Putin Pins Hope on Syria Cease-Fire to Combat U.S. Supremacy

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russia's Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin. Photographer: Yana Lapikova/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is counting on a diplomatic victory in Syria to assert Russia’s influence in global foreign policy as he prepares to return to the Kremlin, analysts and former diplomats from Moscow to London said.

As the U.S. and Gulf states demand Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad step down, Putin has shielded a regime that is Russia’s biggest Middle East ally and buys 8 percent of the country’s arms exports. Russia accused the West and its allies of sabotaging a cease-fire brokered by Russia. Qatar and the U.S. have expressed skepticism about United Nations envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts to broker a peace agreement backed by Russia.

The Syrian deal is a centerpiece of a foreign-policy push by Putin, who spent the past 12 years seeking to restore Russian prestige after the collapse of communism in 1991. The country is also involved in efforts to restart talks over Iran’s nuclear program and to contain tensions on the Korean Peninsula. A key goal for Putin is to maintain Russia’s role in the Middle East, which accounts for about a third of global oil output.

“The Russians will be hoping fervently that this leads to some kind of peaceful resolution between Assad and the opposition in Syria,” said Tony Brenton, U.K. ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008. “If you think that not so long ago, after the collapse of communism, Russia became a completely negligible international factor, to be back out there at the top table brokering international policy is a big thing for them.”

Putin ratcheted up his rhetoric in the run-up to his March 4 election to a new six-year term, saying the U.S. “wants to control everything” and takes decisions unilaterally on issues vital to the international community.

Eurasian Union

As prime minister over the past four years, Putin spearheaded an economic reintegration with Belarus and Kazakhstan, writing in an Oct. 4 article that the bloc of former Soviet countries will help reduce global imbalances and fuel integration across “Greater Europe.”

The three states, with a combined population of 170 million people, formed a customs union last July and a common economic space from Jan. 1. Russia has also tried to persuade Ukraine to join.

In Syria, Putin has focused on negotiations over sanctions or military intervention after Russia lost billions of dollars of arms and civilian contracts as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled autocratic regimes in the region. Defense accounts for 2.5 percent of Russian exports.

Libyan Contracts

Russia lost $4 billion in weapons contracts with Libya after Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow, according to Sergey Chemezov, head of state-run Russian Technologies Corp. OAO Russian Railways had to suspend building a $1.5 billion railroad linking Sirte and Benghazi.

Putin said Western allies went on a “crusade” in Libya by ousting Qaddafi, publicly splitting with current President Dmitry Medvedev who abstained at the UN to allow NATO-led military action in the country. Medvedev later said NATO had misused the UN mandate, intended to protect civilians, to bring about regime change.

In the Iran dispute, Russia’s idea for a series of mutual confidence-building measures has been adopted by world powers negotiating with the Persian Gulf country. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said after last week’s talks in Istanbul that negotiations were guided by the principle of a “step-by-step approach and reciprocity” which Russia proposed last year.

‘They Are Appalled’

“They are appalled at the thought of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and as with Syria, they are keen to find a peaceful way out of the situation,” said Brenton, adding that Russia’s decision last year to suspend the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran “significantly weakens Iran in the event of an Israeli air strike on it.”

In Syria, Russia favors a negotiated outcome similar to the talks mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council in Yemen that paved the way for the departure of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh this year.

Russian arms sales to Iran fell to about $100 million a year from almost $1 billion after the imposition of UN sanctions, according to the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a research group in Moscow. Russia built Iran’s $1 billion Bushehr nuclear plant, the country’s first, and the country has said it would like to order new Russian-made nuclear power stations.

Brokering a solution in Syria would transform Russia’s international standing, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.

‘Major Victory’

“It would be a major victory for Russia, which will trumpet itself as an influential power that can resolve crises,” Lukyanov said by phone. “It would be the first major diplomatic victory since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Putin views the break-up of the Soviet Union as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe and his first period as president from 2000 to 2008 was characterized by tensions with the U.S. over Russia’s influence in the former Soviet bloc.

While Putin supported the initial U.S. response to the September 11 attacks, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers tussled over U.S.-led plans to develop a missile shield in Europe and expand NATO to incorporate former Soviet satellites.

Just three months after handing over to Medvedev, relations with the U.S. sank to a post-Cold War low following a war with U.S. ally Georgia in August 2008.

New Tensions

As Putin’s third term nears, new tensions are emerging. Russia, along with China, blocked two UN resolutions condemning Assad for his 13-month crackdown on an uprising that has claimed more than 9,000 lives according to the world body. That included a February resolution that demanded Assad step down.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused unidentified outside powers of seeking to wreck the cease-fire declared by Syria five days earlier, after pressure from Russia. He urged North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to back the UN peace plan yesterday, condemning their “prophecies” that it would fail.

“There are those, including outside Syria, who would like to derail the Annan plan’s implementation,” Lavrov said in comments broadcast on state television today. “That’s why it’s essential that everyone unite around that plan.”

Lavrov urged the Security Council to pass a resolution as quickly as possible authorizing a full-scale observer mission, Interfax news service reported.

Friends of Syria

Fifty-seven countries, meeting in France three days ago, voted to tighten sanctions on Syria. Members of the so-called Friends of Syria group are openly supporting the rebels with non-lethal assistance, such as communications equipment, according to European diplomats who aren’t authorized to speak to the media.

The Annan plan backed by Putin has met skepticism from the Middle East to the U.S. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani on April 16 said the Annan plan has “no more than a 3 percent” chance to succeed.

The UN said it’s ready to send more observers to Syria in a week to help monitor the implementation of the cease-fire agreement. The seven observers already in the country will be expanded to 30, Al Arabiya television reported, citing Ahmad Fawzi, an aide to Annan.

Russia, which has a naval resupply base in the port of Tartus, is seeking to keep its influence in the country after Assad’s expected departure, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst at IHS Global Insight in London.

“Russia’s opposition to regime change in Syria is not so much driven out of loyalty to Assad’s regime but more out of Moscow’s efforts to force the U.S. to give it a say on the matter,” Gevorgyan said by e-mail. “Instead of having the US as an adversary, Russia would rather like to have a pragmatic partnership with the US. It would prefer being a member of the same club.”

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