What is Russia thinking on Syria? A brief guide

As the crisis in Syria collapses into what looks like full-blown civil war, Russia's response stems from a complicated mix of principle, self-interest, mistrust of Western motives, and differing perceptions of the situation.

Russia has become deeply mistrustful of Western motives and competence

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become deeply mistrustful of Western motives and competence.

Though Russia cooperated with NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Moscow began to sour on Western wars of humanitarian intervention after it helped to settle the 1999 Kosovo war, only to see the West impose its own chosen settlement on Russia's ally Serbia, including independence for Kosovo. Russian experts say US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely failed to produce positive results because Washington often seems to have no vision to offer beyond military-driven regime change.

Last year Russia was persuaded to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. The Russians now claim they were tricked by the humanitarian language, and that once Western states got its license to use military force the whole effort morphed into a rebel drive for regime change backed by NATO air power. The most common refrain from Russian experts and officials today is that they will not allow themselves to be duped again by similar cries for humanitarian intervention in Syria.

They also point out – with some reason – that Western leaders can be quite selective and hypocritical in choosing their targets of concern.

"There is minority Sunni rule with a dictatorial king in Bahrain, where they recently crushed a popular pro-democracy movement in a cruel and bloody fashion, yet the US still supports and sells arms to this regime. Why?" says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "Can it be because Bahrain is a geopolitical ally of the US and the US Navy maintains a major base there? Syria is a friend of Russia and an ally of Iran, and that's the only reason it's in the West's gun sights right now. It's pure double standards, so why should we take it seriously?"

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