Russia sends warships: Has Russia done all it will for Syria?

Despite reports that Russia is sending warships toward Syria, there is little sense that Russia, which has long stood by Bashar al-Assad, will respond militarily if the West attacks Syria.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Vehicles carrying Syria's national flag and playing pro-President Bashar al-Assad songs drive through the streets in Damascus Wednesday. Moscow on Wednesday blocked a UN Security Council resolution that could have enabled international military action against Syria.

As the clock ticks down to what many in Moscow believe is imminent US-led military action against the Kremlin's client, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, few here appear to believe that Russia can do much more to help Mr. Assad.

And that is not inconsiderable. Moscow has pulled out all the diplomatic stops in recent days, warning that any military action against Syria would be "illegal" in the absence of an enabling United Nations Security Council resolution, and then going so far as to block just such a draft resolution on Wednesday.

It has also kept up a steady drumbeat of polemic, accusing the West of "rushing to judgement" over allegations that Assad's forces used chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb last week, and insisting that UN weapons inspectors be given time to complete their investigations.

They've also sermonized at considerable length that the US is repeating past mistakes by sleepwalking into another war of intervention, without calculating the complexities or spelling out an exit strategy. Summoning historical references to the 1999 Kosovo war, to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Russian officials warn that precipitous Western action in Syria can produce no meaningful victory, and bring only blowback, spreading instability and "catastrophic consequences" for the entire Middle East.

A few Russian officials are even displaying a Western-style knack for nailing down their views with the sort of attention-getting soundbites that play well and even sometimes go viral in today's lightning-paced global news culture. That includes the suave, English-speaking chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs commission, Alexei Pushkov, who remarked yesterday that President Barack Obama is behaving like a "Bush clone" in his drive to attack Syria.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin garnered wide play with his comment that, in its Middle East dealings, the West is acting like "a monkey with a hand grenade."

But, unlike the former Soviet Union, one thing Russia is not doing is trying to deter the US by threatening counter-force.

Indeed, when the independent Interfax agency reported Thursday morning that Russia is dispatching two warships to the eastern Mediterranean because of the "well-known crisis" – a report that was widely picked up by the global media – military officials practically fell over themselves in their haste to clarify that the deployment has nothing to do with the worsening situation in Syria.

"This does not amount to a renewal of any grouping or groupings, it is a planned rotation." the official RIA-Novosti quoted a naval spokesperson as saying.

"There is really not much more Russia can or will do if the West opts for military action in Syria," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov has made it perfectly clear that Russia is not going to fight over this."

But one difference from past crises, Mr. Lukyanov says, is that Russia is unlikely to be of any assistance to the West if things go badly, and the US finds itself bogged down or facing unscripted complications in its projected Syrian campaign.

During NATO-led interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Russia alternated between criticizing and offering very real tokens of support, such as sending troops to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Following an inconclusive 78-day NATO air war against Serbia over the breakaway region of Kosovo in 1999, Moscow ultimately played a key role in convincing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate.

Russia has been supportive of the long-running US-led war in Afghanistan, including by providing NATO with an air corridor through former Soviet territory to resupply its troops there, plus the use of a central Russian airbase to refuel and service its planes. Kremlin leaders have gone so far as to beg the US not to withdraw the bulk of its forces from Afghanistan, as it plans to do next year.

During the Libyan uprising two years ago, Moscow abstained in the UN Security Council, enabling Western powers to win a resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians. The Russians now say that was a huge mistake, because the West took that humanitarian decision as a license to use its military power to openly back the rebels in their ultimately successful drive to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

"Putin has bad feelings about the record of Russian cooperation with the West in situations like this. His belief is that whatever you discuss, the Americans will just go ahead and do whatever they want," says Lukyanov.

"So, he's clearly decided that it makes no sense to cooperate with them at all."

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