Why Does Russia Care So Much About Syria?

How It Works
Sept. 3 2013 5:22 PM

Why Putin Just Can’t Quit Assad

179413471
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian in Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow, on September 3, 2013.

Photo by MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s visit to Russia for this week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was already going to be awkward. Last month, the U.S. president canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But that now seems like a trivial tiff compared with the rift that has grown between the two countries over Syria. Following a consistent pattern of providing diplomatic cover for Bashar al-Assad’s government, Russia has blocked efforts to obtain authorization for the use of force in Syria at the U.N. Security Council. Over the weekend, Putin blasted recent U.S. moves saying, "To say that the Syrian government used chemical weapons when the Syrian army is on the offensive is absolute nonsense.” He appealed to Obama “as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate” to remember the fate of previous U.S. military interventions in the past decade.

Advertisement

Russia’s opposition to military intervention isn’t exactly a big surprise, but Moscow’s willingness to go to bat for the Syrian regime so publicly throughout this conflict has still been striking. (Contrast it with the Chinese government’s far more subdued anti-intervention position.) Yes, the Russian government has longstanding ties with the Assad regime, lucrative commercial contrasts with the Syrian military, and fears about the growing strength of Islamist groups. But these don’t seem quite sufficient to explain Russia’s interest in the situation.

In a recent analysis for the journal International Affairs, Oxford Russia scholar Roy Allison argues that domestic and regional political factors may be weighing more heavily on the minds of Putin and his advisers. “Putin’s commitment to a global order which prizes the sovereignty of incumbent rulers remains to a large extent an external expression of his preoccupation with Russian domestic state order,” he writes. “It is an outlook rooted in the structure of political power in Russia and it is shared by those in the elite who have been empowered by Putin’s presidencies. It is central to understanding why, after the initial shock of the Arab Spring uprisings and dismay over the forcible overthrow of the Libyan regime, Putin has blocked diplomatic efforts to legitimize or assist the overthrow of Assad.”

It’s not exactly new to suggest that the Western-supported “color revolutions” against Russian-supported governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan made Moscow very wary of U.S. and European efforts to promote democracy abroad. As a Russian critic quoted by Allison puts it, “Putin views any attempt to overthrow an authoritarian regime as a clear violation of the rules of the game. He understands that he must fight to the end against the [domestic] protest movement because the moment he lets down his guard, he could find himself in the same position as Mubarak.”

But Allison also adds an interesting distinction by arguing that is willing at times to tolerate international intervention as long as the intervention is on behalf of the existing regime. For instance, Putin’s government was more than willing to support France’s intervention to uphold the “territorial integrity and statehood” of Mali in January.

Of course, this belief in territorial integrity and regime security doesn’t seem to extend to Russia’s more troublesome neighbors.  

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.