Why did they do it? This is the question that many in the Middle East are asking about Russia’s veto of a United Nations’ Security Council resolution on Syria.
In itself, the veto is neither here nor there. The uprising in Syria is unlikely to end because of it. Even if President Bashar al-Assad manages to hang on a bit longer, his crippled regime would not be much good to Russia or anyone else.
Nor is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s hastily arranged visit to Damascus a sign that Moscow is able to save Assad’s doomed regime. In fact, Moscow has been briefing journalists with the claim that Lavrov went to Damascus to persuade Assad to step aside. If Assad goes because Russia asked him to do, Lavrov and his boss would not feel excluded as they did over other events in the “Arab Spring”.
Thus, we should not interpret Russia’s move as a vote of confidence in Assad. The move may have other reasons.
In tactical terms, the veto could enable Vladimir Putin, seeking to return as president, mobilise his support base on the eve of an increasingly difficult election.
Putin is caught in a pincer one arm of which consists of the re-energised Communist Party while Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s chauvinist outfit represents the other.
The two hate each other but are united by anti-West sentiments. They see the Syrian revolt, indeed the “Arab Spring”, as an extension of the West’s sphere of influence. By taking an anti-West stance, Putin is adopting a profile that appeals to Communists and chauvinists.
He also hopes to discourage the Russian pro-democracy movement that is working hard to cut him down to size. Putin’s message is: no “Arab Spring” in Russia!
Since the 19th century, the Russian elite have been divided between Westernisers and Slavophils. Peter the Great was an early Westerniser as were such writers as Herzen and Turgenev. Tsar Alexander II was an enthusiastic Slavophil along with such writers as Khomyakov, Samarin and, more recently, Solzhenitsyn.
Shorn of its pseudo-philosophical jargon, Slavophilia is a cocktail of nationalism, authoritarian government and the cult of the “providential man”. Profoundly anti-democratic it preaches the hope of uniting all Slavs under the Russian flag and the fear of Russia falling under foreign domination. Originally, Tatars and Muslims in general furnished the fear element. In the past 100 years, the West has emerged as the bogeyman.
That Putin should be attracted to such a discourse is no surprise. A product of the KGB, the Soviet secret service, he is programmed to see politics as a collection of conspiracies through which the West tries to isolate, weaken and, ultimately, dismember Russia. The fear that the Russian Federation might end up as the old Soviet empire did is matched with the hope of reviving the empire through bullying, bribing and, as in Georgia in 2008, outright invasion.
Though Muslims account for 20 per cent of Russia’s population, thanks to high birthrates they represent the fastest growing religious community.
Putin has always been haunted by the fear of Muslim revolts.
This is why he tore up the agreement negotiated by Alexander Lebed with Chechnya’s President Aslan Makhsadov, and waged total war against the Chechens. What Assad was doing in Homs last week, Putin did in Grozny, the Chechen capital, for 10 years.
It is with consternation that the former KGB agent watches the United States establish military bases and missile sites in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia, realizing John Foster Dulles’s Cold War strategy of “Quarantine the Aggressor”.
Three decades ago, the Soviet navy had bases and mooring rights in six Mediterranean countries while the US Sixth Fleet had similar facilities in only four.
With the recent change in Libya, the Russian navy is left with no base in the Mediterranean apart from Tartus in Syria. In a major conflict, its positions in the Sea of Azov and the Crimean Peninsula could turn into the double springs of a mousetrap. The Mediterranean has been turned into a NATO lake.
Russia has also lost the bulk of its markets for arms. In the 1960s the USSR was the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with radical Arab regimes among its best clients. Today, with the exception of Iran and Syria, the Greater Middle East is closed to Russian arms.
Whether we like it or not Russia is a presence in the Greater Middle East. That it is shutting itself out of the mainstream of historic developments in the region is in no one’s interest.
he Russian veto on Syria was produced by a negative reflex rather than well-thought analysis.
The truth is that Russia has no coherent policy with regard to a sensitive region on its doorsteps. Saying “niet” is easy; but it is no substitute for policy.
Putin has put Russia’s Middle East policy on a wrong trajectory, against the flow of history.
Even under Putin, Russia is no longer “the enemy” of the West and represents no existential threat.
However, because of its geography, history and aspirations, Russia aspires to, and to some extent is capable of, acting as a rival, a challenger or even an adversary of Western powers led by the United States.
No one could deny Russia such a role, provided the Russian people wish to play it. The trouble with Putin is that he does not know the difference between “enemy” and ”rival” and between “conflict” and “competition.”
Last week’s veto has incited Arab public opinion against Russia. However, the real challenge is how to accommodate Russia by making it understand and appreciate what Primakov labeled “the flow of history” in the region.
Despite its authoritarian excesses, the Putin regime is not in the same category as Assad’s medieval sectarian despotism.
Putin was wrong to back Milosevic, Karadzic and Gaddafi, to name just three losers, to their bitter end. He would also be wrong to throw in his lot with another loser: Assad.
(The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat on Feb 10, 2012)