11 Sep 2013

For Russia, injustice and cruelty in Syria is better than instability

In Washington and London politicians and columnists assert that western foreign policy is based on morality as well as self-interest. The Russians, by contrast, are regarded as having no morals at all.

Unsurprisingly, that’s not how it looks from Moscow – and nowhere is the contrast greater than in policy towards Syria.

President Putin has tried hard to reverse the decline in Russia’s global power, which dates back to the demise of the Soviet Union. That’s why he is unlikely to allow the Americans any room to use a security council resolution to justify military action on Syria.

Dmitri Trenin writes:

“From a Russian policy perspective, Syria – much like yesterday’s Libya, Iraq, or Yugoslavia – is primarily about the world order. It is about who decides: who decides whether to use military force; who decides the actors for use of that force; and who decides under what rules, conditions, and oversight military force is to be used.”



While the Americans talk of “punishing” President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, the Russians look at consequences rather than motivation. They oppose the proposed US air strikes on Syria not just because they don’t want their ally, Bashar al-Assad, weakened but because they fear the outcome, not least the empowering of Islamist radicals within the rebel ranks.

The Americans fear that too, but Russia knows that Chechen jihadis have joined al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. It is concerned about the destabilisation of its southern border.

“In Russia […] many people sincerely cannot understand what exactly the United States is doing in the Middle East,” writes Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

“What does it hope to achieve? Its actions look contradictory and inconsistent.”

The Russians don’t see a battle between a repressive, violent government and freedom-seeking rebels in Syria, but another example of western intervention making a bad situation worse.

“The Americans are confused,” writes Lukyanov. “They do not understand what to do, but they see the use of force as the solution to every problem, even when the consequences are unknown. Russia does not know how to work with such a partner.”

Instability versus injustice

Like the Chinese, the Russians see instability as a far greater worry than injustice or cruelty, because they have lived through so much. In Russian eyes, the US – geographically removed from the turbulence of the last century, ideologically committed to the myth of its own revolutionary origins – has become a source of global instability. They see turbulence in Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and Libya not as the birthpangs of democracy, but dangerous chaos wrought by unwise western policy.

The Russian plan that Syria should accept chemical weapons inspections is a diplomatic masterstroke. Not only does it make it very difficult for the US to continue with its plans for air strikes, but it consolidates the status quo.

Any inspection regime would require the cooperation of the regime, shoring up its power. The rebels would be on the back foot, because the inspectors would need at least local ceasefires if they were to gain access to chemical weapons sites. The inspectors would have to secure military sites that the rebels are trying to wrest from government control – if they shot at UN weapons inspectors, even their best friends in Riyadh, Doha, Istanbul and Washington would demur.

In the grand Russian game of chess, time is the most useful commodity of all, and this proposal buys days if not weeks. The speed of the American political cycle means that the momentum for military action has already waned. President Obama looks weak and indecisive; President Putin statesmanlike.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov prepares to meet US Foreign Secretary John Kerry in Geneva tomorrow, the view from Moscow is rather sunny.

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