Russia’s increasingly vigorous support of Syria’s beleaguered government cannot solely be explained as an earnest desire to help its longtime partner and biggest importer of conventional weapons in the Middle East, experts in Moscow say.
Moscow’s stance, they say, also reflects a politically inspired eagerness to confront the West as well as the Kremlin’s fear of the fast-growing internal opposition movement since December’s parliamentary vote, which was marred by accusations of fraud and ballot stuffing.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a return to the presidency in a March election, “is convinced that any popular protest in any part of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Russia, is inspired by the U.S. White House and sponsored by the State Department,” Moscow political and defense analyst Alexander Golts said.
“The closer to the March election, the more evidence the Kremlin will produce to indicate the U.S. involvement and it is becoming a key point on the agenda in Putin’s presidential campaign,” said Golts, who is deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, a liberal online publication.
In the last two weeks, a flotilla of Russian warships led by the aircraft carrier Adm. Kuznetsov called at the Syrian port of Tartus and a Russian-managed vessel allegedly unloaded tons of ammunition.
Russia and China blocked a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria in October, and this week Moscow proposed its own draft resolution in which “nothing can be interpreted to allow the use of force,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it this week.
The White House has grown increasingly wary of the Kremlin’s tough defense of the Syrian government, which stands accused of killing thousands of protesters during largely peaceful street rallies.
Susan Rice, the American envoy to the United Nations, said Tuesday in Geneva that the U.S. has “very grave concerns about arms flows into Syria from any source,” and she lashed out at Russia for opposing sanctions and an arms embargo on Syria that she said were overdue.
The Kremlin immediately responded by slamming U.S. and European sanctions on Damascus and saying that Russia has no need to apologize for its weapon deliveries.
“We don’t consider it necessary to explain and justify ourselves in connection with a Russian vessel unloading at a Syrian port, as Russia doesn’t violate any international agreements and U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Lavrov said Wednesday. “Our country trades with Syria in only what is not banned by international law.”
Syria has had strong political and military ties to Russia for decades. In 1980, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed a friendship and assistance treaty with Syria’s then-ruler Hafez Assad. Since then, 90% of Syria’s weaponry has come from Moscow, including, tanks, missiles, antiaircraft artillery and firearms.
“Russia has articulated a firm position … not to allow the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria, as the Kremlin will block any U.N. decision in that direction,” Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the monthly magazine National Defense, said Friday. “Russia is ready to do anything short of direct military involvement in the conflict.”
Last month, Putin accused the State Department of meddling in Russian affairs and inciting riots in Moscow.
“They will be locking the United States in a fight over Syria and the antiballistic defense in Europe only to prevent it from alleged involvement in Russian domestic affairs on the eve of the presidential vote,” Golts said.