MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday the world faced a growing “cult of violence” and Moscow must not let events like those in Libya and Syria be repeated in Russia, warning the West against interference in a country he intends to lead for years to come.
Weeks ahead of a March presidential election he is almost sure to win despite the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule, Putin also sent a stark signal to political foes that he will not tolerate threats to stability.
Putin’s remarks, at a meeting with Russian religious leaders, echoed the criticism of U.S. and NATO military action abroad that he frequently voiced as president in 2000-2008.
“We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop,” Putin told Russian religious leaders - Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist - as talk turned to Libya and Syria.
“Help them, advise them - limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons - but do not interfere under any circumstances.”
Russia used its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to amplify that message Saturday, locking elbows with China to block a Western-Arab draft resolution supporting a call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit.
Russia said it feared a resolution on Syria would open the door to foreign military intervention, pointing to the March 2010 Libya resolution that Moscow accused NATO of interpreting as broad license to help rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi.
“A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade,” Putin said. “This cannot fail to cause concern ... and we must not allow anything like this in our country.”
By raising the specter of Arab Spring upheaval reaching Russia, Putin seemed to reveal a powerful motive for Moscow’s opposition to Western calls for Assad to step down after 11 months of bloodshed fuelled by his crackdown on opponents.
Russia has plenty of pragmatic reasons to resist political change in Syria, its last real foothold in the Middle East.
Syria has been a major client for Russian arms and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility on its Mediterranean coast that is the only base outside the former Soviet Union for Russia’s shrunken navy.
But Russia is also driven by Putin’s desire, as he prepares for a six-year presidential term that may be haunted by persistent street protests and questions about his legitimacy, to build a barrier against outside interference.
This is “one of the main motives” behind Russia’s stance on Syria, said Vladimir Frolov, president of LEFF Group, a Moscow-based government relations firm.
“What worries Moscow most of all is a precedent in which an organization commanding great international legitimacy, such as the Security Council, decides how power should be transferred inside a sovereign state,” he said.
Putin has often criticized the United States and its NATO allies over its use of military force abroad, from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the NATO air campaign that helped Libyan rebels drive Muammar Gaddafi from power last year.
But a shift in Russia’s political landscape seems to have added urgency to the former Soviet KGB officer’s warnings about threats to the stability he has claimed credit for establishing since he rose to power in 1999.
Polls indicate Putin will win the election, and he could rule until 2024 if re-elected after a six-year term.
But tens of thousands of people have turned out repeatedly in the past two months for street protests whose scale would have been unthinkable a year ago, calling for a rerun of a December 4 parliamentary vote marred by accusations of fraud favoring Putin’s ruling party and chanting “Russia without Putin!”
The protests have been an outlet for anger that flared after Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev - ushered into the Kremlin by Putin because the constitution barred him running for a third successive term in 2008 - announced a plan on September 24 to swap jobs in the March election.
That decision deepened resentment among Russians who believe formal elections give them little real say in politics. Those feelings, plus concerns about election fraud, are likely to cloud his expected return to the Kremlin with accusations of illegitimacy.
Putin has countered the protesters by casting their leaders as paid puppets of the West and praised tens of thousands of people who attended a rival rally in his support Saturday, saying he agreed with their anti-revolutionary message.
It is nothing new for Russia to say sovereign states should be left alone. The Kremlin, nervously watching U.S. global clout grow as Moscow’s own influence receded after the 1991 Soviet breakup, has traditionally championed the right to freedom from interference in internal affairs.
But the new air of political uncertainly inside Russia is making Moscow dig its heels in deeper on Syria, Frolov said.
But for the protests and elections, Russia might have let the resolution pass.
But while Russia’s unbending position sends a powerful message, it could undermine its chances of maintaining influence in Syria in the long run.
Veto power in the council gives Moscow a high-decibel voce in global affairs and Russia used it to resounding effect on Saturday to block action on Syria.
But a high-profile mission to Syria by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and spy chief Mikhail Fradkov Tuesday seemed to underscore the limits of a foreign policy calculated to counter Western clout.
As Lavrov and Fradkov rode from Damascus airport to Assad’s residence for talks, the Russian Foreign Ministry used Twitter to describe crowds of Syrians lining the route, waving flags and thanking Russia for its support.
They returned hours later with no sign of a breakthrough toward peace, and little to show for the trip but secondhand assurances that Assad’s opponents at home and critics abroad dismissed as a rehash of broken promises.
Russia “has maneuvered itself into a position in which it must bet on Assad’s survival to protect its interests,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article published in Foreign Affairs after the Security Council veto.
“Moscow needs to learn that saying no is not good enough,” he wrote.
Writing by Steve Gutterman