20 years under Putin: a timeline

In the Syrian conflict, the Russian government has firmly sided with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Russian author and human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek offers a different view.



There is no consensus toward the Syrian crisis in Russia. It varies from whole-hearted support of to severe criticism of Bashar al-Assad. In this sense, Russia resembles Western countries, where opinions about the war in Syria are divergent as well. The difference lies in the percentage distribution of the supporters of these two diametrically opposed opinions.

Before looking at the figures, let us try to imagine how a society that only twenty years ago got something resembling civil liberties, after having spent decades in a state of ideological slavery, might perceive someone else’s struggle against tyranny. What can people to whom freedom came almost as a gift feel toward those who have to fight for it in arms? They do not understand them, and feel a little bit envious of and annoyed by such a display of someone else’s self-sacrifice. At best, they show indifference. In other words, servility does not disappear from a society after twenty years of relative freedom.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center demonstrates this idea. Three quarters of Russians do not support either side of the conflict or are undecided. Nineteen percent say they support Assad, while 7 percent sympathize with the rebels.

In Moscow, where pro-opposition attitudes are more prevalent than elsewhere in the country, the gap between those supporting Assad and those sympathizing with his opponents is smaller—21 percent to 16 percent.

It has to be noted with regret that the large majority of Russians are disinclined to make serious efforts to defend their own freedom, let alone the freedom of a people they know little about. Russian attitudes toward the Syrian issue correlate with attitudes toward Russia’s own opposition movement. This is why in Moscow, where pro-opposition attitudes are much more prevalent than elsewhere in the country, the gap between those supporting Assad and those sympathizing with his opponents is smaller—21 percent to 16 percent, respectively. People defending their freedom are inclined to solidarity.

The indifference that 75 percent of Russians feel toward events in Syria has a lot to do with a lack of access to reliable information. Many citizens traditionally learn about world news from watching TV; however, TV channels in Russia have been under tough governmental control for many years, and have became sources of state propaganda, undermining their function as disseminators of reliable information. The government’s point of view, which consists in opposing the U.S. and supporting Assad, is the only one that Russian TV channels reflect. Under these circumstances, the fact that 75 percent of those polled felt indifferent or undecided may actually be a positive sign, since it indicates that the Russian people are largely unresponsive to official propaganda.

On the other hand, uncertain attitudes toward events in Syria are also caused by doubts about the advantages of revolutionary change. This skepticism is based partly on Russia’s own historical experience and partly on the experiences of other countries. The majority of Russians would not consider it a big improvement for an authoritarian regime to be replaced by a leadership founded in religious fundamentalism.


Moscow has protected the Syrian regime with its UN veto on several occasions.


The Kremlin’s policy toward the conflict in Syria is influenced by a number of factors. Key among them are anti-Americanism and the need to preserve an international order under which despotic regimes are not supposed to be threatened with removal from the outside. This is a matter of principle for the current Russian government, which fears international pressure. The Soviet Union was subject to such pressure, and, to some extent, Russia is currently experiencing it as well. The Kremlin severely opposes improving mechanisms of international pressure on despotic regimes; in its view, any international measures against Syria pose a threat to the Kremlin’s vision for Russia’s future. For the same reason, the government in Moscow assumed the same attitude in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Just like in socialist times, the Kremlin appeals to principles of sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs. These principles represent despotic regimes’ last defense, allowing them to isolate their own citizens from international protection. “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We... believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos,” Putin wrote in his recent article published in the New York Times. In the view of Putin and his authoritarian friends, international law that regulates relations between states is the supreme and indisputable value, the erosion of which would put the world under a threat of chaos. Authoritarian rulers see international legal mechanisms regulating relations between citizens and states as elements of such an erosion, since they represent a threat to national sovereignty and state impunity, not to mention attempts to solve problems not by legal but by military means. Here, the Kremlin uses any available methods of counteraction—from public campaigns and economic pressure to military threats and veto in the UN Security Council.

Choosing the right political strategy with regard to the Syrian crisis is a hard task even for the international community. The Russian democratic opposition lacks a cohesive stance on the matter too, party due to its not being sufficiently consolidated and not having a single speaker, and partly due to the fact that it has not yet formulated its own approach to foreign policy problems.

The international community has to intervene in situations like those in Syria at earlier stages.

In my view, the Russian democratic opposition should base its assessment of the events in Syria foremost on the supremacy of human rights and the need to protect citizens from state abuse, regardless of whether the state in question is Russia, Syria, or North Korea. Arguments in favor of unlimited state sovereignty over citizens can be left to Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Kim Jong Un. It is in the interests of democratic Russia, not of Putin’s authoritarian regime, to support the international community’s effort to limit the power of dictators and stop crimes against humanity. The democratic opposition should stand up to the Russian government not only when it oppresses its own citizens, but also when it supports oppression in other countries.

The need to back international efforts to suppress crimes like the chemical attack on civilians in Syria does not mean, of course, that international institutions should be exempt from criticism. The democratic opposition in Russia, and in other countries with authoritarian regimes, should be persistent in insisting that human rights violations in their countries not be allowed to reach the same level as in Syria. The opposition must be vigilant, both because the potential losses are too great, and because putting off solutions to human rights issues provokes the emergence of radical political forces, which are, in essence, similar to those the democratic opposition is fighting.

The international community has to use its legal, political, and possibly military institutions to intervene in situations like those in Syria or Libya at earlier stages. Dictatorial regimes must be ostracized on the international level and subjected to overwhelming pressure from the international community whenever dictators rig elections, persecute the political opposition, or forbid their citizens to leave the country. Last-minute interventions, when people are being poisoned by gas and the victim toll reaches into the tens and hundreds of thousands, amount to inexcusable tardiness.