Russia Has More at Stake in Syria Than Naval Base

Neither the Tartus port facility nor several billions worth of arms sales to Syria shape Russian policy.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009 (WEF)

In their criticisms of Russia’s continued support for Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad, the proponents of intervention in his country tend to point at Russia’s weapons trade with Syria and the presence of a Russian naval base on its shore as evidence of a shallow self-interest on the Kremlin’s part. The Russian government, they reason, is turning a blind eye to the apparently indiscriminate slaughter of civilians to save a couple of billion dollars worth in arms sales every year.

Imagine that, a state acting in its own interest. But the reality is that Russia has more at stake in the Syrian crisis. It stands to lose more than its only Arab ally if the demonstrations and insurgency in the country manage to unseat the Ba’athist regime.

Although economic ties and the base at Tartus play a role in shaping Moscow’s response to the Syrian uprising, “fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year,” writes Dmitri Gorenburg, a senior analyst for the CNA think tank.

Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings.

When he was running for reelection in March, Russian president Vladimir Putin criticized the notion that the international community has a “responsibility to protect” civilians in wartorn nations. In an opinion article for Moskovskiye Novosti, Putin warned that military action undertaken under the pretext of humanitarian protection undermines the supremacy of state sovereignty, “creating a moral and legal void in the practice of international relations.”

[W]hen state sovereignty is too easily violated in the name of this provision, when human rights are protected from abroad and on a selective basis and when the same rights of a population are trampled underfoot in the process of such “protection,” including the most basic and sacred right — the right to one’s life — these actions cannot be considered a noble mission but rather outright demagogy.

Former American diplomat Henry Kissinger made a similar argument when he observed in The Washington Post this month that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention explicitly eschews appeals to national interest or balance of power. “It justifies itself not by overcoming a strategic threat but by removing conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance.” The implications could be altogether detrimental to the United States.

If adopted as a principle of foreign policy, this form of intervention raises broader questions for US strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any nondemocratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system? Is, for example, Saudi Arabia an ally only until public demonstrations develop on its territory?

Gorenburg further points out that the Russians “genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world.”

Putin rallied against the use of “soft power” in his Moskovskiye Novosti article, remembering all too well that it were Western nongovernmental organizations that promoted democracy in Georgia, Serbia and Ukraine where “color” revolutions swept aside pro-Russian regimes in favor of pro-Western ones.

Finally, Moscow fears that the overthrow of Assad, with or without foreign intrigue, may embolden separatist movements in its own outer provinces. “Initially,” writes Gorenburg, “the greatest fear was about the possibility of popular uprisings bringing down ‘friendly’ autocrats in Central Asia.” The ongoing “Arab Spring” protests as well as large demonstrations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg against the possible falsification of election results in Russia has increased the Kremlin’s determination “to ensure that no additional ‘dominoes’ fall under popular pressure.” Including itself.

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