Life is getting unpleasant in the Kremlin these days. Moscow is jittery over the national protests against the corruption and social failures of Putinocracy, and the fear that a new wave of democracy agitation (obviously manufactured in the State Department by the archfiend Hillary Clinton) could further inflame the Russian situation has the ex-KBG hacks who dominate Russia on edge.
The increasing isolation of the Syrian thugs puts their friends and allies in the Kremlin in a tight place. Pushing Assad toward the exits risks strengthening the calls for a “Russian spring,” the Kremlin fears. Democracy, alas, is catching. But if the Kremlin stands by its man in Damascus, it attracts the hatred and contempt of the entire Sunni world — as well as catching the usual flak from the usual groups in places like Europe and the US. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia: they all want Assad to go, and the demand for stronger resolutions in the Security Council is mounting.
Worse, it’s looking more and more as if the outside pressure plus the domestic resistance will ultimately drive Assad out; if the Kremlin stands by him and he goes, Putin looks both ineffective and evil — not, we may safely assume, a desirable outcome from the Kremlin point of view.
To defend Syria openly deepens Russia’s international isolation and feeds Putin’s critics at home. To join the global move for change in Damascus does the same thing — and also demonstrates the impotence of Russia to affect events in a longtime ally where it still has a naval base.
This is not a good place to be, and Russia’s response shows how professional and skilled diplomats (like good courtroom lawyers) respond when the going gets tough. Essentially, the response is to distract and to try to change the subject: “Oh look! A squirrel!”
The squirrel in question is the effect on civilians of the last pro-democracy resolution at the Security Council, the resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians in Libya. As Russia (in my view, quite correctly) points out, the NATO allies stretched that resolution well past the breaking point, turning an authorized humanitarian mission into an unquestionable regime change campaign. Many third world countries don’t like anything that looks like the authorization of western-led regime change, and by drawing attention to NATO’s behavior in Libya, Russia hopes to muddy the waters in the discussions over Syria.
This is why Russia is demanding an accounting for civilian deaths in Libya, and denouncing NATO’s alleged failure to protect civilians or to provide an accounting for the casualties. If Russia can change the subject from Assad’s murders to the protection of the sovereignty of developing countries against western meddling and NATO hypocrisy, it hopes to defend Syria at the Security Council without losing much ground either at home or abroad.
Russia’s motives for raising the issue are not particularly inspiring, but it does have a point. The squirrel is really there. NATO stretched its Libya mandate so far that the Security Council will not be passing many resolutions of that kind in the future; the Wilsonian interventionists traded a short term UN win for a long term UN setback and will find Security Council support for liberal interventions much harder to get in the future. Rallying the third world against the imperialist west is second nature to old KGB operatives; this was their bread and butter during the Soviet period and the old slogans still work.
This won’t save Assad, perhaps, but it could save Russia’s face and for now that will have to do.