on Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. His work primarily focuses on the regional and international politics of the Levant, but he frequently comments on the international relations of the Gulf and American national security policy. Follow Andrew on Twitter @abowen17

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