* Ministry says Russia's policy on Syria unchanged
* Envoy said opposition victory cannot be ruled out
By Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Dec 14 Russia denied on Friday that it
has changed its position on Syria, trying to dampen speculation
that remarks by a senior envoy point to policy differences in
Moscow as the civil war turns against President Bashar al-Assad.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, a Kremlin envoy to
the Middle East, made unusually pessimistic assessment of the
situation in Syria on Thursday when he acknowledged that Assad's
opponents might win.
The United States said the remarks showed Moscow was
"finally waking up to reality". But Russia's Foreign Ministry
said he had merely reiterated Moscow's view that any resolution
of the conflict in Syria must not be based on Assad's departure.
"We have never changed our position and we will not change
it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a
news conference. "We have never been asleep."
His comments followed a ministry statement that also
dismissed any talk of a change in policy, and he reiterated that
Moscow was not discussing Assad's future or ways to get him out
Russia, which is Syria's largest arms supplier, has with
China shielded Assad from censure in three consecutive U.N.
Security Council resolutions.
Its policy hinges on an international agreement reached in
Geneva this year that calls for a transitional government to be
set up in Syria but leaves open the question of what part
Moscow's ally, Assad, might play in the process.
Bogdanov's comments, made during a discussion by experts on
Syria and the Middle East in Moscow, raised questions about
whether Russia is pursuing one policy in private and another in
public as Assad's chances of staying in power appear to recede.
It has also fuelled talk of potential differences in Moscow
over the situation on the ground in Syria, where the
20-month-old civil war has killed at least 40,000 people.
Lukashevich said Bogdanov's remarks followed the same
"logic" as the Russian position that no deal should be
predicated by Assad's departure.
But Bogdanov may have stepped out of line by serving up a
more openly pessimistic view of the conflict than any other
Russian official because he did not realise his comments would
be made public.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine
and a member of an influential foreign policy council, said he
saw no policy shift when Bogdanov said rebel gains on the ground
meant their ultimate victory over Assad could not be ruled out.
But he added: "This discussion ... was not seen as a place
where political statements will be made so Bogdanov said what he
said as his professional expert assessment of the situation in
His remarks follow comments by Western diplomats suggesting
that Russia appears increasingly to be preparing for an end game
in which Assad is forced out of power.
A source close to Rosoboronexport, Russia's arms exporting
monopoly, said the Foreign Ministry was planning to honour arms
contracts to Syria that have already been agreed even if Assad
is forced out of power.
The remarks suggest that despite what Russian officials say
in public, Moscow is thinking beyond Assad and preparing for
every possible outcome. It is also increasingly concerned by the
chaotic situation in Syria and trying to shape policy around it.
"Russia can't see a post-Assad structure that will satisfy
them. All they see is a mess and chaos," said one Moscow-based