Commentary | February 08, 2012

What's Behind Russia's Syria Veto?

The world's eyes are on Syria as the regime of strongman Bashar al Assad continues to disregard widespread international condemnation in a desperate bid to maintain power—a bid that many are betting will fail. Despite thousands of Syrian civilian deaths, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on the crisis, even though it had been watered down already to eliminate language about the need for Assad to step down and for new elections to be scheduled.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a "travesty"; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweeted that she was "disgusted" by the dual veto. And 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkul Karman said China and Russia "bear the moral and human responsibility for these massacres." But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed all such criticism as "hysterical."

Russia's veto may have been a disappointment, but it certainly wasn't a surprise. Russia's internal and external politics, over the short and long term, made the veto hard to avoid. For Moscow, the following factors were critical considerations:

Internal Stability

Some Russians may be concerned with the potential for renewed unrest in the Caucasus. Lavrov has labeled the opposition in Syria as "militants and extremists," much the same language used to describe separatists in the Caucasus, who many in Russia see as a threat to national stability. Russia's stand in Syria further reflects its general misgivings about the Arab Spring—and the fear that the Arab Spring could provide sustenance and inspiration to the Caucasus.

Russia is also facing a surprising and large domestic opposition movement (or, perhaps more accurately, several movements) in response to the recent parliamentary elections, where charges of vote-rigging abounded, and Putin's decision to return to the presidency. These large-scale protests have clearly rattled the Russian government. Although no one seriously doubts that Putin will win the presidential election next month, he is ratcheting up anti-American rhetoric. This allows him to blame outsiders for his troubles while deflecting critics from the right who think Russia has given too much to the United States under the "reset."

Arms Sales

Russia's arms sales to Syria are big business. Just last month, Russia signed a deal to sell Syria 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 jets worth some $550 million.

Syria's annual arms purchases from Russia are estimated to be about $700 million (anywhere from seven to ten percent of Russia's total revenue from arms sales). If Assad is overthrown, the contract could be canceled. But growing international frustration with Russia would be an extremely high price to pay to maintain a client—especially when Russia has already forgiven about $10 billion in Syrian debt.

Playing the Long Game

Russia's relationship with Assad also has a broader economic dimension. Russia is investing heavily in Syria, to the tune of some $20 billion in infrastructure, energy, and tourism. For years, Russia has helped to prop up a regime that now has little legitimacy internationally.

So why is Russia willing to bear the brunt of international condemnation?

All these practical economic and regional strategic concerns in Syria point to what Russia is actually concerned about and why it is willing to pay a high-price to maintain its relationship with Assad: the United States. Russia's fundamental motivations in Syria seem reminiscent of Cold War great power politics, where Russia seeks to prevent the United States from increasing its influence in the region.

Russia still believes that a limited mandate from the U.N. no-fly resolution on Libya was turned into a push for regime change by Western powers, and it may not wish to trust the same countries to restrain themselves. Russia abstained from the Libya resolution, allowing it to pass. With Syria, it exercised its veto to protect one of the few proxies Russia can turn to in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Russia is, in short, trying to balance short- and long-term interests in the region and it needs Assad in power to realize those interests. But as the brutality of the Syrian regime dominates headlines, Russia's painfully close association with Assad is what people will remember.

Jacqueline McLaren Miller is a Senior Associate in EWI's Strategic Trust-Building Initiative, where she runs the U.S. and WMD programs.

Click here to read a round-up of statements by governments and organizations concerning the crisis in Syria.