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Putin Says Russia to Continue Helping Assad If U.S. Strikes

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a press conference during the G20 Leaders' Summit in St. Petersburg on Sept. 6, 2013. Photographer: Alexey Maishev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Russia will keep on supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government if the U.S. launches strikes against the Middle East country, President Vladimir Putin said.

“Will we help Syria? We will,” Putin told reporters in St. Petersburg today after discussing the Syrian issue with U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders at a Group of 20 summit. “We are already helping them. We are supplying weapons and we are cooperating in the economic sphere. We hope to expand cooperation in the humanitarian sphere.”

Putin is resisting Obama’s drive to build support for a military strike in Syria, without saying how far he’ll go in backing Assad. When asked if Putin would exclude Russia’s direct involvement in a Syrian conflict, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by phone today “we don’t know how things will pan out.”

The Russian leader signaled on the eve of the two-day summit that his country may resume deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria if Obama carries through on his threat to attack selected targets to punish Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons.

“This posturing by Putin is an effort to put psychological pressure on the U.S.,” Alexander Rahr, at the German-Russian Forum in Berlin who wrote a Putin biography, said in a telephone interview today. “He will never support American military action because of national pride.”

‘Won’t Fight’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Aug. 26 said his country “won’t fight with anyone” when asked about a possible reaction to Western strikes against Syria. Russia, which has embarked this decade on the largest rearmament program in more than 20 years, maintains its only military base outside of the former Soviet Union at the Syrian port of Tartus.

The country has been reinforcing its naval presence in the east Mediterranean near Syria while Obama used the G-20 meeting to enlist support for an attack. Most countries in the group oppose such action, Putin said.

The U.S. was joined by 10 countries at the G-20 summit including France, the U.K. and Saudi Arabia in saying they “condemn in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack.” Russia, along with Brazil, China and Germany, was among nine members that weren’t part of the statement.

Uphill Task

Obama is also facing an uphill task to win the backing of Congress. Russia and China say they are unswayed by the U.S. assertions blaming Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus. Putin said today the attack was “provocations” by rebels involved in a 2 1/2 civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead.

Stocks declined after Putin’s comments. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell as much as 0.9 percent before rebounding to trade up 0.2 percent at 1,658.47 at 12:55 p.m. in New York. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.1 percent to 14,954.07, erasing an earlier loss of as much as 1 percent.

Putin said this week that congressional approval would “legitimize aggression,” adding that only the United Nations Security Council can endorse the strikes. Putin, whose country wields a veto as a permanent member of the Security Council, said he needs proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to back action.

“Russia may step up military assistance to Syria” in case of an attack, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said by phone. “Putin doesn’t consider that the demonization of Assad places him under any obligation to limit cooperation with him.”

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