It looked as though the proposal could have been a tactic intended to delay a U.S. military strike on Syria or a posturing stunt meant to embarrass Washington. But Russia had seen an opportunity Monday and leapt at the chance to show that it is still a nation to be reckoned with.
Politicians and analysts here point out that Russia has genuine reasons to step in at this juncture and try to broker a deal that would forestall Western intervention and secure Syria’s vast stock of chemical weapons.
“This is not a theoretical question,” Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, said Wednesday. Russia has the safety of its citizens to consider, he said. “And we have the solution.”
The Kremlin thinks a U.S. military strike would roil the Middle East and could expand the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. It fears a violent reaction among Muslim extremists within Russia. Moscow is also concerned that Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of radical forces that wouldn’t hesitate to use them.
And there’s a question of pride: Russia poses as the counterweight to the United States. Its diplomatic initiative helps maintain that image. To be a relatively passive bystander to a U.S. attack would be a moment of uncomfortable truth.
For the more than two years that the Syrian government and opposition forces have been at war, Russia has consistently blocked any action by the United Nations to address the conflict and provided a stalwart defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Until this week, any attempt to find common ground with the West on Syria would have made Russia appear to be “dancing to the U.S. tune,” Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert, wrote on the Web site of the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Putin wasn’t going to let that happen. Russia, in his conception, must be seen as a great power, and that precludes any agreement to toe the American line on an issue about which Moscow has other ideas. In 2011, Russia went along with the intervention in Libya, which Putin decided soon after was a major error not to be repeated.
But Monday’s chemical weapons proposal enables Russia to take center stage on its own initiative and offer a solution to part of the Syrian crisis rather than put up an obstacle.
Russia took the lead and put the question to the United States. If Washington had balked, Putin could still present himself as a thwarted peacemaker.
Fears of Islamist extremism
There are risks for Russia, nonetheless. Now that the United States has expressed interest, an inability to work out an agreement with the other members of the U.N. Security Council would scuttle the initiative, and Russia could get the blame. If Assad too obviously ducks his obligations to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons, Russia would have to answer for him. If there is a major nerve gas attack in Syria in the future, and it is traced to Assad’s forces, that would be a disaster for the Kremlin.