In the past two weeks, the U.S. and its allies have done just about everything short of getting down on their collective knees and begging Russia to stop delivering weapons to the Syrian government. President Vladimir Putin has received visits this month from three of the most powerful statesmen in the western world: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on May 7, British Prime Minister David Cameron three days later and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three days after that. Along with U.S. President Barack Obama, who spoke to Putin by phone on April 29, they have all implored the Russian leader to stop arming President Bashar Assad’s regime.
However, last week it became clear that Russia was going ahead with S-300 sales immediately despite Kerry’s overtures. This week, the New York Times reported that Russia is delivering not only the sophisticated S-300 antiaircraft systems to Syria but the dreaded Yakhont “ship-killer” missiles, which would make it a lot more painful for any foreign navies trying to intervene in Syria or provide supplies to the rebels by sea.
Why has Russia apparently decided to ramp up its arms supplies to Damascus, despite the West’s pleas? TIME spoke last week with top Russian diplomat Andrei Klimov, the deputy chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in the Russian parliament, who explained it as Moscow hedging its bets.
Weapons systems like the S-300, he said, “would simply set the right conditions” for negotiating Assad’s departure. On May 7, Kerry and Putin agreed to begin those negotiations at an international summit in the coming weeks. “To put it simply, the S-300 will put a damper on any desire to attack Syria from the air if that is the real intention of our partners” heading into these negotiations. Russia’s intention in all of this is to avoid making the same mistake it made with Libya, said Klimov, who has traveled to Syria during the civil war there to assess Russia’s options. In 2011, the Kremlin — then led by Putin’s more liberal protégé Dmitri Medvedev — was a lot more sympathetic to the international outrage against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was then trying to crush his own violent rebellion. The U.S. and its allies convinced Medvedev not to block a U.N. resolution against Gaddafi, allowing it to pass a vote in the U.N. Security Council.
As Putin sees it, that resolution was taken way beyond its stated purpose of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya — it also opened the door for a full-scale military intervention. Under the U.N. mandate, the U.S. and NATO began flying bombing raids against Gaddafi’s military convoys, which were then moving toward the rebel-held city of Benghazi with the express aim of “cleansing” its revolutionary populace. After fending off that assault, NATO airpower continued to provide the rebels with a clear military advantage.
Within weeks, Gaddafi’s army was routed, his convoy was bombed from the air while fleeing the Libyan capital, and the dictator himself was captured hiding in a drainpipe in his hometown. A video of rebels beating, insulting and finally killing Gaddafi soon appeared on YouTube. Putin was furious over this turn of events — seeing it as a blatant violation of Libyan sovereignty and a betrayal of Russia’s willingness to trust the West’s intentions. He has not gotten over the slight. “What we really do not want is to allow the same mistake as with Libya,” Klimov said, “when we believed we were getting one thing and got something totally different.”
Russian weapons will give Assad a good chance of defending himself if any Western powers decide to continue the aerial assaults that took place early this month. The strikes on Syrian targets on May 3 and May 5, apparently carried out by Israeli warplanes, also spurred Russia to step up its arms shipments to Assad, Klimov said. “When we see these bombings taking place in Syria, which seem by all accounts to be coming from Israel, we realize that a sovereign government has the right to self-defense,” he said. “In our understanding, these deliveries do not violate any international agreements. Rather, they forbid any aerial attacks against Syria from taking place with impunity.”
Russia points out that its weapons sales to Assad do not violate any international agreements. Unlike with Libya, Russia and China have vetoed every attempt in the past two years to impose a weapons embargo against Assad in the U.N. Security Council. And the Kremlin has no intention of backing away from that position, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a top foreign policy expert in Moscow. “If the position on providing arms to the rebel side does not change, then Russia will not back away from any [arms] contracts with Assad,” he says. “And at this point we only see movement in the direction of providing more arms to the rebels, not less.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker introduced a bipartisan bill to pressure the Obama Administration to provide weapons to “vetted” rebel forces in Syria. “To change the tipping point in Syria against the Assad regime, we must support the opposition by providing lethal arms,” Menendez said in a statement accompanying the legislation, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up on May 21. “This effort coupled with Russia’s willingness to participate in talks for political transition will give us the best opportunity for a better outcome.”
Talks over a political transition are expected to start early next month. As Putin and Kerry agreed, representatives from Assad’s government and from the rebel forces will be able to attend the conference. The aim is to map out a political transition to end the civil war, which has already claimed some 80,000 lives. “What gives me serious pause,” says Lukyanov, “is that the U.S. and Russia can agree on whatever they want, and maybe they will. But it’s pompous to think that the people fighting in Syria will obey that decision, put down their arms and go home.”
Still, Lukyanov says it is a sign of progress that Russia and the West have even agreed to a framework for such a conference. They were previously at a deadlock over the issue of whether Assad or his representatives could take part in the transition to a new Syrian government. Putin has always insisted that the ruling regime must be at the table, as well as Assad’s other major ally, Iran. “Now in Moscow there has appeared a tender hope that the West is finally starting to hear what we’ve been telling them all along,” said Klimov. “This conference will be where we can make real progress, if not a compromise, then at least the conditions for a compromise.” And just in case it falls apart, Russia is providing its ally with a radar-guided insurance policy.