What is Russia thinking on Syria? A brief guide

As the crisis in Syria collapses into what looks like full-blown civil war, foreign ministers of key United Nations Security Council and Arab League powers will meet in Geneva tomorrow for a last-ditch effort to find a political solution. The main obstacle to common agreement on the new plan by UN envoy Kofi Annan is likely to be the ongoing dispute between Russia (and China) and the West over the need to remove strongman Bashar al-Assad from the picture.

Moscow has vetoed two resolutions that would have provided a means of easing Mr. Assad out, and seems set to dig in its heels against any language in the new plan that calls for Assad's removal. Russia's position is a complicated mix of principle, self-interest, mistrust of Western motives, and sincerely differing perceptions of the situation. A brief guide to the Russian mind:

Russians take sovereignty seriously, sort of

Sergei Chirikov/AP/File
In this file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow.

The central principle the Russians cite for opposing any outside intervention in Syria is sovereignty, the supreme authority of each state to determine affairs on its own territory.

Along with the sometimes contradictory right of each nation to self-determination, sovereignty is the core principle of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter. The Russians argue that, for all its flaws, the inviolability of each state's control over its own affairs is the only thing standing in the way of neo-imperialist domination by strong states over weaker ones.

In Syria, they argue, Western nations are pursuing their own geopolitical interests under the guise of a humanitarian "right to protect" which supposedly trumps the country's sovereignty. Moscow sees it as its duty to block such attempts.

But Russia's concern for sovereignty doesn't extend to its own dealings with post-Soviet neighbors. In 2008, after defeating Georgia in a brief war, Moscow recognized the independence of two Georgian breakaway territories, Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, thus effectively dismembering a sovereign state against its will.  

Some experts say the Kremlin's basic fear is that any precedent that licenses outside force to change the regime in a strife-ridden country like Syria might one day be used as an argument in favor of foreign intervention in Russia. With tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters rallying in Moscow streets in recent months, that may not be just an academic concern.

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