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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.