For Russia, Syria the Last Straw in Long List of Grievances

The Russians feel they have been betrayed by the West time and again and are not going to take it anymore.

President Barack Obama talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009
President Barack Obama talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Russia’s resistance to American military intervention in Syria’s civil war is the latest indication that a relationship that was supposed to be “reset” in 2009 is unraveling.

Russia’s relations with the United States were most recently tested when it granted asylum to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden who revealed embarrassing details about America’s global surveillance efforts to a number of Western media outlets, notably Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. President Barack Obama canceled a bilateral summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in protest to that decision.

The New York Times reports that such tussles are less to blame for souring American-Russian relations than are “radically different worldviews revealed by the Syria dispute.” Whereas Obama feels compelled to take action in the country after the regime of President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against civilians, Putin “sees American imperialism at work again.”

The Russians fear a repetition of what happened in Libya two years ago. They consented to a United Nations Security Council resolution at the time to protect civilians whose protests to the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were brutally suppressed. But as the Russians see it, NATO and Arab allies seized on the mandate to engineer regime change in Tripoli. Bombings of government and military assets enabled the rebels to murder Gaddafi and displace his regime.

“The Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya,” Robert Gates, Obama’s former defense secretary, told The New York Times. “They felt there had been a bait and switch. I said at the time we would pay hell ever getting them to cooperate in the future.”

Indeed, the Russians saw that “as part of a continuum of illegitimate and even imperialistic American interventions from Kosovo under President Bill Clinton to Iraq under President George W. Bush,” writes the same newspaper.

Alexei K. Pushkov traced the list of Russian grievances back further in The National Interest in 2007, pointing out that the unlimited expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War broke what the Russians had considered a promise not to threaten their security during such a precarious time for them. In 1999, the alliance also broke a treaty obligation to coordinate with Russia when it bombed Serbia, a Russian client state.

Many Western countries criticized his counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya but that did not stop Putin from wholeheartedly supporting the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — against the advise of many of his own politicians, according to Pushkov. Russia facilitated the creation of American military bases in Central Asia, otherwise the last part of the former Soviet empire where it still had major influence, and permitted overflights of Russian territory by American warplanes. For “an old cold warrior” like Gates, sending American military personnel to war through Russia was “never in my wildest imaginings,” he said.

In November 2001, Russia also shut its listening post in Lourdes, Cuba. The following year, it did not make an issue when the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. “What Putin was hoping for was a tacit agreement that, in turn, the United States would not encroach on those of Russia’s priorities that did not have a major importance to America,” Pushkov believes.

Yet in 2006, the United States announced plans to erect a missile shield in Central Europe with stations in the Czech Republic and Poland. While aimed at Iran, the Russians saw the system as undermining their nuclear deterrent. Plans to also establish radar stations in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine did little to placate their concerns, nor did the Bush Administration’s clear hope of drawing Georgia into NATO as well.

When Russia engaged in a war with Georgia in late 2008, the United States did not intervene, however. The Obama Administration later watered down plans for the European missile shield and long remained silent about human rights abuses in Russia, seeking its support for a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as well as international sanctions against Iran which it suspects is developing a nuclear weapons capacity.

Those overtures have not made the Russians forget more than a decade of broken promises. American recriminations about Putin’s support for Syria’s Assad have cannot have helped. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who is now his national security advisor, publicly vented her “disgust” at Russia’s Security Council vote against Syrian sanctions while Putin sees Assad as a bulwark against radical Islamism — the very threat America faces.