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Propping Up Putin

9:25 AM, Jul 13, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Some argue that Syria is a valued customer of Russian arms, but as Russian analysts explain, it doesn’t matter to the Russians that Syria has been buying arms from Moscow for decades. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ruslan Pukhov, head of a Russian think tank, wrote that “arms sales to Syria today do not have any significance for Russia from either a commercial or a military-technological standpoint, and Syria isn’t an especially important partner in military-technological cooperation.”

Nor is the old Russian port in Tartus particularly important, even though it is Moscow’s one outlet on the eastern Mediterranean. Tartus, one Russian analyst told NOW Lebanon, is "not a base but a technical point for servicing ships… Of course it is a better to have such a point than not to have it. But losing it would not be strategic."

Then there’s the notion that Russia is still sore about being double-crossed over Libya, when they never wanted Qaddafi toppled. Annan explains here how the Russians believe they were deceived by the administration and its European allies. “The way the ‘responsibility to protect’ was used in Libya created a problem for the concept. The Russians and the Chinese believe they were tricked. They had agreed on a UN resolution, which was then transformed into a process of regime change, which wasn’t the initial goal according to these countries. Whenever we talk about Syria, there’s that elephant in the room.”

Maybe the Russians really do believe this, but it is difficult to see why this should matter to U.S. policymakers tasked with maintaining and advancing American interests. The White House’s conviction that it can’t act regarding Syria because of Russian limits is equivalent to the belief that if you traverse the seas far enough you will eventually fall off the earth. But what if the earth is not flat? Who cares what the Russians think? Does the Obama administration really believe that Putin is willing to risk a serious showdown with the U.S. over a refilling station in Tartus?

Then there are Russia’s talking points. According to Ruslan Pukhov, Moscow sympathizes with Assad because he is “a secular leader struggling with an uprising of Islamist barbarians. The active support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey’s Islamist government for rebels in Syria only heightens suspicions in Russia about the Islamist nature of the current opposition in Syria and rebels throughout the Middle East.”

Of course the real issue is not Islamists per se. Support for Assad has aligned Moscow with Islamists, Syria’s patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as Hezbollah, the Islamist militia that runs Lebanon. Russia’s problem is with the Sunni powers of the Middle East who back various Islamist outfits—Sunnis who are also, if paradoxically, allied with the United States. That is to say, Russia may very well have concerns about Islamist ideology, but its real focus is strategic: As Assad’s blocking back, Moscow has taken a leading role in the axis, including Islamists, that are in conflict with the U.S.-led regional order, which includes by extension Islamists.

But Russia, says Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, is not really “holding on to Assad.” Rather, according to this report, it is “defending basic international principles that prevented powerful nations from deciding the internal conflicts of smaller states.” Anti-imperialist rhetoric, it seems, has entered its baroque phase. Were this sentence not spoken by a Putin apparatchik, it would be hard to hear it as anything but a parodic evocation of golden age Soviet oratory, when smaller states existed for no other reason than for Moscow to tilt their internal conflicts on behalf of Soviet interests.

The point is, the fact Russian diplomats are trotting out this line now, long after it lost the military might to back it up, masks a profound weakness. Moscow is no longer able to project power the way it could during the Cold War. Regardless of its port in Tartus, or dispatching ships to the eastern Mediterranean, Russia cannot save Assad—not even from a disorganized rebel army that the Obama administration has disdained to support. It is only in diplomatic forums that the Russians are capable of managing any sort of protection for the Syrian president. The Russians are all show. And it is the Obama White House that has provided the stage.

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