By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
As Syrian atrocities have escalated, so too has U.S. frustration with Russian intransigence. On July 19, after Russia and China vetoed sanctions against the al-Assad regime, the White House called their decision “deplorable and regrettable.”
There are many reasons for Russian intransigence. With the Mediterranean port of Tartus, Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a realist – he clearly believes that Russia gains more by sticking with Bashar al-Assad than gambling on the regime that will follow.
Yet while Putin is no democrat, he isn’t completely detached from public opinion either. The problem is that he will face little criticism at home for a simple reason: while the Russian public is aware of the violence in Syria, it remains largely ignorant of the al-Assad regime’s brutality.
When the Russian press reports the latest Syria news, it by and large lacks any real detail and analysis, instead parroting the official Kremlin line that the Syrians oppose outside intervention. The Western press, in contrast, teems not only with first-hand reports, but also interviews that offer a broad range of perspectives, discussion and debate.
For a start, the Western media has been reporting about interviews with survivors and activists, covering the debate about which specific groups Assad’s army targeted in these massacres, and publishing a myriad of opinions.
Take, for example, the alleged July 12 massacre in the village of Tremseh. “People had their throats slit,” one resident told Agence France Presse, which also reported graffitied slogans such as “Bashar is president or we will burn down the country!” London’s Guardian quoted an opposition activist, who explained: “it appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Tremseh after its rebel defenders pulled out and started killing the people...Every family in the town seems to have members killed.” The Telegraph added important context that most recent massacres have all involved Sunni villages dominated by the Alawite minority. The violence, it seems, isn’t simply indiscriminate, but rather appears to be more like ethnic cleansing.
Compare this to Russian reports. Most say responsibility is unclear. Russian agencies shouldn’t lack sources – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserts that Syria hosts as many as 100,000 Russian citizens. But Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s newspaper of record, reported as fact Lavrov’s conviction that the “lion’s share” of the Syrian public supported al-Assad, and accused the State Department of lacking precision.
Meanwhile, even as the Western press has reported extensively on the shabiha (“Ghosts”), a pro-al-Assad vigilante group complicit in the worst abuses, Russia’s Vesti.ru, website of a popular television station, infused its July 15 reporting on the shabiha with moral equivalency, suggesting that those slain by the group were armed insurgents.
Press freedom seems important here. Reporters Without Borders ranks Russia as 142 out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom in its latest global rankings. Because some independent news permeates Russia online, the Kremlin is moving toward a China-style “internet wall.” Earlier this month, for example, the Russian parliament passed a bill allowing broad internet censorship. Putin is further limiting press freedom with a new law to require non-governmental organizations who receive funding from non-Russian sources to register as “foreign agents,” raising the specter of independent journalists being branded as foreign spies.
The Obama administration has made a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations a cornerstone of their foreign policy, but the Russians haven’t played along. Alas, so long as Putin faces no domestic pressure, he has no incentive to be on the correct side of history in Syria. If the Russian people – and Russian investors – understood the true nature of Assad, they might be less willing to play along. Media freedom reverberates, and whether on Syria, Georgia, or Iran, sometimes it becomes a pre-requisite for winning true cooperation.