A couple of weeks ago, the former defense minister of a rather large NATO member state e-mailed me, asking what role foreign policy played in Moscow’s protest movement. In particular, he was interested if anybody in the opposition cared about the Russian government’s recent arms deal with Bashar al-Assad in the middle of Syria’s bloody uprising. I wrote back that the Russian protesters were much too focused on venting their anger at Vladimir Putin to think about anything else.
On Saturday, after tens of thousands of Muscovites braved sub-zero temperatures for their first protest rally since December, Russia – together with China – vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have forced Assad out of power. Today Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Damascus to meet the beleaguered Syrian leader, burying once and for all the Kremlin’s claim as an honest broker between Assad and his opponents.
Russian liberals may find their government’s embrace of Assad disgraceful, but they know better than to bring up Syria, or any other Arab revolution for that matter. For one, there is only one foreign policy that sells in Russia: thwarting America’s hegemonic project to democratize the world by force and seize control of its natural resources. What’s more, any mention of “revolution” is strictly taboo, especially since Putin’s supporters are painting the anti-government protesters as American stooges seeking to recreate Ukraine’s 2004 pro-western Orange Revolution on Russian soil.
By now it’s common knowledge that the Kremlin supports Assad’s regime because Syria buys Russian weapons, hosts a Russian naval base and is Russia’s last Soviet-era ally in the Middle East. But it’s not just bare-knuckled realpolitik that drives Russia’s contrariness over Syria. As Putin faces the first major anti-government protests of his 12-year rule, he is all the more determined to draw a line in the sand against regime change wherever it may take place. No one can accuse him of being inconsistent.
In the world according to Putin, a country’s leader should never be removed because of external pressure, whether from street protests or a military intervention by foreigners. On his watch, Putin saw Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi get chased from power. None of them could be considered particularly reliable Russian allies, but that’s beside the point. In Putin’s view, they were all victims of a cynical U.S. plot for global domination where any weapon is fair game, be it a smart bomb, a pro-democracy grant or Twitter.
For Putin, free and fair elections or respecting term limits are not the only sources of a leader’s legitimacy. The ability to guarantee the country’s stability is just as valid. That explains his own ambition to return to the Russian presidency for a third term, as well as his understanding for dictators to rule indefinitely. In Putin’s view, politics in countries without the benefit of a democratic tradition is a see-saw between stability and chaos.
Chaos is what Putin saw as a KGB agent in East Germany after people power knocked down the Soviet empire like a house of cards in 1989. Chaos is what plagues Iraq, Egypt and Libya today. By experience and conviction, Putin is a gosudarstvennik, an advocate of a strong state. Preservation of the state – of statehood itself – is of paramount importance.
Putin’s conservatism is nothing out of the ordinary. At least since the 19th century, Russia has stood as a guardian of the status quo: when it took preemptive military action, it was to restore the old order or to snuff out the contaminating effects of Western liberalism.
After revolutionary fervor swept Europe in 1848, Czar Nicholas I helped the Austrian monarchy crush a Hungarian uprising; a little more than a century later, Nikita Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary to put down an anti-communist rebellion. In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded its satellite Czechoslovakia to quash a reform-minded government. Even the five-day war with Georgia in 2008 can be seen as a police action designed to punish an enemy and reestablish order on Russia’s southern border.
State-run Channel One led its 9:00 evening newscast with a report that “hundreds of thousands” of Syrians had taken to the streets of Damascus to welcome Lavrov. Crowds waved Russian flags and held up handmade signs thanking Russia for its veto at the UN. “There’s no revolution here,” a young woman said into the camera.
Judging by the footage, Putin appeared to have brought out more people in the Syrian capital than he could ever hope to attract in Moscow – either from the opposition or the ranks of his own supporters.