We asked Fyodor Lukyanov, the Moscow-based editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and Chairman of Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, to explain the motives behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves.
Syria Deeply: Is this a change in Russia’s Syria policy and rhetoric?
Fyodor Lukyanov: I wouldn’t call it change. The situation [itself] has changed since August and the chemical weapons attack. Military intervention, which might start as limited but then transform into a bigger war, started to emerge as a possibility.
SD: Why did Putin choose to make this move now?
FL: There is this possibility [of a U.S. strike], on the one hand, and Obama’s clear hesitation and unwillingness to to it on the other hand.
The whole line on the Russia side about Syria has, since the beginning, been very consistent. Many people didn’t like this line but everybody acknowledged that the position was consistent and linear compared to all other countries.So in order to keep it alive, to prove that it was right thing to do, to be that stubborn, Russia now needs diplomatic success.
If you look at the real motive for Russia to do what it did, it was actually not necessarily supporting Bashar al-Assad, but to avoid U.S. military intervention, which would undermine Russia. So Russia is eager to achieve a political solution in this way with its demand to hand over the chemical weapons.
SD: Is there any domestic pressure on Putin to change his Syria policy?
FL: There’s absolutely no internal pressure for Putin to stop supporting Assad. The Russian people don’t care about this, they endorse Putin and the government on the Syrian line.
I think Assad is aware that this chance might be his last one, and he will be much more constructive this time than before. But it does not mean that everything [regarding the weapons handoff] will go smoothly.
SD: What does Putin’s Opinion piece in the The New York Times say about Russia’s power on the world stage?
FL: It says less about Russia’s power than American weakness. Russia is so proactive right now because it sees that Obama would be very grateful if someone would relieve him of the necessity of going to war. He made statements before [about a “red line”] that have now turned out to be binding, and he doesn’t know what to do or what he wants to do.
Russia believes that its initiative will be taken very seriously by the Americans. Public opinion in the U.S. is very shaky, and so is Congress, on military action. So for Russia, it’s a good opportunity to increase its role [in the Syria conflict].
I don’t know whether the initiative will be implemented or not, but it looks like the most intriguing diplomatic initiatives from the end of the Cold War. This time it’s a very unusual [solution] and could be very important because [between the U.S. and Russia and Assad] there is a really has been a pattern of cooperation and non-cooperation.