UN Syria Vote Reflects More Assertive Russia Under Putin

The new United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria is the latest evidence that Russia is adopting a more assertive and sometimes combative foreign policy, according to U.S. officials and UN diplomats.

The Security Council yesterday unanimously backed sending 300 unarmed UN observers to Syria to monitor a cease-fire agreement between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups fighting to oust him, even as violence continued. The resolution was crafted by Russia with support from China, nations that had objected to tougher U.S.-backed measures against the Assad regime.

“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 table brokering international policy is a big thing for them.”

Russia, which has a naval resupply base in the Syrian 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 U.S. as an adversary, Russia would rather like to have a pragmatic partnership with the U.S.. It would prefer being a member of the same club.”

Drafting Over Vetoing

Russia’s shift from simply vetoing Security Council measures it opposes to drafting ones that serve its interests, coincides with Vladimir Putin’s return to power as president, with rising oil prices that are benefiting Russia’s economy, and with what Russian and other officials perceive to be America’s waning global hegemony, according to two American officials and two UN diplomats. They spoke on condition of anonymity about diplomatic negotiations held in private.

The two U.S. officials said the Russian shift, which they said isn’t a return to the Cold War hostility between Moscow and the West, also is reflected by public criticism -- though no action -- against North Korea’s attempted long-range missile test and Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea has said the April 13 missile launch, which failed, was intended to put a weather satellite into orbit, and Iran says its nuclear program is exclusively for medical and civilian energy purposes.

The U.S. officials said Russia’s veto in the Security Council has made it difficult for the U.S. and its European allies to counter Moscow’s opposition to tougher UN sanctions against Syria and Iran.

Russian Leverage

They also said friction between the U.S. and Pakistan has forced American and allied troops in Afghanistan to rely more on northern supply routes over which Russia has considerable influence. That, they said, has constrained the Obama administration’s ability to confront Russia on issues such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea while also seeking to withdraw U.S. forces and equipment from Afghanistan and soliciting foreign aid for the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Putin, who spent the past 12 years seeking to restore Russian prestige after the collapse of communism in 1991, ratcheted up his rhetoric in the run-up to his March 4 election to a new six-year term. The U.S. “wants to control everything” and makes decisions unilaterally on issues vital to the international community, he said.

‘Diplomatic Victory’

Brokering a solution in Syria “would be the first major diplomatic victory since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and would transform Russia’s international standing, Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said in a telephone interview.

While the Russia-backed Security Council Resolution 2043 lets unarmed monitors be deployed for an initial 90 days, it contains no sanctions or other penalties for Syria if it violates the cease-fire.

“Any deviation from the provisions is unacceptable,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN, said after yesterday’s Security Council vote. “Powerful forces” already are planning for the observers’ mission to fail, Churkin told reporters after the vote. “They already have other plans, which they entertain.”

Churkin’s remarks were an apparent reference to the possibility raised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of getting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization involved in the Syrian conflict, one of the U.S. officials said.

Avoiding ‘Libya Model’

The UN diplomats said Putin’s determination to restore Russia’s global influence appears to be sparked in part by his perception that Russia was tricked into supporting NATO backing for opponents of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, which was a longtime Russian arms customer as is Syria’s Assad regime.

“The Libyan model should always be something that remains in the past,” Churkin said yesterday, referring to the NATO military campaign last year that ended with Qaddafi’s ouster and killing.

Russia lost $4 billion in weapons contracts with Libya after 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.

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