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In Moscow, even Kremlin critics agree with Putin’s resistance to intervening in Syria. Here’s why.
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MOSCOW — As Syria's uprising against Bashar al-Assad deteriorates into a potentially nation-destroying civil war, most of the diplomatic discourse has been dominated by a high-stakes blame-game between Russia and the West over who is most at fault for the horrific massacre and mayhem.
The most recent example: Monday’s tense meeting between the Russian and US presidents in Mexico, in which Obama failed to get Putin’s help in easing Assad from power.
So far Russia has been losing this rhetorical battle. But the Kremlin insists that its case transcends mere self-interest, and points the way back to a world governed by the rule of law.
Moscow's community of foreign policy experts — many of whom routinely excoriate the Kremlin — seem uncommonly united in support of Russia’s stance on Syria. They argue that the Kremlin is adhering to a conservative set of international values, based on respect for national sovereignty and the right of Syria's people to sort out their own future.
The West, they claim, is out of legal bounds and pursuing its own geopolitical interests thinly disguised as a humanitarian "responsibility to protect" in a manner that is reckless, hypocritical and — perhaps the unkindest cut — incompetent.
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"The West talks in terms of noble goals, but their actions tend to wreck any stability, threaten the lives of millions, and leave people worse off than before," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "I don't carry any brief for the Kremlin, but in the case of Syria, the Russian aim is to try to minimize negative outcomes. Russian approaches may be old fashioned and conservative but, I'm sorry to say, they're more rational than current Western policies."
Russian experts dish out examples of botched Western interventions going back to the 1999 Kosovo war, which Moscow helped to resolve after receiving NATO's assurances that Kosovo would never be given independence; a few years later Kosovo was made independent. The long and inconclusive US occupation of Iraq and the ongoing imbroglio in Afghanistan are cited as examples of "making things worse."
But uppermost in Russian minds is the UN-authorized NATO intervention in Libya last year, which Moscow acquiesced to as a measure to protect civilians, only to see it morph into a full rebel campaign for regime change backed by Western air power.
"We've been lied to repeatedly; not a single promise the West has made to us in the past two decades has been honored," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past.
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"We've learned to take our own counsel on problems like Syria. What we see is an extraordinarily difficult situation that threatens to explode into a massive bloodbath. Nobody likes Assad, but if you just remove him the entire state will collapse with awful consequences. We wish we could have an intelligent conversation with Western leaders about this, but so far that hasn't proved possible," he says.
After vetoing (along with China) two UN Security Council resolutions that would have imposed tough sanctions and enabled a process for easing Assad out, Russia got on board with the UN-sponsored Kofi Annan plan, which envisaged democratic reforms and UN observers but no sanctions or outside military interference. With the Annan plan in shreds, and violence spiraling in many parts of Syria, the war of words is heating up again.
Russia's primary argument for its position is that it conforms with international law. Sovereignty is the supreme principle, Russian officials say, and Western attempts to change those rules have not led to good results anywhere.
The fixation on sovereignty is rooted in self-interest, and comes with its own healthy dose of hypocrisy. The Kremlin harbors a deep-seated fear that authorizing outside military force to support rebellious populations might one day be used to license intervention in Russia. And the principle does not seem to apply when Moscow is dealing with its own neighbors in the