This special report on the Russian position is divided into two parts:
1. THE RUSSIAN POSITION OVER THE PAST WEEK (prepared by the NCF’s Russia analyst)
2. RUSSIA’S POLICY IN REGARD TO THE SYRIA FILE as relayed to the NCF by Ivan Volodin (Head of the Foreign Policy Department at the Russian embassy to the UK)
THE RUSSIAN POSITION ON SYRIA
The Syrian government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo on 28 July 2012. Initially rebel forces remained in control of their neighborhoods. Russia warned some days before the assault in Aleppo that "tragedy" was imminent. The Russian Foreign Minister said it was “simply unrealistic” for the Syrian government to cede control of Aleppo.
Russian Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov accused the West of double standards and hypocrisy over its position on Syria which had resulted in “gruesome bloodshed”. “When the US unleashed the Arab Spring in Africa and the Middle East; it let the genie – of Islamic fundamentalism – out of the bottle". He adds that by supporting radical Islamists, the USA aims to impose its control over the entire region and “point the edge of an extremist dagger at Russia.” The Russian Communist Party (KPRF) condemned “imperialist aggression” against Syria and demanded that the West respect the UN Charter and principles. The only solution to the situation is a complete suspension of financial and political support to “outside mercenaries” and allowing the Syrian people to decide their fate for themselves, Zyuganov said. The Communists called on Russia’s Foreign Ministry to maintain its constructive stance on the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis, “despite massive pressure attempts by pro-American lobby, which is being active in Russia.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who was in London for the Olympics said in an interview with the Times on 29 July 2012 that Russia's differences with the West on Syria are not as great as they appear. “Despite perceived differences, the positions of Russia, Britain and the United States are not as strikingly different as sometimes suggested,” said Medvedev. "We all start from the position that the worst outcome would be a full civil war in Syria." Russia has, along with China, so far protected Syria from UN sanctions but Moscow insists that it has an even-handed approach to the crisis, while rebuking the West for siding with the rebels. Medvedev insisted that the Syrians themselves decide their own future. "I don't know how exactly the political balance will look in the future, and what sort of position Assad would have in it," he said. "That must be decided by the Syrian people. Our partners are urging us to support more decisive action.”
Last year’s military intervention in Libya by NATO forces plays a large role in determining Russia’s current stance on Syria, Dmitry Medvedev also said. “Syria is a very complex state. It’s much more complex than Egypt or Libya because of all the communities living there: Sunnis, Shia, Alawites, Druze and Christians. They will either find a way to get along or civil war and killings will go on indefinitely. So both sides are to blame.” Mr Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Libyan intervention. Asked if that experience is actually now influencing Russia’s position on Syria, and if he felt he was somehow betrayed over the Libya scenario, he replied, “When the situation with Syria started, I said from the very beginning that we would adjust our approach because of what happened with Libya. When the resolution on Libya was adopted, we thought our countries would hold consultations and talks and at the same time we would send a serious signal to the Libyan leader. But unfortunately it ended up the way it did.”
Medvedev stressed that despite the continuing violence in Syria, a peace plan proposed by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is still viable.
More recently Russia talked with Cuba, Vietnam and the Indian Ocean island country of Seychelles about housing Russian navy ships. Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Russia is in talks about setting up maintenance and supply facilities for Russian ships in those countries but wouldn't give any further details.
Russia's only existing naval base outside the Soviet Union is located in the Syrian port of Tartus. A squadron of Russian navy ships, including several assault ships carrying marines, is currently heading to Tartus to “protect Syria from international sanctions”.
P.J. Crowley, former spokesman for the US State Department, suggested that “Putin is fighting the perception that Russia is no longer a global power, but a regional power, and at the moment he is trying to restore Russia’s previous status.” Norman Polomar, a naval analyst, said that the only way Vladimir Putin can project power is with his navy: “The Russian President would like to do it because right now the navy is the only force that he has to demonstrate Russia is still a world power.”
Later however, Russia's Defence Ministry denied any suggestion that Moscow plans to set up its first new overseas navy bases since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The ministry said that Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov had never said that Cuba, Vietnam and the Seychelles were being considered as possible sites for new bases for Russia.
Recently Circassians activists from several countries, including Russia’s North Caucasus, called on the Circassian and Caucasian organizations to focus on helping the Syrian Circassians.
On July 26, Adygean civil organizations decided to set up a coordination council that would address the most pressing issues. The Syrian Circassian question was one of the central issues discussed at the meeting of Circassian, Russian, Armenian and other ethnic organizations of Adygea
The exact number of Circassians in Syria is unknown: there are anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people of Circassian descent living in Syria. If the violence in Syria continues, more Syrian Circassians will want to relocate to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Bashar al Assad had close relations with the Circassian minority in Syria and so if the government falls or is otherwise unable to protect the Circassians, the Circassians will look to Assad’s primary backer, Russia, for help. If Russia does not help, it will trigger an immense protest reaction by the Circassians, according to Circassian analyst Sufian Zhemukhov. This is of course yet another factor in Moscow’s calculation of the need to strengthen Assad’s government at least prior to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. Moreover, a massive relocation of Syrian Circassians might change the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and increase tension in the region.
Apart from the foreign policy dilemmas it creates, the Syrian crisis clearly has domestic implications for Moscow. In particular, some Russian analysts believe that relocating Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus and the corresponding increase in the Circassians’ influence in the areas adjacent to the city of Sochi could obstruct the 2104 Winter Olympic Games. Moscow is worried that its direct rival in the region, Georgia, is also supportive of Circassian initiatives – in particular, their opposition to the 2014 Olympics.
Recently there was a public survey published by the state-run VTsIOM pollster, which showed that almost half of Russians (46 percent) believe that the Syrian conflict is the result of interference by hostile foreign powers seeking to increase their influence in the Middle East or weaken Syria.
Only 19 percent of those polled describe the Syrian crisis as a popular uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. More than one third (34 percent) of respondents were undecided on the nature of the conflict.
Meanwhile, the poll also shows that the majority of Russians seem not to care what is going on in Syria. Less than half of those polled (44 percent) said they were following the events in the Middle Eastern country, and those were mainly elderly Russians.
But 52 percent, most of them young people, says they are not interested in the conflict.
While the Russian government is widely seen in the West as a supporter of Assad, the majority of ordinary Russians (57 percent) say they support neither the Syrian government, nor the insurgents fighting to end Assad’s rule.
Ivan Volodin (Head of the Foreign Policy Department at the Russian embassy)
“Firstly, Russia supports the Annan plan and also believes that negotiations are needed. We do not back Assad’s violence. It is not fair to criticise Russia for taking sides, as the West and the Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia have been doing the same and no one points a finger at them.
“Russia has worked hard, and still is, as regards persuading Assad to negotiate. Russia made Assad accept the Arab League initiative, the Annan plan and the current UN monitoring mission. There should be negotiations. For a ceasefire you need two participants. We have not seen such efforts from the West to bring any of the sides involved to the negotiating table. It is very hard to ask the government to be open to negotiations when all the proposals demand Assad be removed from office. We believe that the West has sent the wrong message to the opposition, encouraging them to think that they will gain more through fighting than with the negotiations, and that they (the West) will support them until the end.”
NCF - We need to see Russia taking a lead – bringing both sides to the table itself. There are plenty of members of the opposition who would negotiate if given the opportunity.
Volodin – “It seems that a fair approach would be for Russia to bring Assad to the negotiating table, and the West to encourage the opposition groups. But perhaps we should become more proactive. The position of the Russian Government has always been straightforward: every country should make decisions about and control their own domestic matters without any external interference. Russia is not interested in constructing pro-Russian governments anywhere else – we insist that governments should be formed in their own natural way.
“As regards the arms supplies from Russia to Syria – these supplies only amount to 3% of total Russian arms exports. Moreover, Russian contracts are dedicated only to anti-aircraft defence, not for supply of small arms hand weapons. Consequently, arms supplies coming from Russia do not affect the situation on the ground. As regards the suggestion that we are concerned about the impact of events in Syria on our own Muslim population: The Muslim question is almost completely absent from our internal discussions at the Foreign Ministry. Perhaps it should be discussed more.”