MESOP COMMENTARY : Why Putin supports Assad

Peter Eltsov – April 4, 2013 – Peter Eltsov is currently the Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie University in Berlin.

There has been much discussion in the media surrounding the reasons behind the Russian government’s support of Bashar al-Assad. Analysts point out that Russia has both economic and political interests in preserving the status quo in Syria. Indeed, the Russian government is concerned with things such as the Russian naval facility in Tartus, Russian-Syrian arms deals, the Islamic radicalization of Syria, and the expansion of U.S. geopolitical influence.

Officially, Moscow claims that it does not support Assad, but is trying to stop civil war in Syria. Putin reiterated this position at the Russia-EU summit held in Brussels in December 2012, stating that the aim of Russian policy toward Syria is to facilitate negotiations between the government of Syria and the Syrian opposition. Putin also said that economic interests are less important: instead, he asserted, the primary concern of Russia’s policy in Syria was to prevent the disintegration of the Syrian state.

On February 2, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib in Munich. The content of their meeting was not made public, yet Khatib previously stated that he was open to negotiations with Assad. On February 25, Lavrov received Syria’s foreign minister Walid Muallem in Moscow. Lavrov stated that “the position of Russia is not about supporting individual leaders; it is determined by concerns for the future of the Syrian people…and the future of this ancient country, which cannot be destroyed.” Muallem claimed that the opposition to the government of Syria was led by al-Qaeda.On February 27, during his first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov restated that Russia supported negotiations between Syrian opposition leaders and Assad’s government. Most recently, during a Russia-China summit in Moscow from March 22 to 24, both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping reiterated their joint effort to defend each other’s national sovereignty. Their communiqué also affirmed the right of nations to choose their own path of social development, responding not only to alleged Western attempts to influence political developments in Russia and China, but also clearly asserting the joint Russian-Chinese position on Syria, i.e., that a forced military solution by the West is unacceptable.

This being said, something else is behind the motivation of Vladimir Putin and his inner circle to support the Syrian regime. Czar Alexander the III (1881-1894) once stated that “Russia has only two allies: its army and navy.” Putin must agree with his predecessor’s famous motto. When asked by a Russian journalist whether, by supporting Assad, Russia may lose its influence not only in Syria but in the whole of the Middle East, Putin answered patronizingly: “My Dear, My Dear! Come on! Didn’t Russia already lose its influence in Libya after the invaders made such a mess there? In whatever manner they explain their position, the state is falling apart. Conflicts between ethnic groups, clans, and tribes continue. Moreover, their policies brought the tragedy of the murder of the ambassador of the United States” (Televised Press Conference, December 20, 2012).

In justifying his policies with regard to Syria, Putin likes to refer to Libya. When Gaddafi was killed, Putin expressed his outrage and blamed the murder directly on the U.S. and NATO. “They annihilated him without a trial and investigation!” Watching the final moments of Gaddafi, Putin might have thought of himself, even if there is absolutely no prospect of NATO military intervention in his country. The Russian president realizes that, in the (admittedly remote) case of a mass uprising against him, only Russia’s army and navy may help.

The Russian president and his supporters are convinced that both the Arab spring and the series of revolutions in the post-Soviet states were orchestrated in the United States. Likewise, Putin blames his own opposition for collaborating with the U.S. and the West. The absurdity of accusations goes so far as blaming the U.S. State Department for controlling the internet (an assertion made by the head of Putin’s electoral committee, the renowned film director Stanislav Govorukhin).Putin’s distrust of the United States has growing support among the Russian electorate, even if they have little direct influence on foreign policy. On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians were fascinated by the United States. Today, most are deeply disillusioned with the intentions of U.S. foreign policy. Paradoxically, anti-Americanism in modern Russia is both stronger and more genuine than in the Soviet Union. The rise of anti-American sentiments started with the bombing of Serbia and culminated in the support of the United States for Mikheil Saakashvili during the Russian-Georgian War. Many Russian commentators see U.S. foreign policy as a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty: both the U.S. missile defense in Eastern Europe and the spread of U.S. influence in the post-Soviet states are seen by many in Russia as a cordon sanitaire built along Russia’s borders.

Playing on these sentiments, Putin presents the intentions of the United States in the Middle East as colonialist. The Russian government denies the right of one nation to interfere in the affairs of another. This policy reflects not only concerns about Russia’s territorial integrity, but also the general distrust of liberal values. Current politics demonstrate a reality that Putin’s Russia is friendlier in tone to China and Iran than to the United States and Great Britain, common interests notwithstanding. In his speech at the recent Russia-China summit, Putin called the Chinese delegation ‘friends,’ while he usually calls the Americans ‘partners.’

Last but not least, nostalgia for both the USSR and czarist Russia play an increasingly important role in Russian politics. As Putin famously stated, “One who does not regret the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart; one who wants its return has no brain.” Syria is the last resort for the Russian president to show his muscle outside of Russia. After losing respect in Europe, he is desperately trying to maintain his influence elsewhere in the world. This also highlights a crucial aspect of Russian political culture – the fact that many Russian people favor a strong and centralized individual power. The words of the Oscar-winning film director and Putin’s personal friend Nikita Mikhalkov that the best form of government for Russia is monarchy are not that much off the mark. Russia indeed always had czars in power: Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Michael Gorbachev, and even pro-western Boris Yeltsin were de facto czars.

Putin’s support for Assad is in line with this type of political philosophy. The Russian president is trying to convey his conviction that monarchies and dictatorships are not necessarily worse than the democratic forms of government. When asked by a Danish journalist why he called the West’s involvement in Libya ‘a crusade,’ Putin answered didactically: “Look at the map of the region. Are there democracies like the one in Denmark there? There are monarchical states there all over the place. It reflects the mentality of population and the customs that they have formed there.” Undoubtedly, these words reflect Putin’s concern for the future of Russia to no lesser degree than his concern for the future of Syria. Putin’s support for the Assad regime is thus an issue of Russia’s rather than Syria’s position in the modern world.

Peter Eltsov is currently the Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie University in Berlin.