Why Russia Matters

If you care about Syria, do read this Foreign Policy interview with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s former Ambassador the UN and current Foreign Minister. The takeaway: Lavrov’s brand of diplomacy is animated by two things:  being a counterweight to the USA; and an old-school realism that discounts horrific human rights abuses conducted as “domestic matters.”

Key passage:

For the last two years, Lavrov has dramatically elevated his profile on the world stage. He has done so by almost single-handedly defying Western attempts to force some united action to stop Syria’s deadly civil war. To Americans and Europeans appalled by the carnage — there are already 70,000 dead and an estimated 3 million people driven from their homes — Lavrov is a nasty if effective shill for the tyrannical Assad regime, a major Russian-arms customer representing the last vestige of Soviet power in the Middle East. By that reasoning, if Lavrov can be made to see Assad’s case as hopeless, he can be made to give up on supporting him. But every Russian with whom I spoke for this article, from Lavrov himself to the most fervent political foes of the Putin government, had a different explanation: Lavrov’s fight to block Western intervention in Syria is not about Syria but about Russia. It is about the principle that matters above all else to Lavrov and his boss in the Kremlin — that Russia should be allowed to do whatever it wants on its own turf. Brutal crackdowns on protesters, crushing internal rebellions, anything it takes.

When we met, I asked Lavrov about why the Americans kept thinking they would change his position on Syria, coming back to him again and again with new proposals that he promptly rebuffed. After a few sentences of reflection, he pulled a small white piece of paper out of his pocket. It was a quote from Alexander Gorchakov that he had brought expressly to share with me. “Foreign intervention into the domestic matters is unacceptable,” he read. “It is unacceptable to use force in international relations, especially by the countries who consider themselves leaders of civilization.”

This does not sound like a government that is ready to re-think its policy of backing Assad, which should be deeply troubling to those calling for some sort of military intervention in Syria.

For one, Russia would almost certainly veto any Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Without Security Council authorization, the intervention (be it a no-fly zone; safe zones; or the invasion of Syria by outside forces) would be illegal under international law.  That would set a terrible precedent and undermine the prohibition against launching wars without UN’s approval.

But beyond the legal question, the chances of success of any intervention are greatly reduced if a powerful country like Russia is actively aiding the other side. Without Russian support, or at least acquiescence, it is difficult to see how more robust policies of aiding Syrian rebels; or of direct military intervention can succeed.  Supporters of military intervention without Security Council approval have to ask themselves: can a proxy war against Russia be won? And if so, at what cost?