By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lucian Kim is a journalist who was based in Russia for eight years and chronicled the Moscow protest movement on his blog at luciankim.com. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s euphoria over securing Russia’s joint sponsorship of a Syrian peace conference didn’t last very long. Soon after Kerry’s triumphant visit to Moscow in May, reports surfaced that Russia had made another weapons shipment to beleaguered Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s open support for the regime in Damascus didn’t stop Barack Obama from trying yet again to get President Vladimir Putin on board at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland this week. The Obama administration is being either naive or delusional in its belief that Russia will ever pull in the same direction over Syria. Putin will back al-Assad to the bitter end.
The Kremlin’s support can’t just be explained by Syria’s arms purchases or its hosting of the only Russian naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea. Putin’s rationale for propping up al-Assad is rooted in the past and goes to the core of how he views his own claim to power. By continuously misreading Russian intentions, the Obama administration is abdicating its leadership role – and granting al-Assad extra breathing room.
For one, Russia has been a guardian of the status quo at least since the 19th century. After revolutionary fervor swept Europe in 1848, Czar Nicholas I helped the Austrian monarchy crush a Hungarian uprising. Later, the Soviet Union was just as interested in keeping out the contaminating influence of western liberalism, putting down an anti-communist rebellion in Hungary and invading its satellite Czechoslovakia to quash a reform-minded government. Even the five-day war with Georgia in 2008 can be seen as a police action designed to punish an enemy and reestablish order on Russia’s southern border.
A second motivation for Kremlin intransigence over Syria is the memory of the Mujahideen, the U.S.-armed Islamic fighters who turned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into an unwinnable guerilla war. Russians don’t forget that Osama bin Laden funded the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan, and that al Qaeda and the Taliban both grew out of the Mujahideen. Putin holds a deep-seated suspicion that the West still aids Islamic extremists to damage Russian interests, for example in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region. It should come as no surprise that Russia opposes arming religiously motivated rebels in Syria.
The third reason follows from the second: a continuing belief that the U.S. will use any means – be it a smart bomb, a pro-democracy grant or Twitter – to achieve global domination. Mention of a no-fly zone over Syria doesn’t just remind Russian leaders of Libya, but also of their own impotence to stop U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. At times it seems the Kremlin has become a victim of its own anti-American propaganda. In any case, thwarting the U.S. over Syria is a kind of late revenge and raises Putin’s stature at home as a lone, defiant leader.
Finally, the Kremlin has to insist that al-Assad is the only legitimate leader of Syria because anything else would imply that street protests and outright rebellion are valid ways to change a government. As a KGB agent in East Germany, Putin watched as people power knocked down the Soviet empire like a house of cards in 1989. Now, as Russia’s supreme leader, he cannot condone regime change abroad or countenance its possibility at home.
Never has Russia looked so out of place at a G8 summit as this year. The wording on Syria in the final communiqué expressed “strong support” for the proposed peace conference, hardly a cause for hope.
Any course of action is fraught with danger. But pretending that Putin’s mind can still be changed is beginning to look like an excuse for inaction. In the meantime, al-Assad is using the delays to consolidate his gains and create facts on the ground.