The G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was dominated by the Syrian crisis, which officially was not even on the agenda. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, contends that Vladimir Putin faces a choice—continue to be a spoiler in world affairs or try to play a constructive role.

 

 

Last December, Russia assumed the chairmanship of the G-20, which unites leaders from 19 major countries plus the European Union, by announcing ambitious goals of “boosting sustainable, inclusive and balanced growth and jobs creation around the world.” In practice, Moscow hopes to use its leadership of the body not only to pursue those objectives but also to counter the policies of the Western democracies and dilute the economic power of the United States and the European Union. Of particular Kremlin interest has been strengthening the economies of the so-called BRICS nations (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, as well as Russia). At last week’s meeting, Moscow worked with fellow BRICS members against the prospect of the United States reducing the flood of dollars into the world economy, which has put pressure on currencies and stock markets in emerging markets. Emerging and developed G-20 powers at the summit struggled to find common ground as the U.S. recovery gains pace. Vladimir Putin told participants that he could not rule out a return to global economic crisis. The Kremlin also urged G-20 members to approve a joint anticorruption strategy that would ban officials from traveling from one country to another if they are suspected of corruption—even as a Foreign Ministry official avoided questions about an object of especially bitter Kremlin scorn, the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which bans certain Russian officials guilty of human rights violations from visiting the United States.

But the disagreement over Syria, which was not officially on the agenda in St. Petersburg, has overshadowed economic issues. After two days of lobbying by President Obama to forge a consensus behind U.S. military action—including a vigorous dinner debate that went into the early hours of September 6—Putin led the effort to block authorization of a strike. China, several EU members (including Germany), and the BRICS supported the Russian leader—though not necessarily Putin’s views that the chemical attack “was a provocation staged by the rebels.” In the end, only 11 countries (10 full members plus Spain, a permanent observer) signed the summit communiqué, which blamed the Assad regime for the chemical attack and called for a “strong international response” without explicitly endorsing military action.

The Kremlin has long used the Syrian regime as a tool against the West, especially the United States. It has five objectives in the current strife: propping up the Assad regime as a step toward ensuring regional stability and limiting the growth of radical Islam; enhancing Russia’s geopolitical status in the Middle East by appearing to play a major role in any settlement; guaranteeing, to whatever extent possible, the continuation of its arms sales to the Assad regime (worth more than $4 billion last year); and preserving its naval support base at Tartus, which was expanded in 2009 to allow larger ships to enter (the base can currently support up to 10 guided-missile carriers, submarines, and aircraft carriers). Above all, the Kremlin rejects international pressure for intervention that could be used to legitimate regime change and theoretically serve as a precedent to undermine the Putin regime itself. Moscow’s support for Assad is thus instrumental and would not extend to military defense of Syria should the West intervene. The Kremlin does not want to alienate important trading partners such as Germany and France, with whom relations are a higher priority.

The Kremlin rejects international pressure for intervention that could theoretically serve as a precedent to undermine the Putin regime itself.

Putin initially avoided commenting publicly on reports of an August 21 chemical weapons attack. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that any Russian response would be limited to a “war of words,” while the Russian media emphasized Moscow’s inability to push back. However, President Obama’s decision to seek congressional support before attacking Syria and the British parliament’s vote against the Cameron government’s motion apparently stiffened Kremlin resolve. Putin used the delay to lay out more forcefully Moscow’s position on the chemical weapons dispute, presenting the Kremlin’s stance on Syria as support for the principles of international law and the United Nations rather than support for the Assad regime. The Russian president called claims that government forces launched the poison gas attack “utter nonsense” and proposed that an exhaustive UN investigation be undertaken to determine who did. Until then, according to Putin, the international community should take no action. If, after the facts were in, a culprit could be clearly identified, then only the UN Security Council (where Russia has a veto) would have the authority to decide what should happen next. If the United States launches unilateral action without the UN’s blessing, Putin argued, Washington would be committing aggression.

Moscow’s position was wrapped in a mix of public diplomatic flexibility, disinformation, and military bluster. Russian officials have said that Syrian insurgents were the most likely perpetrators of the chemical attack and claim to have compiled a report that found the Syrian opposition guilty of an earlier chemical attack last March. The Foreign Ministry has promised to raise the issue of nuclear risks involved in a possible U.S. strike at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia has sent warships to the region to beef up its naval presence. The Kremlin has also announced plans to send a parliamentary delegation to Washington to dissuade the U.S. Congress from voting for military intervention—although the leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill have said that they will not meet with Russian lawmakers.

Russia currently has the upper hand in the Syrian crisis. During the G-20 summit, Western journalists repeatedly asked if Obama could “narrow the gap” with the Russian leader over what to do about the evidence that chemical weapons had been used. It is doubtful, however, that Putin really wants to narrow that gap, unless it is on the Kremlin’s terms. Moreover, Putin probably would not mind having the United States embarrassed by inaction on Syria or, better yet, bogged down in yet another military adventure in the Middle East. After the summit, Putin promised that the Kremlin would continue to give Assad arms, humanitarian aid, and economic assistance. Nevertheless, the choice for the Russian leader is whether he is content to continue to play the role of spoiler, or whether he can help to calm and address the deepening crisis “with a bit of the same creativity he brings to negativity.”

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