I’m not a Russia expert and I don’t speak Russian, so perhaps this article can be taken with a grain of salt. However, their foreign policy on Syria can appear a little bit confusing.
First, let’s get a few backgrounders out of the way. Vladimir Putin is not doing so well. Yes, he won (or should I say, “won”) the presidency yet again only a few months ago, but he did so at a cost. Afraid, apparently, that he might not make it through the first round unscathed, he had to disqualify his most serious candidate. Then, the elections themselves were so clearly bought, that even Putin himself admitted to irregularities. Protests against his rule only convinced him that he needed to tighten his control in Russia, and he later added censorship of the internet and a bill that would essentially deprive NGOs the right to monitor elections by calling them foreign (and upped fines for libel or slander to boot). Finally, there is anger over flooding and the government’s response. To say that Putin is under pressure internally would be an understatement.
Internationally, however, is where Russia holds the cards. Whether it is on gas shipments to Europe, or its position defending Iran and Syria, Russia has a lot it can bargain with. It can give up a little and use that leverage for any number of things. However, one almost senses the delight Putin and the Russian government are taking is appearing to condemn Bashar and then seemingly prop him up. As an example, on July 9th an official from the Russian government said that it would suspend new arms shipments to Syria (emphasis on new), but the next day officials announced they were sending warships to conduct maneuvers near Syria (Russia maintains a naval presence in Tartus, Syria). The next day, Syrian opposition officials met with Russian officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Quite the coup for a group that continues to be called terrorist gangs by the Bashar led regime.
All of this intersects in various ways into Russia’s policy towards Syria. While I disagree on the idea that Russia’s various decisions are nuanced per se, the Russian government is clearly concerned about the possibility that Bashar’s regime will be overthrown and it will lose out on one of its most reliable supporters in the Middle East. As the last article cited notes, looming large is Libya and Russia’s decision to allow NATO to intervene in that country. Also, Russia is very worried about increased militarization among Turkey and its neighbors of Armenia and Georgia. Russia maintains a troop presence in Armenia (and indeed in parts of northern Georgia) and although I can’t find a reliable website to confirm it, some have reported that it has increased its troop strength in Armenia, partially to warn Turkey from intervening too ambitiously, but also as a dig against Georgia.
Along with China, Russia does not want to give the international community another carte blanche to overturn another regime, but it cannot afford to not respond to what’s going on in Syria. Thus, we see Moscow trying to play the field and give the opposition some hope it will switch sides, while also making clear that it will not just abandon allies. At the same time, Russian leaders are cognizant that they are losing legitimacy at home and as such, having international leaders at their beck and call helps sustain the image that they are in charge and have a grand international stature. Also, focusing on international affairs and blaming all internal problems on external actors is a time worn ploy by declining autocrats and strongmen regimes. Thus, we see the Russian leadership almost torn between wanting to compromise, but doing enough to anger Western and Arab countries up in arms by the continued killings by Bashar’s thugs. Will Russia shift and back the opposition? Probably not, but its back and forth also can’t be viewed as decreased support for Bashar, as much as it is reading the international tea leaves and deciding it must react while hedging its bets. As it is, expect to see Russia continue to stonewall at the U.N, while giving hope to Arab states and the West that it is the weak link in support of Bashar.
Jonathan Bertman runs The Old UAR, a political blog focused on a wide range of issues in the Middle East. He has extensive experience looking at the Middle East with a particular focus on Egypt and Syria. He has lived in Cairo for 4 years as well as assisted a number of Think Tanks in the US and Lebanon.