Via Joshua Foust, a great little piece from Dmitri Trenin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
To Moscow, Syria is not primarily about Middle Eastern geopolitics, Cold War-era alliances, arms sales””or even special interests, like the under-renovation Tartus naval resupply facility which gives Russia some capacity to operate on the Mediterranean. Regional geopolitics and alliances are relevant, but they are about Tehran, not Moscow; and while arms contracts and Tartus are certainly important, they are secondary.
Rather, from a Russian policy perspective, Syria””much like yesterday’s Libya, Iraq, or Yugoslavia””is primarily about the world order. It is about who decides: who decides whether to use military force; who decides the actors for use of that force; and who decides under what rules, conditions, and oversight military force is to be used.
Of course, as elsewhere, Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders””namely, in the North Caucasus. Moscow has consistently opposed the use of force without a clear UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate, and its insistence on the UNSC green light is rooted in Russian permanent membership in that body, complete with veto right.
Not only do the Russians reject outside military intervention without a UNSC mandate; they also reject the concept of regime change under foreign pressure. This support for non-intervention is unsurprising given that all regimes””excepting established democracies””could be theoretically considered as lacking legitimacy. Notably, however, Moscow has also committed to this principle in its own foreign relations: it has not staged a single coup in newly independent states of the former Union. Following the defeat of the Georgian army in 2008, it resisted the temptation of a regime change in Tbilisi and, with very few exceptions (like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan), has been willing to deal with any established authority anywhere””from North Korea to Iran to Gaza. Under Vladimir Putin, state sovereignty and territorial integrity have become articles of faith in Moscow’s foreign policy.
Libya, of course, is the most recent exception of this outlook. But we should note that Russia abstained from the 2011 vote for intervention only to see the UN mandate””a humanitarian operation to save lives in Benghazi””abused by NATO, and has hardened its position since.
Many among the US foreign policy elite will never get this, because it’s an article of faith amongst them that America not only is but should be the world’s policeman, able to intervene anywhere at any time it wishes. That such interventions are in pursuit of it’s own national interests don’t matter, becauee America’s interests are the world’s interests. It should suprise no-one who’s DC career depends on hewing to this nonsense thet the rest of the world doesn’t always see it that way.
Russia, in particular – a once and inevitable future superpower simply because of all those resources and all that space to grow it has, doesn’t see it that way. It sees the US as a corrupt Moscow cop, taking bribes from and hanging out with the wrong sort, who it will gladly bend the rules for.
I’ve written recently about the tripwires Russia has laid against Western intervention in Syria. Three tank landing ships, a Kashin class destroyer, a reinforced battalion of marine infantry and an unspecified number of advisors showing the Syrians how to work their brand-new Russian-built anti-aircraft missiles and anti-shipping missiles. My big worry about a push for Western intervention in Syria is that it could provide a catalyst, not for all out regional war which could drag in the Great Powers, but along with other US hubristic stupidity like the missile defense program beginning a new de-facto US/Russian Cold War. Of course, for Republicans like Mitt Romney, that would be a feature not a bug.