MOSCOW (Reuters) - Arab ambassadors delivered a clear message to Russia’s special Middle East representative this month as Syria’s envoy watched in silent discomfort: You are on the wrong side of history.
Russia’s envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, differed during the radio discussion with the Moscow-based ambassadors. He and President Vladimir Putin say Russia is on a mission to stop the world making a historic error over Syria.
Friday’s shooting down of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses may only widen the rift between the two schools of thought. Turkey has called a meeting of NATO allies on the incident and plans to approach the U.N. Security Council.
By using its U.N. Security Council veto in the past to blunt efforts to force out President Bashar al-Assad during 16 months of bloodshed, Russia has shown the United States and Europe that it will not let them decide the fate of other states.
But the display of geopolitical muscle has come at a price for Putin and Russia, further damaging Moscow’s reputation in a region where upheaval and conflict have upset his efforts to revive his country’s clout since he came to power in 2000.
“Russia finds itself in a very unpleasant situation: It has essentially put itself in opposition to the entire Arab world,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Back in the Kremlin and in charge of foreign policy again after four years as prime minister, Putin will try to mitigate the damage on a trip that will take him to the West Bank and Jordan on Tuesday after a visit to Israel on Monday.
“Putin needs to show that Russia is not against the Arab quest for democracy,” said Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
“He wants to minimize the negative effects of the Arab Spring, to show that Russia is not on the side of dictators.”
Russia lost billions of dollars in arms and infrastructure contracts in Libya because of the conflict that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and is struggling to restore trade ties and contracts in several nations. Still more is at stake in Syria, which buys Russian arms and provides a deep water Mediterranean port for its navy.
But Putin, who faces U.S. and European criticism for his treatment of dissent in Russia after the biggest protests of his rule, is likely to juxtapose the friendly message to Arabs with more warnings against Western interference abroad.
Putin’s second visit to Israel sends at least an implicit message to U.S. President Barack Obama, who has not visited the U.S. ally in more than three years as president.
“It’s clear there is ... in this visit a ‘nudge’ to the Americans, to tell them ‘we are playing here too’”, an Israeli official said.
Russia drew a line in the sand over Syria after allowing NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels drive Gaddafi from power by abstaining from a U.N. Security Council resolution which Putin likened to “medieval calls for crusades”.
Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
But Russia’s stance on Syria - where Moscow says it does not back Assad but that only Syrians can decide his fate - is also driven by Putin’s opposition to Western efforts to promote political change abroad.
“Putin’s purpose is simple: To show the West and a domestic audience that Russia has not been pushed out of the picture but still has a strong role to play in the Middle East, and that no serious problem can be solved without Russia,” Mirsky said.
But on Syria, Putin may find it hard to convince Arab nations Russia is part of the solution rather than the problem.
In February, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that supported an Arab League call for Assad to cede power and condemned him for violence in which the United Nations says his forces have killed more than 10,000.
Since then, Russia has backed U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and says there is no alternative, hoping to avert military intervention and resisting pushes for sanctions.
Moscow has brushed aside U.S. and Arab calls to stop sending weapons to the Syrian government, saying it supplies only defensive arms.
While Putin has hedged his bets by distancing himself from Assad and saying there is no special relationship between Moscow and Damascus, he is not prepared to trade a visible climbdown on Syria for kudos from Arab states.
Putin’s visit this week is not likely to produce progress towards ending the crisis in Syria or the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, let alone the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I don’t expect that in the talks on Iran or Syria he will stray even by a millimeter from the line we already know, though he may try to make it more user-friendly,” the Israeli official said.
Along with the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany, Russia is part of a group of states negotiating with Iran to ensure it does not develop nuclear weapons, and hosted inconclusive talks with Tehran last week.
Russia takes a softer tack than the Western nations, opposing any further sanctions against Iran and warning Israel not to attack its nuclear sites.
Putin has repeatedly said Russia has no proof Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but analysts say he is also motivated by a desire to counter U.S. clout.
“Some in Russia believe it would be better to have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran - better to have Iran as a counterweight to American power and pressure,” Mirsky said.
In 2005, Putin became the first Russian president to visit Israel, which was aligned against Moscow-backed Arab states in the Soviet era, and made stops in the West Bank and Egypt.
This trip - which follows visits to Europe, China, three ex-Soviet republics and a G20 summit in Mexico where Putin met U.S. President Barack Obama - also seems likely to be richer in symbol than substance.
“He needs to be seen in the Middle East. If he declined to visit, it would mean Russia has given up in the Middle East and has been pushed out,” said Mirsky.
Putin will stake a claim to deep roots for Russia in the region by visiting Bethlehem, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and opening a guesthouse for Russian pilgrims near the River Jordan, regarded as the place where Christ was baptized.
In Israel, he is to attend the opening of a monument honoring “the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany”.
Russia is predominantly Orthodox Christian and Putin has encouraged a revival of religious practice since he came to power a decade after the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991.
Patriarch Kirill, a Putin ally who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, visited Orthodox communities in Syria and Lebanon last November and later called for international cooperation to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.
Putin may also use the visit to amplify his opposition to external political pressure such as calls for Assad’s ouster.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by Timothy Heritage