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What's Driving Russia's Tactical Change On Syria?

Sep 11, 2013
Originally published on September 11, 2013 7:14 pm

For months, Russia has been playing a defensive game on Syria, blocking U.N. resolutions that could have led to the ouster of its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Russia is now on the offense, running with a plan that could avert U.S.-led strikes against Syria by having Syria place its chemical weapons under international control.

So why the change in tactics?

There are several different strands in Russian thinking on the issue.

A little more than a week ago — when it seemed most likely that the United States would lead a military strike against Syria — Russian history professor and analyst Georgiy Mirsky was asked what Russia should do.

"Bloody nothing," he responded. "Russia doesn't have to do anything at all. Just sit tight and watch America starting a new war it can't win."

Russia moved some warships from its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean, but officials from Moscow made it clear that they would not be there to take military action on Assad's behalf.

In fact, Mirsky acknowledged, there wasn't much that Russia could do, if the United States and its allies decided to attack.

James Goldgeier, the dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., says President Vladimir Putin has tried to bring Russia back, but "it's not the power that it once was."

"[Russia's] geostrategic position has changed drastically," he says. "It doesn't have as much reach as it used to have. It doesn't have as much influence."

Goldgeier and Mirsky agree that a strong element of Russia's foreign policy has been that Putin should be seen as standing up to the United States — not just on Syria, but on other issues, such as asylum for Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA contractor.

But the prospect of U.S.-led strikes against Syria meant that Russia could also be seen as militarily impotent, moving warships around while the West did whatever it pleased.

Analyst Alexander Konovalov says Russia has real concerns, too, that strikes on Syria could morph into a wider regional war on Russia's borders, pitting Turkey against Iran.

He quotes a bitter saying that Turkey and Iran would be willing to fight to the last drop of Syrian blood.

Konovalov, who is president of a think tank called the Institute of Strategic Assessments, says the plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control seemed like a win-win situation "because it allows practically every engaged party to get out of this trap and to save face politically."

Russians are well aware of U.S. polls that show strong public opposition to the idea of a strike against Syria, as well as President Obama's uphill struggle to get congressional approval for the effort.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, says Russia saw an opportunity for a diplomatic triumph because the chemical weapons plan offered something for everyone.

"Americans can say that our pressure on Assad, and our threats, produced a result," he says. "Russia can say that it prevented a war. Assad can say — or can feel — that he avoided the worst-case scenario. And in general, it looks like a very successful cooperation on the international level."

Lukyanov says the next challenge will be whether Russia can get a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes the plan without allowing for military action if Syria fails to comply.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

For months, Russia has been playing a defensive game over Syria, blocking U.N. resolutions that could have led to the ouster of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia is now on offense. It's running with a plan that could avert U.S.-led strikes against Syria by having Syria place its chemical weapons under international control. Why the change in tactics? From Moscow, NPR's Corey Flintoff has been looking for answers.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: When it seemed most likely that the United States would lead a military strike against Syria, Russian history professor and analyst Georgiy Mirsky was asked what Russia should do.

GEORGIY MIRSKY: Bloody nothing. Russia doesn't have to do anything at all. Just sit tight and watch America starting a new war it can't win.

FLINTOFF: Russia had moved some more ships from its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean. But officials made it clear that they would not be there to take military action on Assad's behalf. In fact, Mirsky acknowledges, there wasn't much that Russia could do if the U.S. and its allies decided to attach. James Goldgeier, the dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, explains why.

JAMES GOLDGEIER: Putin has tried to bring Russia back, but it's not the power that it once was, and its geostrategic position in the world has changed drastically. It doesn't have as much reach as it used to have. It doesn't have as much influence.

FLINTOFF: Goldgeier and Mirsky agree that a strong element of Russia's foreign policy has been that President Putin should be seen as standing up to the United States, not just on Syria but on other issues such as asylum for the fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But the prospect of U.S.-led strikes against Syria meant that Russia could also be seen as militarily impotent, moving warships around while the West did whatever it pleased.

Analyst Alexander Konovalov says Russia has real concerns, too, that strikes on Syria could morph into a wider regional war on Russia's borders, pitting Turkey against Iran. He quotes a bitter saying that Turkey and Iran would be willing to fight to the last drop of Syrian blood. Konovalov, who is president of a think tank called the Institute of Strategic Assessments, says the plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control seemed like a win-win situation.

ALEXANDER KONOVALOV: Because it allows practically every engaged party to get out of this trap and to save the face, politically.

FLINTOFF: Russians are well aware of the U.S. polls that show strong public opposition to the idea of a strike against Syria as well as President Obama's uphill struggle to get congressional approval for the effort. Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, says Russia saw an opportunity for a diplomatic triumph because the chemical weapons plan offered something for everyone.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: Americans can say that our pressure on Assad and our threats produced a result. Russia can say that it prevented a big war. Assad can say or can feel that he avoided the worst-case scenario. And in general, it looks like a very successful cooperation on the international level.

FLINTOFF: Lukyanov says the next challenge will be whether Russia can get a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes the plan without allowing for military action if Syria fails to comply. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.