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What May Come

Russia’s Tough Talk on Foreign Policy Suggests Fear of Internal Revolts Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov holds news conference By Dan Peleschuk Russia Profile 01/19/2012

Recent tough talk from Russian officialdom on key foreign policy issues suggests that the Kremlin is growing increasingly wary of “Arab Spring”-style revolts spreading to Moscow, especially amidst a growing protest trend at home during the lead-up to the March presidential elections. And as the West digs in its heels against countries such as Syria and Iran, Russia has found itself in a tight spot vis-à-vis these regimes – and, experts suggested, perhaps on the wrong side of the battle.

As tensions increase within Syria, where waves of government-sponsored violence and repression against protesters seem to be growing by the week, the West has been thinking long and hard about where it falls on the matter. Debates continue to rage in the press about whether the time has come to intervene in Bashar al-Assad’s unprecedented crackdown against his people, while the United Nations has been stalled for months on the issue of tougher sanctions against the Assad regime.

But the major obstacle in the process has been, among others, Russia. Wielding its UN Security Council veto power, it has stubbornly stood firm on Syria, refusing to step up measures against the authoritarian regime and assailing the West’s imposed unilateral sanctions. Earlier this week, Russia offered a revised security resolution, but which Western officials claimed was watered down and failed to take al-Assad to task.

Meanwhile, as tensions between Iran and the West continue to simmer over the former’s alleged development of nuclear weapons, Russia has fought back against tougher sanctions against the Islamic republic. The situation has grown especially thorny as of late since talk of a Western or Israeli strike against Iran, however unlikely, has increased. The Kremlin has even ordered the military to prepare for a potential spillover of the United States-Iran conflict into the Caucasus, Russia’s self-declared zone of privileged interest, Russian media reported.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a pointed critique of Western policies in the Middle East, noting that heavy-handed Western action in the region could result in a “very big war.” “If someone conceives the idea of using force at any cost — and I’ve already heard calls for sending some Arab troops to Syria – we are unlikely to be able to prevent this,” he said at a January 18 press conference. “But this should be done on their own initiative and should remain on their conscience. They will not get any authorization from the Security Council.”

Yet these international developments also arrive at a particularly curious moment for Russia itself. Facing a growing wave of discontent and street protests against its own regime, the Kremlin has perhaps found itself on the defensive in what many observers claim is a rush to prevent the spread of “Arab Spring”-style revolts across its own borders. According to foreign policy expert Pavel Baev, Moscow’s stance on the Middle East, and particularly Syria, is drawn “not that much on the basis of Russia’s interest in the Middle East, but more generally on the point that revolutions are evil.”

“[The Kremlin believes] that everything should be done, every resource mobilized, every diplomatic tool used in order to stop that trend,” said Baev, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Olso. “It’s prepared to lead the counter-revolutionary forces, which is essentially a function of its domestic agenda and is reinforced by the very unexpected developments in Moscow since last December.”

The point was hammered home this week when Channel 1 launched a smear campaign against newly minted U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, which criticized his experience as an academic researcher on democracy and regime transitions. It also came on the heels of McFaul’s recent meeting with opposition members and civil society activists – a move the Kremlin likely interpreted as suspicious and which fueled the authorities’ claims that the recent protests are products of Western influence. “Is it possible McFaul came to Russia to work in his specialty? That is, to finish the revolution?” asked the network’s notorious anti-U.S. attack dog, Mikhail Leontyev, during the segment.

Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, Lavrov also mentioned Russia’s fear of the situation in Syria escalating into a “Lybian scenario,” noting that increased Western pressure is intended to produce a similar outcome in Syria – though the Barack Obama administration, for one, has remained quiet on the issue of intervention and has instead simply called for al-Assad to step down. Baev noted that the Kremlin’s fear might be rooted in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s own perception of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s experience.

“I think Putin really believed there was some chemistry between them, and he understood this rather exotic and eccentric leader. Generally, there was some sort of commonality – and suddenly, this horrible end,” Baev said. “Putin comes back to this again and again in his speeches: what sort of evil revolutions really are, what sort of risks are involved, what sort of outcomes there might be.”

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