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In Moscow, even Kremlin critics agree with Putin’s resistance to intervening in Syria. Here’s why.
post-Soviet area; after defeating Georgia in 2008, Moscow effective dismembered its southern neighbor by granting independence to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Putin, who has effectively ruled Russia for the past 12 years, viewed the pro-democracy "colored revolutions" that erupted in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past decade as the creations of foreign intelligence services. When tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters took to the streets of Moscow last December to demand fair elections, his first public response was to blame Hillary Clinton: "She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work," Putin said at the time.
"Russian leaders fear revolution very deeply, and they look with horror on the Arab Spring and the totally disordered changes that have followed in its wake," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
"The only thing that's worse for them is the idea of popular revolution approved of and supported by the West. They observe all that's happening through a conspiratorial lens. Hence they see Western-backed rebels creating a pretext for Western military intervention that leads to pro-Western regime change. The biggest regret in Russian official foreign policy circles, and the worst accusation against (former President Dmitry) Medvedev, is that he authorized our UN delegation to abstain on the Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya last year. They are determined not to enable anything like that, not ever again," Strokan says.
Russia also has significant financial and political reasons to back Assad.
Syria has been Moscow's most important strategic partner in the Middle East since 1971. It’s been a major customer for Russian arms and engineering goods. Russia currently has about $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria, plus as much as $15 billion in other traditional military and economic cooperation — including Russia's only foreign military base, a naval refueling station at the Syrian port of Tartous.
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Financially, abiding by Western-backed sanctions never seems to work out in Moscow's favor. Over the past year, Russia has sacrificed about $4.5-billion in broken arms deals with Libya, and lost as much as $13 billion due to UN sanctions against Iran, experts say.
"Moscow is afraid events in Syria will spin out of control," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "We have lots of economic interests that we stand to lose, but this is not the main thing. The loss of political influence is more important, because Syria is the last point in the Middle East where Russia has a major role to play."
Still, the Kremlin has reacted defensively to charges that it is fueling Syria's civil war by continuing to sell arms to Assad. Stung by Hillary Clinton's recent claim that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria for use against demonstrators, Russia's state arms exporter Rosoboronexport made public the list of weaponry it does sell to Syria, including anti-aircraft systems, coastal defense missiles and jet trainers. "We supply armaments that are self-[defensive] rather than attack weapons, and there can be no talk about any violations by Russia or Rosoboronexport either de jure or de facto," the agency's spokesman, Igor Sevastyanov, told journalists.
(It also appears that Clinton's claim was incorrect. Syria's fleet of at least 36 Mi-25 "Hind-D" helicopter gunships — a deadly flying artillery platform made famous by Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980's — was purchased from Russia at least 20 years ago. The helicopters Clinton was referring to were recently serviced in Russia, and were being returned to Syria, but no new helicopter contracts have been signed in over ten years, experts say.)
Russia retorts that it's the West, and Sunni-dominated Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are smuggling in weapons to fuel the armed rebellion against the Alawite minority rule headed by Assad in Syria.
"We think we know how the world works as well as anyone else, and our diplomats have been active in the Middle East for a long time. We do not have the slightest romantic illusion that something that comes after Assad will be better," says Satanovsky. "We see a religious war shaping up in Syria, and across the region — Sunni against Shia — and we want no part of it. We see all sorts of extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, fighting alongside these anti-Assad rebels and we wonder why you don't seem to notice that ....
"Our Western colleagues point to these terrible atrocities (taking place with increasing frequency in Syria) and say, 'We have to do something!' But your own Western track record shows that you get the regime change you wanted, then lose all interest in the humanitarian problems," he says.
"As for Russia, we've learned to base our policy on national interest. We simply don't believe Western leaders know what they're doing, and we're not listening to all that chatter anymore. So, Russia's Syria policy will remain basically the same, and there is no significant debate over this in the Russian establishment today," he adds.