Russian views on Syria more nuanced than they may appear

CNN reports: The Russian government shares many of the U.S. concerns about the continuing violence in Syria, but Moscow is reluctant to embrace Washington’s proposals to solve them because it is wary of its motives, experts say.

“I was in Moscow a little over a week ago talking to our people in the embassy,” former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock told CNN Tuesday in a telephone interview. “They characterized our positions as 95% the same.”

For example, he said, Moscow has complied with many U.S. demands on weapons sales. “They have not been giving them offensive weapons; they’ve cut way back on weapons supplies. And just recently they’ve refused to supply contracted weapons.”

He noted that Russian government officials were to meet with members of the Syrian opposition in Moscow.

And Russian officials have backed most of the international sanctions imposed on Damascus, he said. “They are acutely aware that they don’t want to end up on the wrong side of this.”

But Russia joined China in using its veto power to block a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, which elicited anger from U.S. officials and others.

The elephant in the region is Libya. Last year, Russia abstained from a Security Council vote authorizing NATO’s use of force to protect civilians in Libya. The Russians saw the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as having exceeded the mandate.

“We cannot allow a repeat of such scenarios in other countries, in Syria, for example,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday at a meeting in Moscow of Russian ambassadors and representatives of international organizations. “I believe that we must do everything possible to press the parties in this conflict into negotiating a peaceful political solution to all issues of dispute. We must do all we can to facilitate such a dialogue. Of course this is a more complex and subtle undertaking than intervention using brute force from outside, but only this process can guarantee a lasting settlement and future stable development in the region, and in Syria’s case, in the country itself.”

In addition, the Russians have looked warily at the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and plans to include their southeastern neighbors Georgia and the Ukraine in NATO, he said. “The Russians have an almost mania that we are trying to control the world, to surround them with military means, and that there are elements, including the government, that are trying to, in effect, use the Arab Spring to bring a bunch of satellites under American military control,” said Matlock.

“I think they’re wrong about many of those things, but it’s genuinely held.” Moscow’s belief that the United States is playing a zero-sum game against them “makes them hypercautious about cooperating,” he said.

Further complicating the issue is Moscow’s concern that extremist Islamists could emerge as powers to be reckoned with in countries affected by the Arab Spring, Matlock said.

“Here again, I think they are misunderstanding and exaggerating, but the point is that their position is not primarily motivated by trying to protect Assad in Syria. They do have interests there, but those interests are really subordinate to some of these other factors.”

Though Moscow has moved to boost pressure on al-Assad, there are limits to how far it will go, he said. “Will they vote at the U.N. for military intervention from the outside? No, they won’t. And I hope they won’t. I think that would be a disaster for everybody. The fact is nobody has a reliable solution to end this. The idea if only they would vote for us and Assad would give up and everything would be sweetness and light? That’s looking for pie in the sky.” [Continue reading…]

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