By Patricia H. Kushlis
Is, or is not, the Cold War over? Certainly Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council last week that torpedoed the resolution calling for Assad to resign and Russia’s subsequent vote against the UN General Assembly resolution urging Assad to step down gives pause to wonder whether Russia’s leadership is indeed leading the country back to its pre-1991 days.
Or maybe the issue is whether the 70 year Communist regime foremost promulgated traditional Russian interests under the guise of leader of the Communist world and, in reality, nothing has changed over the past 20 years. Czars, Commissars and Presidents – the official title doesn’t really matter and neither does the country’s form of government. Long term Russian national strategic interests trump everything else. Or maybe it’s really the Kremlin’s fears of controlling its own population that’s the issue deep down at heart.
In short, not only has Russia’s international behavior remained the same for centuries but Syria is just the latest example of the bear baring its teeth to protect its own innards from predators from within – as much as its big power status without.
Numerous explanations have circulated throughout the media as to Russia’s vociferous defense of Assad but the three reasons I find the most compelling were those identified by Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens and Rice University’s Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian a week or so back.
These are: 1) traditional Russian righteous indignation against foreign “interference” in its internal affairs; 2) Russian moves to protect its large naval base at Targus, Syria and hence, its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean – which if the Assad regime were to fall might no longer be so permanent; and 3) Russia’s commercial interests in keeping Assad supplied with Russian military hardware regardless of how they are used or, in this case, misused.
I know that The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow on February 19, 2012 that many analysts “say that the most concrete reason for Moscow to guard its relations with Damascus is “the long standing arms sales to Syria.” On the face of it, the lucrative Russian military sales to the Syrians look impressive. “The value of Russian arms deals to Syria more than doubled during 2007-10 from $2.1 billion to $4.7 billion as compared with 2003 to 2006 according to a CRS report by veteran international security expert Richard F. Grimmett.
I don’t discount the role foreign weapons sales play to the Russian Federation’s military-industrial complex or the country’s coffers and I have great respect for Grimmett’s analytical abilities, but if the country had to write off nearly 75% of Syria’s unpaid bills in 2005, what makes the Russians any surer of recouping their costs – let alone making a profit on similar sales – this time around.
The Russian treasury – which floats or sinks on the international market price for petroleum products – should not be supporting sales of military hardware to governments that don’t pay their bills. This just makes no financial sense.
Back in Moscow – Two Weeks before the Contentious Presidential Elections
It’s pretty obvious that the cold bloodedness of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin towards the Syrian people is not designed to win hearts and minds except among despots everywhere.
I think that it’s designed at least partially to send a message to the Russian voters before the presidential elections in March. After all, if the elections are conducted fairly – Putin might not come out victorious - or not by much of a margin.
Or perhaps as Nicholai Zlobin suggests, Putin thinks he needs to show the Russian people that he’ll stand up for the country against the West. After all, Russian government rhetoric blames foreigners for instigating the months long rebellion in Syria – pointing the finger directly at the US and NATO. Just as Putin blamed the West for interference in the Russian parliamentary elections in December when Russian voters took to Youtube and then the streets to protest blatant electoral fraud by Putin and his cronies.
Seems to me this all goes back to the Russian leaders traditional paranoia and consequent willingness to go to great lengths to preserve themselves in power. Meanwhile, the Syrian people are foremost a pawn in the latest move in the Kremlin’s great games of chess. The Assad regime has lost legitimacy in the eyes of its people and without Russia's backing - weapons, food, medical supplies and other aid - it could fall within a matter of months.