Uncharacteristically defensive over Russia's veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that he will travel to Damascus Tuesday to urge Mr. Assad to stabilize his strife-torn country through rapid democratic reforms.
Mr. Lavrov and other Russian officials were in full damage control mode Monday after a weekend that saw a global outpouring of criticism directed at Russia and China for blocking unified action on the growing crisis in Syria.
The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, called the vetoes "disgusting," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced them as a "travesty," and crowds of protesters in the Lebanese capital of Beirut and the Libyan capital of Tripoli staged furious demonstrations outside the Russian embassies.
"There are some in the West who have given evaluations of the vote on Syria in the United Nations Security Council that sound, I would say, indecent and perhaps on the verge of hysterical," Lavrov said. "Those who get angry are rarely right."
Lavrov insisted that Russia was willing to come to a consensus with other Security Council members, but that its proposed amendments were shot down and the resolution was put to a vote Saturday in a "hasty" way that seemed to invite Russia's veto in order to make Moscow look guilty for the ongoing violence in Syria.
"We asked them [supporters of the anti-Assad resolution] to wait a few days before putting it to a vote," while Russian officials traveled to Syria this week for consultations with Assad, Lavrov said. "But they thought it more important to transfer the blame for what is happening.... Their unwillingness to wait for us to return from Damascus is a clear case of disrespect. It is sad that the resolution met such a fate."
He added that he will go to Damascus anyway, in an effort to use Russian diplomatic leverage to pressure Assad into dialogue with his opponents.
"We've repeatedly urged Syria to speed up reforms and we are continuing to do so," Lavrov said. "But we also notice that there are those who have other goals, who are trying to use this situation to promote regime change in Syria."
Russia as scapegoat
Several pro-government experts insisted Monday that Russia is being scapegoated for the violence in Syria because it has traditional good relations with that country that it is loathe to abandon.
They argue that the West, not Russia, is fanning the flames of sectarian civil war by recklessly backing Syria's armed opposition without any strategy for dealing with the state collapse and social catastrophe that's likely in the wake of Assad's overthrow.
"The USA and the West insisted that the resolution had to be passed, allowing outside interference, in order to stop the massacre," of Syrian civilians, says Pyotr Romanov, a political analyst with the official RIA-Novosti news agency in Moscow. "But Russia doesn't believe any resolution will stop the West from interfering. The situation will probably resolve itself when Assad is driven out. But has anyone given any thought to what happens next? Are you really trying to tell us that good moral forces will come to power? People with no blood on their hands, who will bring anything decent, much less democracy? Please."
Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee, says that Western leaders' refusal to include a clause that would rule out any invocation of Article 42 of the UN Charter – which would authorize the use of force – proves that the West's intentions toward Syria are hostile.
"We were not against the resolution, but we wanted such a clause inserted to ensure that no military interference in Syria was intended, but our demand was not met," says Mr. Klimov. "We considered this to be a matter of principle, and we still do. . . Russia feels a responsibility toward Syria, including military and technical cooperation, and our agreements stipulate mutual assistance in difficult situations. We don't have many such agreements with foreign states."
Syria has been a key Middle Eastern client state of Moscow since 1971. Russia maintains its only foreign naval base at the Syrian port of Tartous and currently has about $5-billion in arms sales to Damascus in the pipeline.
"We think Russia's position is right in this case," says Klimov. "We don't intend to support any particular regime, but we do back the sovereign right of the country to decide things for itself. We're not much impressed by examples the US has given us in the past; it's often been willing to defend unpleasant regimes that were strategic partners, often for a long time, and ultimately in vain."
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant, says Lavrov's mission to Damascus on Tuesday is probably aimed at nudging Assad in the direction of reform and dialogue with the opposition. Any movement like that would enable Moscow to claim that its diplomacy and "soft power" efforts are more effective than their blanket hostility and threats of military intervention, he says.
"Russia is totally on the defensive right now, and each day the pressure mounts on it to do something," Mr. Strokan says. "So, some kind of face-saving measures are called for. The problem is that Assad has probably interpreted Russia's Security Council veto as a mark of support, and it's unlikely that Lavrov will be able to move him in any dramatic way. Still, any sign of progress will make it possible for Moscow to claim it's making a positive difference using its own methods."
Strokan adds that the current presidential election, in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is campaigning for votes in Russia's vast conservative heartland, means that any overt diplomatic cooperation with the West is off the table, for the moment at least.
"Putin wants to show that he won't permit any repeat of what happened in Libya, that he is tough and able to stand up to the machinations of the US," he says. "That's a popular stand in Russia these days. So, on the eve of elections, don't look for any compromises from Moscow."