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Despite its fiery rhetoric, Russia is acknowledging it has few options for responding to a Western military strike on Syria.
Senior Russian officials are continuing to call against a potential Western military strike on Syria, blasting the United States for what they say would be a haughty and unpopular incursion that would further destabilize the Middle East.
But when it comes time to respond, Russian observers say Moscow’s tough talk will remain largely rhetoric.
“We don’t really have the capability to do anything militarily of any significance, and going ballistic, of course, is not really an option anyone is considering in any kind of way,” says military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
That logic has been obscured by a barrage of official Russian criticism of an apparently impending air strike that would respond to allegations President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians.
One after another, high-ranking officials have taken to the airwaves and the internet to warn against what they say will surely become a quagmire, passing up few opportunities to remind their Western counterparts of recent debacles such as the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya.
Another popular narrative in Moscow portrays the United States as a unilateral cowboy that bypasses international institutions to effect regime change.
“The US has no right to speak either on the behalf of the international community, or for all of NATO: half of the alliance does not want to take part in the murder and destruction of Damascus,” Alexei Pushkov, the outspoken chair of Russia’s parliamentary committee on international affairs, said Friday via Twitter.
His statement reflects the sentiments of many other elites in the Russian political establishment who have also called for a sober assessment of the findings by a UN chemical weapons inspection team, expected to deliver their report on Saturday.
Many Russians still say they doubt whether it was indeed Assad who ordered the use of chemical weapons.
“Let’s suppose it was Assad: if he did do it, he must have lost his mind, because it completely goes against all of his interests,” Russian state television journalist Maxim Shevchenko, a prominent Middle East watcher, told Echo of Moscow radio Thursday evening.
In the latest commentary from the Kremlin, Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin’s chief foreign policy advisor, told journalists on Friday that Russia is “actively working on avoiding a violent scenario in Syria,” according to the Interfax news agency.
He also said the United States has failed to share evidence that shows signs of a chemical attack.
But official bluster, many observers say, marks the end of the line.
A cautious editorial in the respected Vedomosti newspaper on Friday warned of “chaos in international relations” after a military strike, arguing that the Syrian conflict has already helped deepen existing geopolitical cleavages.
But it also shed light on the reality — and limitations — Russia faces as the conventional middleman between Assad and the West.
“We successfully use our veto power in the UN Security Council when the international community is fragmented, but this does not work against a consolidated Western position, as there is right now,” it wrote.
There have already been signs that Russia is unwilling to go beyond words. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted as much when he said in a press conference earlier this week that Russia would not “go to war with anybody.”
Putin, meanwhile, has remained conspicuously silent.
When reports surfaced on Thursday that Russia was deploying warships to the eastern Mediterranean, a naval spokesperson immediately denied it was tied to the Syrian crisis, telling the state-run RIA Novosti news agency the move was part of a “planned rotation.”
Even if Russia did kick its navy into gear, Felgenhauer says, it “can do nothing much at all,” lacking the capacity to field a strong presence or provide air cover.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, adds that Russia sees little value in a military response, despite its ostensible support for the Assad regime.
While US-Russian relations have suffered since Putin’s return to the presidency last year, he points to what he says is the continuing cooperation between Washington and Moscow on an array of issues — business, technology, investment — that would outweigh any Russian response to a strike on Syria.
“It will be a sort of scandal within a family, not more,” he said.
Experts agree that Moscow’s fiery rhetoric against US-led foreign intervention in the Middle East is mainly aimed at domestic consumption instead.
No stranger to terrorism, the Kremlin has consistently derided Western powers for their role in supporting the Syrian opposition, a loose conglomeration of anti-Assad forces that includes everyone from moderates to radical Islamists.
Satanovsky says Russia under Putin is a staunchly conservative “neo-empire” driven by a logic that places the principle of state security — whether its own or that of its allies — at a premium.
That logic, he adds, is simple: “There is a state with terrorists and separatists, and the state must do something.”
Felgenhauer, meanwhile, points to the Libyan crisis in 2011 as a guiding light for Russia’s behavior in Syria.
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During that conflict, Russia’s abstention from a UN Security Council vote authorizing intervention helped pave the way for a NATO bombing campaign that the Kremlin now considers disastrous.
Then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who has since been forced onto the political sidelines, made headlines when he publically disagreed with Putin and openly supported the Western effort.
“Now, the message is ‘no more Libyas, no more sellouts — we’ll stand behind our man until the bloody end,’” Felgenhauer said.
Most of the Russian political establishment has been quick to toe the line, he added.
“No one wants to be seen as an outcast, or be branded as a traitor, an American agent, or a supporter of terrorism in Syria.”