If there have ever been good times in recent history for U.S.-Russia relations, these are certainly not those times.
To begin with, there is smoldering mutual resentment over the American role in, and moral and material support for, the demonstrations following the December parliamentary elections in Russia and leading up to the March 4 presidential election. Do not preach to us, says Russia, pointing to the estimated 6,000 activists detained in more than 100 cities across the United States in the course of the "Occupy" protests.
In this context, there is a less than diplomatically harmonious atmosphere surrounding the arrival in Moscow of our new ambassador, Michael McFaul, who, having barely had time to unpack his briefcase, chose to host a group of opposition leaders at Spaso House. As Russians saw it, what would have been the reaction in Washington had a new Russian ambassador thrown a welcoming party for the Occupy movement?
Of altogether graver consequence is the war of words between Moscow, Washington, and beyond over the crisis in Syria, especially following the February 4 veto by Russia and China of a tough UN Security Council resolution on Syria targeted at the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The rhetorical fallout of this has been more colorful than illuminating: protecting a "bloodthirsty dictator" was the accusation against Russia by French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet (who added, mysteriously, "Certain political cultures deserve a kick in the backside"—leaving to conjecture whether he meant Syria, Russia, or both); his president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the veto a "scandal;" even the characteristically somewhat reserved UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon said: "This is a great disappointment to the people of Syria and the Middle East, and to all supporters of democracy and human rights."
The response from the United States was heated, if imprecise. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed the Russia-China veto a "parody." The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, added portentously: "Russia and China will be sorry they sided up with a regime in its last throes….this decision opened a gap between them and the Syrian people and all of the region." In retort, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the United States et al of acting "like a bull in a china shop" toward Syria, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Western reaction to the UN Security Council vote as "hysterical."
No one doubts the gravity of the situation in Syria. If one takes into account both UN and official Syrian casualty estimates, as of February 1, some 7,500 have died in what is now by any yardstick a civil war. So the obvious question is: What lies behind Russia's veto and its opposition to the U.S.-led hard line on Damascus? One response is: Libya. Or, to be more precise, the precedent, in Russian eyes, of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya from March 17, 2011. Under paragraph 4, "Protection of Civilians," the resolution:
"Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack . . . while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory . . ."
While not a "foreign occupation force on . . . Libyan territory," the ensuing NATO air attacks clearly represented a morphing from the narrower terms of the UN resolution to those that led to regime change. Thus, from Russia's point of view, it is disingenuous to argue, as Roula Khalaf did in the Financial Times of February 6 ("Russian veto risks bringing Syria to brink of civil war"), that:
"Despite concessions to Russia, including a clear statement the resolution did not authorize military action and the omission of any mention of an arms embargo, Moscow remains unsatisfied, exercising a veto that led to a spectacular collapse of international diplomacy on Syria."
Furthermore, in the words of Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's envoy to the European Union:
"This [draft resolution] is missing the most important thing: a clear clause ruling out the possibility that the resolution could be used to justify military intervention from outside."
Or, as Foreign Minister Lavrov was quoted in Interfax on February 4: "Russia's policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession."
Of course, Syria has enjoyed a close relationship with Russia for some 40 years, dating back to Soviet times. Syria is the last remaining customer for Russian weaponry in the region, and it should be noted that in complying with UN sanctions, Russia has lost some $13 billion in arms sales to Iran in recent years, along with about $4.5 billion sacrificed in deals with Libya.
But it would be ludicrous and unfair to restrict Russian concerns to historical sentiment or contemporary commercial interests. Russia is, understandably, profoundly disturbed at the prospect of a Syrian implosion, with the additional follow-on specter of a radical Islamist state on its vulnerable southern flank.
It is for this reason that Russia has, consistently, advocated a policy of negotiation that would—in the words of a League of Arab States proposal dating back three months, to November 2011—"[put an] end to violence, no matter where it comes from." This position was reiterated by Lavrov on February 15:
"The resolution demanded that the Syrian government immediately pull out all armed forces from cities. We insisted that a provision be added, saying that the armed [opposition] groupings must do the same. That was categorically rejected."
There is one further essential element here contained in the same Lavrov statement: how Russian (and Chinese) concerns were treated in the resolution negotiations. In the end, Lavrov explained the veto as having been exercised:
"because our Western colleagues had closed the door on further consultations, telling us they would no longer listen to our commentaries and putting this resolution to a vote in an ultimatum-like manner."
The reflexive, and understandable, reaction of the world is one of alarm and abhorrence at the ongoing violence in Syria. But even in pursuing the first, overriding priority of an end to violence—as all parties do, while advocating different means—we cannot be myopic in the matter of longer-term stability in Syria and beyond. Some unpalatable truths must be recognized:
- There is, in fact, a civil war going on. The situation in Syria cannot be conflated with the so-called "Arab Spring" movements in Egypt and Tunisia. These began as peaceful public demonstrations against authoritarian regimes; in Syria, there were armed attacks by opposition forces from the beginning. The question for the UN inherent in Russia and China's position is whether it is advisable to take sides in this civil conflict.
- The war is fueled, not only by Russia's supplying arms to its client government in Damascus, but also by the clandestine arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army by the very members of the Arab League—Saudi Arabia among them—who are calling for a cessation of hostilities.
- The Syrian opposition is also enjoying the support of al Qaeda, from the symbolic endorsement in the form of a video message from the organization's majordomo, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the likely more tangible acts of car bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.
- In the current standoff, as Andrew Quinn of the Washington institute of Near East Policy has pointed out, there is the real and alarming prospect of a proxy conflict embedded in the Syrian civil one—between Sunni Arab interests and the West on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. Can it plausibly be denied that part of the agenda that would lead to the toppling of the Assad regime in Damascus is the further isolation and weakening of Iran?
Finally, and in speaking of regime change, perhaps the cautionary words on the matter from Foreign Minister Lavrov should not be forgotten; after all, Libya and Egypt, one year on, are hardly poster children for the policy of urgent and violent overthrow.