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Russia: 'We simply don't believe Western leaders know what they're doing'

Fred WeirThe Christian Science Monitor

Russian President Vladimir Putin will make quick visits to Berlin and Paris tomorrow originally planned to address "economic issues." But the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria and the divide between Russia and the West on how to respond appears certain to figure heavily in their talks.

There have been several days of active speculation that Russia might be ready to alter its tough anti-interventionist stance in the wake of last weekend's Houla massacre. While Russia joined other permanent United Nations Security Council members in endorsing a rare statement condemning the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad two days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov placed blame for the violence on both sides and Russian officials have been quick to deny that the condemnation is a sign it is softening its resistance.

Several Western states are proposing harsher sanctions against Syria. On May 29, newly elected French President François Hollande said that foreign military intervention in Syria "can't be ruled out," if it is approved by the Security Council, and indicated that he might ask Mr. Putin not to stand in the way. Speaking to an audience of students in Copenhagen today, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upped the criticism of Russia, saying, "I have been telling (the Russians) their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war" in Syria.

But today Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded emphatically that Russian policy toward Syria will not change under duress. Russia's position is "well-known, balanced and consistent, and completely logical," Mr. Peskov told the independent Interfax news agency. "So it is hardly appropriate to talk about this position changing under someone’s pressure."

Moscow has taken a lot of heat internationally for vetoing two Security Council resolutions that would have pressured Mr. Assad to step down and potentially paved the way for greater outside involvement in the crisis.

Russian foreign policy experts say that Moscow's unwillingness to back down on its refusal to license any foreign intervention is based on several factors, all of which have been clearly thought out and seen as rooted in national interest.

Russian analysts argue that any violation of national sovereignty is a form of neoimperialism which, even if packaged as a humanitarian intervention, tends to be wrapped up with the geopolitical interests of the intervening powers and seldom leads to better humanitarian outcomes. They cite most of the wars of the past decade, from Kosovo to Iraq to last year's NATO intervention in Libya (which Russia acquiesced to in the Security Council) to make their point.

"We were told that military interference in Libya would be limited to protecting civilians, but we were deceived, pushed aside once we'd let it get through the Security Council," says Pavel Gusterin, an Arab specialist with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Why would we let them do this again?"

Russia does have major political and economic interests in Syria, a Soviet and Russian client state since 1971, including about $5 billion in arms contracts, and the use of a naval supply station at the Syrian port of Tartous.

But many Russian analysts insist that it's not so much about material interests, as it is that the West has simply not made a convincing case to Russia for why it should abandon Assad and assent to Western-led intervention in Syria.

"We think we know how the world works as well as anyone else, and our diplomats have been active in the Middle East for a long time. We do not have the slightest romantic illusion that something that comes after Assad will be better," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "We know that if the Assad regime is destroyed, Syria will dissolve in chaos...

"Our Western colleagues point to these terrible atrocities, such as the massacre in Houla last weekend, and say, 'We have to do something!' But your own Western track record shows that you get the regime change you wanted, then lose all interest in the humanitarian problems," he says.

"As for Russia, we've learned to base our policy on national interest. Not a single promise made to us by the West in recent decades has been fulfilled. We simply don't believe Western leaders know what they're doing, and we're not listening to all that chatter anymore. So, Russia's Syria policy will remain basically the same, and there is no significant debate over this in the Russian establishment today."