The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Why Russia Doesn’t Hold the Keys to Syria
Published on July 11, 2012

It is difficult to decipher whether those who argue that Russia holds the keys to the solution of the Syrian crisis really believe it or are using Russia as an excuse to do nothing. The recent Syrian Action Group meeting in Geneva clearly showed that the Kremlin is not moving closer to the position of the U.S. and other powers. Tremendous time and energy have been wasted in trying to lure Russia closer to the view that Assad needs to go. Over and over again, Russian officials have made clear that they are not interested in helping find a real, as opposed to imitation, solution to the Syria problem. In a July 9 meeting with Russia’s diplomatic corps, Vladimir Putin reconfirmed that he has not changed his position on Syria, reiterating his familiar mantra on the “political solution” and “dialogue” which barely masks his support for Bashir al-Assad. Continued Russian arms sales to the murderous Assad regime should be crystal clear evidence of which side Moscow favors in the conflict.

Before going any further, however, let’s be clear what we mean when we say “Russia”, vis-a-vis Syria or any other likeminded tyrant, for that matter. After all, it is Putin and his ilk who support and provide lifelines to such leaders around the world, whether it is Lukashenka in neighboring Belarus, Assad in Syria, or Chavez in Venezuela. Such support comes from the Kremlin, not Russia writ large, and certainly not from the Russian opposition or Russian civil society. It is critical to draw such a distinction.

With that clarified, let’s look at why Putin and the Kremlin have staked the position they have on Syria. What are the Kremlin’s motives for its obstinate defense of Assad?

Conventional wisdom offers several explanations. For starters, there are sales of Russian arms to Assad. About 75 percent of Syrian weapons come from Russia, and Syria is the fourth most lucrative market in the Russian arms trade, with $700 million delivered to Damascus in 2011. Then there is Russia’s small naval base at Tartus, the last Russian base in the Mediterranean. Syria is the last Soviet-era bastion and client state left in the Middle East, and the Kremlin does not want to lose it. Syria is also a gateway to Iran. Then there is Putin’s suspicion of the West and his knee-jerk reflex to resist American policy first and ask questions later. Putin also wants to remind the world that global problems can’t be resolved without Moscow and his personal participation.

All this is true, but there is something else at work as well. To discover it, we must look to the systemic factors that explain why the Kremlin is trying to save Assad (or for that matter any other dictator, especially in Russia’s so-called sphere of influence), even if he is a liability for Russia.

Here we must recognize that foreign policy is an instrument of Putin’s domestic agenda. The domestic priority for the Kremlin is to preserve a status quo supported by three pillars: personalized power, its legitimation by superpower aspirations (or at least their imitation), and the attempts to consolidate society by seeking out an enemy and using that enemy to turn Russia into a besieged fortress. This is a traditional Russian Matrix. The more Putin’s regime is confronted with problems at home (and since last December, it has been challenged more than at any other time after 1999), the more actively it looks for foreign policy means to support the Russian Matrix.

This translates in concrete terms to blocking the United States whenever and wherever possible. Thus, the Kremlin switches to vocal anti-Americanism and seeks to block the U.S. at the UN Security Council or in other fora. This switch has been most vividly on display in the endless harassment of U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. Neither random nor a reflection of Putin’s personal likes or dislikes or phobias, this behavior is simply how the Kremlin survival mechanism works. To reproduce personalized power with global aspirations, the Kremlin has to contain America and undermine the American order wherever possible—in Russia’s own neighborhood or in other parts of the world. This is how Russian authoritarianism differs from other regimes of this type: In order to preserve and reproduce itself, the Russian personalized power system needs to demonstrate global reach. If the Russian ruling team can’t force or persuade the world to endorse its stance, it tries to at least undermine the American and Western positions. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s last client state in the Middle East became an arena of conflict geared toward bolstering the Kremlin’s survival strategy, and toward demonstrating that Russia can still impose limits on the West. Sadly, in the process of doing these things, the Kremlin has shown utter indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, for it is more focused on its own future than it is on the welfare of others.

The Kremlin’s survival strategy revolves around the concept of total and “unbreakable” sovereignty, commitment to non-interference and rejection of any intervention, including intervention for humanitarian reasons. In the context of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (a scenario which is still a nightmare for Putin) and the Arab Spring, the Kremlin’s concept of sovereignty guarantees its future (a fact which is indirectly a nod to the fragility of the Russian system and Putin’s regime). Focused on sustaining itself, the Kremlin wants to avoid a scenario on Russian soil similar to those in Egypt or Libya, where, through Western interference, Mubarak and Qadaffi were brought down (even if such a scenario seems unthinkable). Ironically, in declaring its adherence to the concept of “spheres of interest,” the Kremlin does not recognize the true sovereignty of its neighbors. In short, this concept is in essence a warning to the West: “You have no right to dictate your rules to other states!”

Indeed, the concept of “total sovereignty” means that Moscow demands that the West forget about the principles of the Council of Europe and Chapter VII of the UN charter (expanded in 2005)—first of all the “responsibility to protect” in case of threat to civilian life.

Putin has openly confessed his major concern regarding Syria: “Russia will oppose attempts to use the concept of human rights as an instrument of political pressure and to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.” Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, at the St. Petersburg World Economic Forum last month, reaffirmed the Kremlin’s major headache: “Democracy can’t be transferred. This is where we differ with the U.S.” Thus, Syria, for Putin’s regime, is not about Syria in itself. Nor is it about the threat of an unraveling in the Middle East, or atrocities, or geopolitical goals. No, Syria is about Russia and the Kremlin’s control over the situation. To strengthen his rule, Putin must weaken the West’s influence. This is why Putin will not endorse a peaceful transfer of power from the leader to the opposition when he believes that power belongs only to the leader.


The West, however, clings to the hope that Moscow will help persuade Assad either to leave or to behave in a more civilized way. Alas, this is unlikely to work, for Assad is beyond redemption, and pushing him out would contradict the Kremlin’s attitude to power. A “managed transition” does not exist in the Russian political vocabulary. We liked Adam’s Garfinkle metaphor: To depend on Putin to save the situation is like depending on the services of Monica Lewinsky as a marriage consultant. Moreover, there are no signs that Moscow has sufficient leverage to force out Assad, even if it were to change its position.

The Kremlin’s call for a “solution through political dialogue” between Assad and the opposition has a specific meaning. In Russia, “political dialogue” means carefully selected people appointed to play the role of “opponents”—that is, “managed opposition”.

What is really puzzling is the belief of Western leaders that Putin has come around to their side. During the Los Cabos summit, UK Prime Minister David Cameron hurriedly announced that Putin had shifted his view of Assad during his talks with Obama and accepted the idea of a transition of power in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the Geneva talks also sounded hopeful. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared that the Geneva meeting was the beginning of Assad’s end. Russia “supports Annan’s unity government plan”, the global media announced.

Really? Why they do not listen to Putin’s mantra that “nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be brought to power or who should be removed from power?” Have they missed Lavrov’s statements to the effect that some powers “misinterpret” the results of the Geneva talks, and that Moscow never said that Assad should go?

Western optimists either don’t hear (or don’t really want to hear) what the Kremlin is truly saying. Or perhaps they don’t understand that Putin’s acceptance of the Western plan for Syria would leave him without leverage and would not allow him to enjoy the role of a spoiler, which he plays with evident relish.

One can’t avoid the impression that all sides in the “Syria Concert” are taking part in a game of “Let’s Pretend!” Western leaders pretend that they are looking for a breakthrough, and pretend that Russia is on board. The Kremlin’s obstinacy with respect to the Assad regime winds up being an excuse for doing nothing, as well as a demonstration of the West’s noble inclinations.  The Kremlin pretends that it has leverage over Damascus and is helping to find a solution. The Kremlin in this game has a much stronger position: It does not care about Syrians’ lives or its own reputation. And it has learned how to drive two horses in opposite directions, pretending to agree and disagree at the same time.

Does this mean that the Kremlin will never betray Assad? No. Putin does not care about Assad personally; rather, they care about what Assad represents. Putin is no friend to the end; he is a friend only so long as it serves his own purposes inside Russia.

But Putin would perhaps agree to play along if doing so could help the Kremlin to strengthen the Russia Matrix. The list of possible enticements could be long, starting with demands like “don’t meddle” in Russian and Eurasian affairs and ending with things like concessions over oil transit routes and a central role in the privatization of Syrian commodities. Sadly, the West might even agree to play such a trading game with Putin.

Of course, the “responsibility to protect” provision gives the West the right to proceed without arguing that “Russia has the keys to Damascus.” If the Western powers continue to wait for such keys, they may in fact be looking for excuses to do nothing.

David J. Kramer, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is president of Freedom House in Washington, DC. Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.