Putin's Silence on Syria Signals Resignation on Attack

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MOSCOW -- Russia has made its opposition to military intervention in Syria vehemently clear. The foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warns daily about the risk of an escalating conflagration. A deputy prime minister said the West dealt with the Islamic world like "a monkey with a grenade." A few commentators on the fringe have warned of World War III.

The one voice that has remained silent, though, is the one that matters most.

President Vladimir V. Putin has conspicuously avoided public comment on reports of a chemical weapons attack on civilians outside of Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Aug. 21, which killed hundreds of people. Instead he has carried on, like many ordinary Russians, as if the civil war in Syria had not reached an ominous new phase. In the days after the attack, Mr. Putin attended a ceremony for the restoration of a fountain made famous in World War II, visited a breakaway province of neighboring Georgia and toured a mine and dam in Siberia.

There is no doubt about Mr. Putin's opposition to retaliatory strikes. Nor about his support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in a conflict Mr. Assad has repeatedly described as a war against Islamic extremism.

Mr. Putin's public reticence, though, reflects a calculation that Russia can do little to stop a military intervention if the United States and other countries move ahead without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council – and that he has little to lose at home, at least, if they do.

Mr. Lavrov, in expansive remarks to reporters this week, made it clear that Russia's reaction to international intervention in Syria would be limited to a war of words – "We, of course, are not planning to go to war with anybody," he said. That stance could ultimately benefit Mr. Putin.

The crisis has added fuel to an anti-American sentiment – and to a lesser degree anti-Western sentiment – that had already become a refrain of Mr. Putin's return to the presidency in 2012.

The point is driven home over and over by proxy in the state news media and in comments by public officials, like the one about the monkey, posted on Twitter by a deputy prime minister, Dmitri O. Rogozin. Or by Robert A. Schlegel, a member of the lower house of parliament from the majority United Russia party, who said in a statement on Wednesday that Western retaliatory strikes would aid Al Qaeda and would constitute "the height of cynicism."

Suspicion of President Obama in particular only intensified after his decision to scuttle a planned summit meeting next week in Moscow and to describe Mr. Putin in unusually personal terms at a White House news conference, saying his body language often made him look "like the bored kid in the back of the classroom."

Though Mr. Obama went on to say that their interactions were often constructive, the comment infuriated Mr. Putin, according to one Russian official not authorized to be quoted by name.

More is at stake in Syria than a propaganda coup. While critics accuse Mr. Putin of blindly supporting Mr. Assad's brutality, regardless of the circumstances, Mr. Putin's abiding concerns are foreign intervention and the rise of Islamic extremism – honed not only by the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan but also by Russia's two wars in Chechnya and a simmering insurgency that afflicts the Northern Caucasus.

In his view, the United States and its partners have unleashed the forces of extremism in country after country in the Middle East by forcing or advocating change in leadership – from Iraq to Libya, Egypt to Syria.

While American and European leaders have cited what they call mounting evidence of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces, Russian officials continue to warn against a rush to judgment so precipitous that it can only be seen a pretext for what they call the real motive: the overthrow of Mr. Assad.

Mr. Lavrov and other officials here say that the source of the chemical attack could well have been the rebels themselves, with the aim of provoking an international response that would turn the tide of the conflict. At a minimum, the officials have pleaded that United Nations inspectors conduct a thorough investigation – something Russia's critics see as a stalling tactic.

Late Wednesday the Kremlin reported that Mr. Putin had spoken with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, saying that both agreed that the use of chemical weapons was "fundamentally unacceptable," but adding that the crisis in Syria should be settled "using purely political and diplomatic means."

In his only other reported interaction with a world leader since the crisis escalated, Mr. Putin told Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain that Russia did not have evidence of "whether a chemical attack took place," or, if it did, who was behind it, according to a statement released by Mr. Cameron's office.

A few dissenting voices in the United States and Europe have expressed skepticism toward the evidence, but here such skepticism is the consensus.

"It would be absolutely insane for Assad to use chemical weapons when the red line had been so clearly drawn," Aleksei K. Pushkov, the chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, said. "I met him in Damascus. He's not a madman. He reasons logically."

The "evidence" that Russians like Mr. Pushkov have cited more frequently in recent days has nothing to do with Syria, but rather with Iraq and the American-led invasion in 2003. Several times in an interview Mr. Pushkov mistakenly referred to Iraq, not Syria, and to Saddam Hussein, not Mr. Assad.

"I'm afraid this is very much like the Iraq thing," he said when the slip was noted, pointing out that the rationale for that war proved illusory and the impact destabilizing to this day. "You in the West want to get rid of Assad, and you find the pretext."

In his last public remarks on the war in Syria, at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland in June, Mr. Putin cast doubt on the previous attacks said to have involved chemical weapons. He cited reports – not substantiated – that rebels in Turkey and Iraq had sought to produce their own chemical weapons. He went on to warn that Western steps to arm the rebels would backfire, citing the stabbing death of a British soldier in south London the previous month.

"Do the Europeans really want to arm such people?" he asked.

Another factor in Mr. Putin's stance has been the general indifference to the war here, despite Russia's military and diplomatic investment in Syria, which includes its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union, at the port of Tartus.

Even as Russia's Emergency Services Ministry conducted a second voluntary evacuation of Russians from Syria on Wednesday, bringing the total for the year to more than 700, the conflict there has simply not seized the public the way it has in the United States and Europe, intensifying pressure on leaders like Mr. Obama to act.

Syria is rarely the top story on the state's television newscasts, dominated recently by reports of flooding in the Far East. Perhaps as a result, a poll conducted by the Levada Center before reports emerged of the Aug. 21 chemical attack found that 39 percent of Russians had not even heard about the war. A mere 8 percent said they followed it closely.

"Of course, we can do without Assad or without Syria," said Georgy I. Mirsky, a researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Soviet research group. "It's not a matter of life and death for us. The much bigger principle – the global principle – is by no means to be seen as bending down under American pressure."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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