Given how badly Russia got burned by its steadfast support for Muammar Gaddafi, I’ve been reading a little of the debate in the Russian press about Moscow’s isolated stance on Syria. That experience, combined with the horrific UN report on the killings and torture of civilians, makes me curious about the Kremlin’s rationale.

Yes, I know Russia has a naval base in Syria and is a major weapons supplier to Damascus. And maybe that’s all there is to it.

Airing what may be the Kremlin’s side, the government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta ran a commentary (no link available) earlier this month that essentially said Moscow is trying to avoid instability and chaos (those specters that seem to haunt the Kremlin’s waking moments) in order to protect its investments. Yevgeniy Shestakov acknowledged that the regime’s attempts “to suppress the religious opposition’s demonstrations with the use of force are only complicating the job of Russian diplomats.” The stubborn opposition refuses to sit down with Assad, he noted, who in turn is happy to play for time.

Even if Moscow sensed which way the wind is blowing and decided to shift alliances, it’s stuck where it is, Shestakov argues:

It is already too late to reorder our priorities, take the side of the Syrian opposition, and ‘give up’ Assad, as some Russian political analysts are advising. The opponents of the regime will not forgive Russia’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia makes the same mistake again and ostentatiously refuses to support the Syrian regime, it will lose all of its influence in the region. The Western press has reported the parameters of Russia’s interests in Syria – contracts for arms deliveries for $4 billion and investments of $20 billion in the oil and gas industry.

Still, Shestakov says, with the mounting death toll, an invasion of Syria, along with great losses for Russia, “seems inevitable.”

An unsigned editorial in Vedomosti (no link) takes a different view, but ends up in a similar place. It acknowledges the stake Russia has in this conflict, and agrees that it’s too late. The only way out for Russia now is to persuade Damascus to enact reforms. But that’s not going to happen, the magazine predicts. “Any concessions would lead to the weakening of al-Asad’s power, and free elections would end with the fall of his regime.”

It concludes: ‘A hard-line course of supporting the Syrian regime will only prolong its existence and create favorable conditions for mass shootings and purges.”

In Forbes, Konstantin von Eggert writes of the frustration of an unnamed European diplomat who, he said, had tried unsuccessfully to get his Russian counterparts to explain why they were a “hair’s breadth” away from making the same mistake they made in Libya. Russian professions that they wish to be mediators lose credibility with Moscow’s outright defense of Assad’s position, von Eggert argues. Even the need to protect its assets could be costing Russia much more than arms contracts and a base if the Kremlin continues to “deny reality,” he writes.

But the most interesting bit of his argument lies elsewhere. Von Eggert writes:

It seems to me that the strange persistence of Moscow is due to its fundamental unwillingness to even indirectly support any actions that hint at a change of regime. For the Russian leadership it is a painful subject, which evokes the defeat of the ‘cold war’ and the subsequent disappearance of the Soviet Union. In the minds of many leaders of Russia, that was to a large extent the result of “subversion” of the U.S. against the Soviet Union. In addition, Vladimir Putin and his team still retain bad memories of the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution.” They are convinced that without Western interference in Tbilisi and Kyiv, they would not have happened and that at the first opportunity, the Americans and the European Union would incite something like that on the streets of Moscow.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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