Vladimir Putin is being caught on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as the threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime raises the prospect that Russia may be left with Iran as its only friend in the region.
The day after a bomb decapitated Assad’s security command as fighting engulfs Damascus, Russia teamed up once more with China yesterday to block United Nations sanctions against Syria.
“The Kremlin has pushed itself into a corner that it can’t get out of, and it should have been smarter about the new order in the Middle East,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview yesterday. “Losing its last Arab ally and alienating all other former Arab partners, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is a huge strategic loss for Russia.”
Putin’s decision to stick by the Soviet-era alliance with Syria means that Russia faces isolation in the region, jeopardizing efforts to win contracts in Saudi Arabia, which holds one-fifth of global oil reserves, and Qatar, the world’s No. 2 natural-gas exporter. The shielding of Assad by President Putin also has prompted the Obama administration to say Russia helped speed Syria’s slide into civil war.
Russia and China, among five nations that hold veto power on the Security Council, yesterday blocked a Western-drafted resolution that called for an arms embargo and other sanctions on Syria. While the draft wouldn’t have authorized military action, Russia said it left the door open.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that supporting the measure would “mean direct support for the revolutionary movement.” It’s the third time Russia has used its veto to protect Assad.
Putin is alienating himself in the Middle East as his return to the presidency this year, which sparked unprecedented street protests against his rule, risks exacerbating strains in Russia’s relations with the U.S. and western Europe.
In the face of the Obama administration’s eagerness to “reset” relations with Russia, disagreements over Syria, how to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a planned missile-defense shield in eastern Europe have worsened as Putin reclaimed the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister.
Syria built an alliance with the Soviet Union after Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took over the presidency following a 1970 coup, receiving weapons and financial support during the Cold War.
That relationship has continued. Since 2006, Syria has signed about $5.5 billion in arms contracts with Russia, according to estimates by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, which advises the defense ministry. Russia has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus, which also gives it access to the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal.
Russia, which has refused to halt weapons sales to Syria even as more than 10,000 people died in 17 months of fighting, dispatched 11 military ships to the Mediterranean Sea on July 10, some bound for Tartus.
Putin may have thought Arab leaders would respect his decision to stand by Assad, despite their distaste for him, after the U.S. abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was a Mideast expert in multiple American administrations.
If so, Putin miscalculated, as he did if he compared the Syrian regime’s military strength to that of the opposition and concluded that Assad would prevail, Ross said in an interview yesterday,
Instead, Russia’s defense of Assad is irritating some of the Middle East’s richest nations. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in June that Russia should change its stance on Syria to avoid harming its relations with Arab nations. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sent weapons to the Syrian rebels, according to Syrian and Russian officials.
Russia, the world’s largest energy exporter, has sought contracts to build nuclear power stations and railway lines in Saudi Arabia, as well as Saudi and Qatari investment in Russian natural-gas projects.
Putin in 2007 became the first Russian leader to visit Saudi Arabia in a diplomatic breakthrough for the two countries that had no ties for more than 50 years until 1990. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. supported the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in their battle against Soviet occupation.
In 2008, Russia joined with Qatar and other gas producers to form a club similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The rift over Syria between Russia and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with competition from shale-gas changing the energy market landscape, has quashed hopes of cooperation worth “billions of dollars” for now, said Chris Weafer, the chief strategist at Moscow-based Troika Dialog, a unit of state-run OAO Sberbank.
“There has been a noticeable sea change in the rhetoric between Russia and the Gulf Arab energy producers,” Weafer said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Relations between Russia and the Gulf countries are as bad as they have ever been.”
Saudi Arabia on July 15 condemned Russian criticism of clashes between security forces and protesters in its majority Shiite Eastern Province as “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.
Russia downgraded diplomatic ties with Qatar last year after an assault on its ambassador and two embassy employees by security and customs officials at Doha airport who were trying to confiscate a diplomatic pouch.
That would leave Russia with Iran as its only friend in the region. Russia built Iran’s first nuclear power plant and sells it some arms. As a mediator in international talks on the Iranian nuclear program, Russia has opposed unilateral U.S. and European sanctions while pressuring Iran to agree to UN controls that would ensure it couldn’t seek to build atomic weapons.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are likely to get over their dispute with Russia and continue to do business once the dust has settled, said Jamie Ingram, a London-based Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight.
“Both are pragmatic and recognize that Russia’s relations with Syria are geostrategic rather than ideological, and the fact that Russia remain a significant global power will prevent them from damaging relations,” said Ingram.
Russia is sticking by Assad because Putin won’t gain anything from backing the campaign to topple him as its Soviet-era influence in the region declines, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
“Even if Russia had made a 180-degree turn and supported the revolutions, it would still have been labeled as the power that supported the ousted dictators,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.
Putin has vowed to avoid a repeat of the unseating of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. His rule of more than 40 years ended after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a bombing campaign authorized by the UN Security Council to protect civilians, with Russia abstaining from the vote.
Russia lost $4 billion in weapons deals with Libya, according to Sergey Chemezov, head of the state-run Russian Technologies Corp. OAO Russian Railways had to suspend a $1.5 billion railway contract.
Russia accuses Western powers of abusing the UN mandate in Libya and has warned that similar efforts to oust Assad would spark widespread sectarian violence, as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq did in 2003.
“We are all the more worried when we see attempts by some actors in international relations to maintain their traditional influence, often by resorting to unilateral action that runs counter to the principles of international law,” Putin said in a July 9 speech to Russian diplomats in Moscow. “We see evidence of this in so-called humanitarian operations, the export of bomb and missile diplomacy and intervention in internal conflicts.”
“We see how contradictory and unbalanced the reform process is in North Africa and the Middle East, and I am sure that many of you still have the tragic events in Libya before your eyes,” Putin said. “We cannot allow a repeat of such scenarios in other countries, in Syria, for example.”
Nevertheless, said Lukyanov, “It’s impossible to preserve Russia’s strategic position in the region, as it was all inherited from Soviet times. That era is over now.”