Russia's Policy in Syria Born of Principled Self-interest
Russia's approach towards the crisis in Syria has attracted much criticism in Western and some Arab capitals. Moscow has supported a United Nations-led process to establish a political solution in Syria, and has periodically received visiting representatives of Syria's opposition movement over the last 18 months, but it has refused to back any UN Security Council resolution threatening sanctions or military force against the Syrian government. It has, moreover, also refused to back any demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Russia has supplied military equipment to Syria during the conflict, though deliveries were reportedly halted indefinitely in July 2012.
Statements that Russia is simply 'protecting its ally' or 'protecting its arms market' are unwarranted. Its stance on Syria is informed by a number of considerations and interests, at both an international and a regional level, as well as in Syria itself.
Defending international law and 'sovereign democracies'
Russia is determined to defend a traditional interpretation of international law that stresses respect for the sovereignty of states and the principle of non-interference in their domestic affairs. In practice, this means Russia is opposed to the imposition of economic sanctions or the threat or use of force. Ultimately, this position is informed by a concern that if these principles were further eroded, Russia or its close allies in the former Soviet space could themselves be subject to external intervention, perhaps with the blessing of the UN. The outcome of Russia's decision under then-President Dmitry Medvedev to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 - which paved the way for Western and Arab intervention in Libya's civil war in 2011 - confirmed for Vladimir Putin's inner circle the importance of bolstering the norm of non-intervention. Russian diplomats say that they believed, on the basis of conversations with their Western counterparts, that NATO air power would be used to prevent attacks on opponents of the Libyan regime; they were shocked when that air power was turned against the pillars of the regime and provided cover for rebel advances.
For Russia, the desire to reverse a growing trend towards intervention by great powers in the domestic affairs of sovereign states predates the Arab Spring. Viewed from Moscow, there was significant foreign involvement in the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia, the 2004 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine and the 2005 ouster of President Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. Particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia noted the presence of Western-established and -funded non-governmental organisations, and the fact that in both cases pro-Western governments came to power as a result of the uprisings. Some of Putin's advisers felt that this 'Orange virus' was being prepared for release on Russia itself, to promote regime change. Kremlin strategists responded by creating a youth movement that could be brought onto the streets of Moscow at short notice, to form counter-revolutionary demonstrations. Soon after, they coined the notion of a 'sovereign democracy' to justify Russia's political system as one that is distinct from Western models.
The notion that foreign states wish Russia ill and seek to subvert it is deeply held among Putin's circle. The most recent manifestations of this are a bill that forces NGOs operating in Russia with Western funding to register as 'foreign agents', and Putin's speech on the evening of his presidential election in which the tearful victor claimed that he and his supporters had overcome unidentified enemies aiming to 'destroy Russia's statehood and usurp power'.
In the case of Syria, Russia, together with China, has wielded its veto in the UN Security Council on three occasions to date. In October 2011 it vetoed draft resolution S/2011/612 which threatened the Syrian government with sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter. Russia's ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said the Council should respect 'sovereignty and non-intervention into state affairs'. In February 2012 Russia vetoed draft resolution S/2012/77, which expressed grave concern over thousands of deaths in Syria and called on all parties to the conflict to stop the violence. Though the text did not threaten military action, Russia blocked the resolution on the grounds that it sent an 'unbalanced' message to the parties in Syria, by not placing sufficient blame or conditions on the regime's opponents. The third veto, in July 2012, was of a threat of action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter unless Damascus complied with previous resolutions. Churkin said this would put the Security Council on a path to sanctions and military intervention, while taking the political process away from the structure agreed in Geneva one month earlier.
Middle Eastern interests
A second set of Russian concerns, informing its position on Syria, is located in the wider Middle East. For Russia, the most important country in the region is Iran - a close ally of Assad's Syria. As far as Iran is concerned, Russia has nowhere to hide on the Syrian issue: because it holds a veto as a permanent member, it is the state able to block a Security Council resolution threatening sanctions or the eventual use of force.
Maintaining good relations with Iran is important for Russia for many reasons. Both are Caspian Sea states and, as the incumbent naval powers, share an interest in regulating the build-up of other Caspian navies and in precluding the introduction of any more naval forces into the sea. They also have common interests regarding the resolution of legal disputes in the Caspian and are united in opposing the construction of oil and gas pipelines on the seabed. Iran, furthermore, is an important customer for Russia's arms and particularly its nuclear-power technologies. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Iran has since the dissolution of the Soviet Union helped Russia to keep in check the spread of militancy in the states of the South Caucasus and the Russian North Caucasus. A rupture in relations with Tehran could reverse this process and lead to a deepening of the security problems that Russia endures on its restive southern flank.
As well as being an attempt to stay in Iran's good books, Russia's stance on Syria is informed by worries about rising instability in states close to Syria. Russia fears what might happen if a collapse of the Syrian state resulted in the proliferation of Syria's large cache of chemical weapons. It worries too about the potential for events in Syria to stoke a range of deeply destabilising dynamics in the Middle East, by setting Muslims against other religious groupings and Sunnis against Shias, and by encouraging militant extremists.
Months before Western governments went public with their concerns that fighters aligned with al-Qaeda were active in Syria, the phenomenon was noted with alarm by Russian state officials and commentators - including among the latter some who are ordinarily trenchant critics of their own government. Unlike Western powers, Russia condemned the attack - reportedly by a suicide bomber - on the national security headquarters in Damascus on 18 July 2012, which killed the defence minister and his deputy. Many in Russia were at a loss to understand why Western states were either turning a blind eye to the growing presence of terrorists in Syria or supporting them with arms and other forms of assistance. The murder on 11 September 2012 of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, by militants in Benghazi was regarded by Russian commentators as a tragic justification of their critique of Western policy - that by making common cause with extremists, the West is playing with fire.
Western states share Russia's concerns about the risk of violence among different ethnic and religious groups, and of the encouragement of terrorists. But Russia and the West differ on the solution, because the former backs Assad to resolve Syria's crisis whereas the latter insists on Assad departing - despite the huge accompanying uncertainties.
Stakes in Syria
Finally, Russia has a range of national interests in Syria itself: a naval base; a large arms market; other commercial opportunities; a friendly government; and a large number of nationals and other people who might look to Russia for sanctuary. The Russian naval facility at Tartus is its only such base beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union. It serves as a refuelling station rather than as a base for Russian vessels and currently has limited utility to a navy that is suffering the effects of three decades of under-investment. Nevertheless, it represents a toehold for Russia in the eastern Mediterranean until such a time as Russia's navy is able to make its presence felt in the region on a more sustained basis.
Tartus is also the base for Russian military personnel supporting the long-established arms trade between the two countries. Research from the Russian think tank CAST shows that Syria was Russia's second-largest arms customer in 2011, after China; Syria accounted for 15% of total sales of $3.7 billion. The sales included air-defence systems, anti-ship missiles, helicopters and tank upgrades. The sum of these deliveries dwarfed Russian sales to the rest of the Middle East, including Algeria, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Russia has a reasonable expectation of continuing sales to Syria because its military equipment is well established within the Syrian armed forces. Western sanctions on Syria have also increased the opportunity for Russia's oil, gas and power firms to invest in the country. This is a further benefit for Russia of having an ally such as Assad in power, in a region where Russia has few firm friends.
Within Syria, Russia also has plenty of its own nationals to worry about. The number of military personnel is at least several hundred. In addition, because in the 1980s many Syrians studied in Russian universities, there are a large number of Russian nationals who are married to Syrians and reside in Syria. Estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000, and it should be noted that this counts only Russian passport holders rather than their family members. For a variety of reasons, the Russian community is regarded as supportive of Assad. If the regime falls, its situation in Syria could become very awkward, to the point that it might not be tenable.
There is a still-larger number of people, estimated at 50,000-100,000, who might look to Russia for sanctuary in the event of the continued deterioration of security in Syria. These are the ethnic Circassians, whose ancestors left their homelands close to the Black Sea and resettled in the Levant in the second half of the nineteenth century, as tsarist Russia expanded. They too are considered to be part of Assad's minority coalition, and many of them reside in places that have seen heavy fighting and popular displacement. Moscow is concerned about the prospect of Circassians relocating from Syria to the febrile republics of the North Caucasus, where their Russian kin reside. This is mainly because of the pressure that such a movement would put on labour markets and government resources in the North Caucasus. But it also reflects wariness about dealing with Circassians as the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi approach. Sochi is ancient Circassian land, and elements of the Circassian diaspora wish to use the games as an opportunity to draw attention to what they regard as the Circassian genocide of the nineteenth century.
Not for turning
The depth and range of Russia's interests in Syria set it apart from the other permanent members of the Security Council. These relate directly to matters of importance for any government: defence-sector jobs, export and investment opportunities, the cultivation and maintenance of allies, and avoiding an influx of refugees. Russia's defence of the international legal precept of non-interference in sovereign states is likewise primarily a matter of self-interest, though it should be noted that Russia has been consistent on the question of foreign intervention since the Arab uprisings began (in contrast to Western states). Russia is not, however, merely looking out for itself in the Syrian case. The increase in militant activity in Syria - as well as the death of the US ambassador to Libya - has strengthened the conviction of Russia's decision-makers that they have a better sense than their Western counterparts of how stability and security in the Middle East should be maintained. It is difficult to see that conviction wavering any time soon.