The world of politics, unlike nature, does not tolerate a vacuum. If somebody gets weak, another immediately fills the gap. It happened last week with Russia. After the British Parliament rejected military actions against the Syrian government, which was strongly supported by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, Russia suddenly spread its wings. Just before President Obama made a statement about his decision to start a military operation in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a statement that was diametrically opposite of what the American leader had to say.
Putin avoided public appearances and questions about the Syrian matter, letting his Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov have the ball.
Surprised by the decision of British parliamentarians, President Putin publicly denounced all words highlighting the use of chemical weapon by Assad’s government, calling them not only a provocation, but absolute stupidity (dur’ nesusvetnaya – in Russian).
Rude behavior usually works for the Russian President; giving him high domestic approval ratings. He is known for sharp and overpowering rhetoric toward his weaker opponents, but never before has he let himself get so carried away with comments towards USA leaders. Perhaps he feels that his opponent, the U.S. is getting weaker, and he has taken a more commanding position. But what in reality can Russia do?
For one, it can and will continue to supply Syrian regime with more arms.
Russia is the biggest arm supplier to the Syrian regime. Syrian contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry exceeded $4 billion, accounting for half the Syrian weapon import in 2011. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the value estimate of arm sales to Syria equals around $162 million per year.
According to the Russian officials, Russia will continue to support Assad’s regime with arms until all their obligations are fulfilled – there is still $550 million in orders to be filed for trainer fighter planes and a $1 billion contract for S-300, but are they really going to be delivered?
Russia tried to play it safe earlier and not anger western governments. In June Putin announced that his country would not send S-300 to Syria because “we don’t want to throw the region off-balance.” Things have changed since June, but Russia’s decision on the matter is still uncertain.
What has remained the same is Russia’s refusal to approve any military actions in Syria including its own involvement.
Russia might block all the UN based military operations, but it will not support Assad with its own forces. And even though it sends two naval task forces to the shores of Syria, their circulation in the Mediterranean officially is not linked to the current situation. According to Russian officials, they will be at the Syrian port Tartus not earlier than March 2014.
So the eventual strike back that Russia tried to accomplish last week is more on the diplomatic stage. President Putin used the situation to his advantage, at least domestically speaking, playing on the illusion of bringing back all the influence the Soviet Union had on the world politics stage during the cold war. He sugared Russian hearts, which are still dreaming about returning to the world chess board as one of the main figures. As far as international influence, G20 opens this week in St. Petersburg. While President Obama waits to get Congressional approval to attack Syria, President Putin is making his diplomatic strike in an attempt to enhance his power and influence.
By Alsu Salakhutdinov