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The two betrayals – Understanding why Russia is not budging on Syria

By Pascal Boniface


Syria is sinking deeper into civil war as the UN Security Council remains deadlocked.


The death toll keeps rising, massacres and torture continue, all under the helpless eyes of the international organization that’s in charge of peacekeeping and human rights.

The inaction of the Security Council is largely due to the Russian veto, or threat of it, which is supported by China. So why is Moscow giving Bashar Al Assad a free pass and refusing to cooperate with the West?

The reasons are endless: refusing international interference, protecting the sacrosanct principle of sovereignty, shielding its most valuable — and really, its last — ally in the Arab world, fear of losing strategic ground to the West, disdain for international opinion and human rights.

Russia appears to be following the Soviet Union’s legacy by refusing to play a leading role in protecting the rights of the people and presenting itself instead as a permanent obstacle in the Security Council.

Though Moscow is a difficult partner, it doesn’t always refuse cooperation — the US is the country that has used its veto the most. It must also be said that twice Moscow’s efforts to cooperate with the Security Council didn’t pay off, and Russia felt betrayed both times.

The first one happened as the Soviet Union was living its last days. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev immediately supported the Security Council’s decision to adopt sanctions, including the threat of a military intervention against Saddam Hussein — a Soviet ally — if he refused to back out of Kuwait. For Gorbachev this was a unique opportunity to recreate international order along the line of the United Nations charter.

For the first time, a state attacking another was punished by international law. The UN was no longer blocked by the confrontation of two Superpowers. Though less stunning, this event was as important a marker of the end of the Cold War as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Would-be new world order

In his book “Gorbachev, The Lost Bet,” Andrei Grachev explains that Gorbachev did not consider it a unilateral concession, but the embryo of a new world order that was no longer based on mutual fear but on interdependence. A reformed USSR would have become a real ally of the West.

The rest, as they say, is history. Following the Gulf war, George H.W. Bush hailed a “New World Order,” one where the US could exercise unilateralism. Then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand invited Gorbachev to the July 1991 G7 meeting, but the Russian leader didn’t get the economic aide he was seeking.

For the US, the Cold War could only end with the complete annihilation of one of its two players. Then came the failed putsch in August 1991, Boris Yeltsin, the end of the USSR, the Russian decline of the 1990’s and then the recovery and the hardening of Russia’s position under Vladimir Putin. The Russian president’s nationalist turn is largely due to the demise and humiliation Russia faced in the 1990’s.

The second betrayal came two decades later. Resolution 1973, adopted in March 2011, implemented for the first time the concept of “responsibility to protect,” as developed by Kofi Annan in 2005 following the Iraq war.

The goal was to find a way out of the deadlock between inaction and interference. The immediate objective was to stop Muammar Gaddafi from carrying out a massacre in Benghazi. After weeks of reluctance, Russia and China accepted to abstain during the vote on the resolution that gave the coming military intervention a legal framework.

But many believe, especially the Russians, that the other countries involved distorted the intervention. Instead of trying to prevent a massacre in Benghazi by setting up a no-fly zone, they pushed for a regime change to get rid of Gaddafi. The Russians and the Chinese, as well as other non-Western nations, feel they were betrayed. And it is above all this betrayal that explains why they refuse to back a new Security Council resolution.

This isn’t an attempt to exonerate Russia of its huge responsibility in the current Syrian tragedy. But if the West wants Russia to act as an ally in the future, it must think of all the times Moscow was ready to do so, and it was the Western countries that changed the cards on the table.

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Photo – FreedomHouse