It seemed like the mother of all Russian diplomatic pranks: just one day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that Syria give up its chemical weapons to international control in exchange for the U.S. calling off strikes, an idea that was embraced in Washington as well as Damascus, Russian diplomats reportedly signaled that they might oppose that very same plan at the United Nations.
Alerts from Agence France-Presse and Reuters, citing the French foreign minister, said that Russia was uncomfortable with the idea of a binding United Nations Security Council resolution to enforce their own plan. Reuters' Louis Charbonneau reported that Russia would only support a non-binding "presidential statement," which is a step up from a press release.
Why on earth would Russia work to undermine its own plan just 24 hours after first proposing it? There are three ways to think about this: the optimistic view, the pessimistic view and the middle-ground.
Many observers are likely to take the pessimistic view: that Russia never seriously planned on following through with its proposal to scoop up Syria's chemical weapons. This has all been a shell game from the start, a ploy to delay U.S. strikes and box in President Obama while Syria continues acting with impunity. This is just the start of a Russian strategy of dangling deals in front of the U.S. and then yanking them away. Russia knows that many members of Congress will pressure Obama to pursue the proposal, even if Obama believes it's just a bluff. That could spark even more disagreement within the U.S. and delay strikes further, maybe indefinitely.
The optimistic view is that this is just a negotiating tactic, a wholly foreseeable play by Russian diplomats who really do want to see their plan go through but also want to make sure they have a hand in crafting it. By feinting away from support, Russia can force the three Western members of the UN Security Council (France, the U.S. and Britain) to give Moscow some concessions on the plan. That debate will likely turn on whether the plan would be authorized under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which was used with Libya and which could permit for the use of force against Syria if it doesn't comply. Think Progress blogger and United Nations procedure nerd Hayes Brown has some smart thoughts on how this would work, posted below ("P3" means the U.S., France and Britain):
And now the middle-ground take: Russia's primary goal is to stave off U.S. strikes. If it can do that with a little bit of delaying and bluffing at the United Nations, then in Moscow's view that's great. If it has to let through some kind of UN Security Council authorization to seize Syria's chemical weapons, it will accept that too. In this reading, Russia's goal is to make any UN action against Syria's chemical weapons as minimal as possible. If true, this is actually good for the U.S., because it gives President Obama lots of leverage with Moscow as long as he can credibly threaten U.S. strikes. This would suggest that Obama might be able to get something halfway decent through the Security Council, maybe even a binding resolution, but only as long as he can maintain a credible threat of striking Syria.