Ruslan Pukhov writes: Many Russians believe that the collapse of the Assad government would be tantamount to the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East and the final elimination of traces of former Soviet prowess there — illusory as those traces may be. They believe that Western intervention in Syria (which Russia cannot counter militarily) would be an intentional profanation of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s status as a great world power.
Such attitudes are further buttressed by widespread pessimism about the eventual outcome of the Arab Spring, and the Syrian revolution in particular. Most Russian observers believe that Arab revolutions have completely destabilized the region and cleared the road to power for the Islamists. In Moscow, secular authoritarian governments are seen as the sole realistic alternative to Islamic dominance.
The continuing struggles in Arab countries are seen as a battle by those who wear neckties against those who do not wear them. Russians have long suffered from terrorism and extremism at the hands of Islamists in the northern Caucasus, and they are therefore firmly on the side of those who wear neckties.
To people in Moscow, Mr. Assad appears not so much as “a bad dictator” but as a secular leader struggling with an uprising of Islamist barbarians. The active support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey’s Islamist government for rebels in Syria only heightens suspicions in Russia about the Islamist nature of the current opposition in Syria and rebels throughout the Middle East.
Finally, Russians are angry about the West’s propensity for unilateral interventionism — not to mention the blatantly broad interpretation of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council and the direct violations of those resolutions in Libya.
According to this view, the West, led by America, demonstrated its cynicism, perfidy and a typical policy of double standards. That’s why all the Western moralizing and calls for intervention in Syria are perceived by the Russian public as yet another manifestation of cynical hypocrisy of the worst kind.
There is no doubt that preserving his own power is also on Mr. Putin’s mind as his authoritarian government begins to wobble in the face of growing protests that enjoy political approval and support from the West. He cannot but sympathize with Mr. Assad as a fellow autocratic ruler struggling with outside interference in domestic affairs.
But ideological solidarity is a secondary factor at best. Mr. Putin is capitalizing on traditional Russian suspicions of the West, and his support for Mr. Assad is based on the firm conviction that an Islamist-led revolution in Syria, especially one that receives support through the intervention of Western and Arab states, will seriously harm Russia’s long-term interests.