Russia rarely plays the peace broker. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost its superpower status and fell under the shadow of the now-dominant United States. Unwilling to play junior ally to Washington, Moscow has since 1991 assumed the role of the spoiler. In the past decade alone, it has fought American-led plans to establish a missile shield in Eastern Europe and punish Iran for its nuclear program. Russia has also threatened ex-Soviet states yearning for closer ties with the West, including Georgia, Estonia, and Ukraine, which last week abandoned a free-trade agreement with the European Union at the last moment, apparently under duress from President Vladimir Putin.
Until September of this year, Russia had consistently repeated this pattern of behavior in its persistent defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But then, in a strange twist of positions, Russia took the reins in forming a chemical weapons deal with Syria, while the US appeared to tag along behind. So what changed? Simply put, ambivalent leadership by the Obama administration gave Putin the chance to seize the diplomatic initiative and become the chief facilitator of the Syrian peace process. He seized it decisively and dramatically.
Since the start of Syria’s Civil War, President Obama and his Western allies have repeatedly demanded that Assad resign. The Kremlin has done everything in its power to prevent that from happening. Beginning in October of 2011, Russia and China used their vetoes on the United Nations Security Council to block a series of proposed sanctions on Assad’s government. Several months later, they vetoed a resolution officially demanding that Assad step down. Russia has also engaged in military efforts and outright saber rattling to demonstrate its commitment to Assad. From the very beginning of the conflict, Russia has been shipping advanced armaments and weapons systems to his regime, including sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. And on January 6, 2013, in a warning to the Western powers considering a military intervention, Putin deployed five landing ships to the Eastern Mediterranean.
This strategy has proven quite successful. The US, its allies, and the Syrian rebels would only agree to peace treaty that removed Assad. By blocking any negotiations that would remove the beleaguered dictator, Russia has bought him valuable time and demonstrated its ability to thwart American diplomatic aims. After months of futile peace talks, former UN chief Kofi Annan, acting as the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, resigned in protest. Explaining his decision, Annan blamed not just the warring parties, but also “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.” As in the case of the European missile shield and Iranian nuclear program, Russia has been able to maximize its diplomatic clout by rigorously practicing obstructionism.
All of this changed when, on August 21 this year, footage surfaced of a major chemical attack on rebel-held Damascus neighborhoods. The evidence from US intelligence overwhelmingly indicated that the Assad regime had crossed Obama’s “red line” that would trigger military intervention. After wavering for nearly a week, Obama punted the issue to Congress. By slamming the breaks on the march to war that he had started, Obama threw America’s role in the conflict into serious doubt. Congress seemed likely to reject Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria, which would have dealt a massive blow to the President’s credibility at home and abroad.
It was in this moment of American vulnerability that the Kremlin pounced. On September 10, John Kerry offhandedly and sarcastically remarked that the issue could be resolved if Assad were to turn over all of his chemical weapons to the international community. That very day, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, offered a serious proposal to do just that, apparently after consultation with the Assad regime. The Obama administration had no choice but to bite – hook, line, and sinker. A means of saving face had fallen out of the blue, right into Obama’s arms. But the deal came at the price of allowing Moscow to leapfrog from being arms dealer for a pariah regime, to becoming leader of a serious multilateral diplomatic process.
But why would Russia propose such a compromise in the first place? The Kremlin’s entire policy towards Assad thus far had been to arm, not disarm him. On this basis, one might assume that Putin decided to throw his ally under the bus in order to gain greater diplomatic prestige. But that interpretation ignores two key facts. First, such a move would have been completely out of character for Putin’s Russia, given its long post-Soviet history of maximizing its international influence through obstruction of American and Western goals. Second, the Assad regime itself agreed to the deal. We can assume such a desperate and bloodthirsty government would never intentionally undermine its ability to survive.
Both Putin and Assad must have believed in the likelihood and potential severity of American airstrikes. If they thought such a move was either highly unlikely or would do little to hurt the regime, they would not have sought a compromise. At the same time, they would not have proposed one if they thought America would reject it out of hand – that would have made both Putin and Assad look desperate. Obama’s dithering left both a carrot and a stick dangling in the air, and thereby afforded the Syrian and Russian regimes with the perfect opening. Obama signaled his openness to compromise with his clear reluctance for an attack, while standing behind his political obligation to launch one (he had painted himself into a corner by drawing that now-infamous “red line”). This strange position probably scared Moscow and Damascus enough for them to seek a peaceful resolution with Washington, while giving them reason to believe that one could be achieved.
As sponsor of the chemical weapons deal, Russia is now looked to as the most effective outside mediator regarding Syrian issues. But that position depends on the ultimate success of the deal. If the Assad regime fails to uphold its end of the bargain and the agreement collapses, Putin may lose serious credibility. With Assad now demanding to keep twelve chemical weapons factories, the outcome remains highly uncertain. All we can know for sure is that Russia will back its ally to the hilt.