MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on protests sends a warning that Moscow will not be pushed around when it sees its interests threatened by the United States and Europe.
It signals that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is planning to return to Russia’s top office in a March 2012 presidential vote, will not tolerate Western interference in a country he could lead for more than a decade to come.
Acting in concert with China, Russia made rare use of its veto power to block a resolution that would have opened up the prospect of U.N. sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The move was motivated in part by Russia’s desire to maintain a foothold in a region where its influence has diminished since the Cold War and faces further challenges with the demise of governments over nearly a year of unrest.
Moscow has close ties with Assad’s government, which has been a client for arms sales, and has a naval maintenance facility on Syria’s Mediterranean coast — a rare outpost abroad for Russia’s military.
But the veto had less to do with Syria itself than with Russia’s opposition to Western efforts to promote political change abroad — a source of ire for Putin during his 2000-2008 presidency and a renewed concern as he prepares for another six years or more as head of state.
“Russia does not want to completely lose its economic position in Syria,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an author and expert on Putin and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“But the main thing is that Russia does not want to support any tendency that could lead to regime change in Syria and become an example for other states.”
The message to the West, she said, was clear: “Don’t meddle. We have our principles and we don’t need any interference.”
Russia had trumpeted its opposition to almost any resolution condemning Assad, making Syria a line in the sand after allowing NATO air strikes in Libya by refraining from using its veto in a Security Council vote last March.
Russia accused NATO of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians and taking sides with the rebels who drove longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Putin, in some of his harshest criticism of the West since he was president, compared the Libya resolution to “medieval calls for crusades,” drawing a rebuke from his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev.
In April, Putin angrily told a news conference in Copenhagen that Gaddafi’s misrule did not justify his targeting for ousting or elimination by military force.
The Syria veto echoes a signal Putin delivered frequently in his first stint as president, when he repeatedly accused the West and in particular the United States of meddling in the affairs of sovereign states and seeking to weaken Russia.
Analysts say the Kremlin’s worries about leadership change abroad are rooted in concerns over questions of its own legitimacy, and caution that Putin’s decision to reclaim the presidency could amplify such feelings among Russians.
The veto of the Syria resolution is unlikely to herald a big shift in Russia’s foreign policy in a second presidency for Putin, who is expected to win a six-year term in March, largely because its levers of influence are limited.
“On the whole, policy has been reactive. It will continue to be reactive: how others conduct themselves in relation to Russia will determine how Russia behaves,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
But it could fuel tension with West, where Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin has deepened doubts about his commitment to creating lasting institutions of democratic government in a country with a history of one-person rule.
Putin, 58, could be president until 2024 if he serves two successive presidential terms.
Although he remains broadly popular, his decision to swap jobs with Medvedev — revealed last month after years of mixed signals about which of them would run for president in March — has increased the volume of Russian citizens’ complaints that they have little say in politics and stoked comparisons with the “era of stagnation” under aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
“If Russia stagnates further under Putin, if it loses its internal stability, naturally the authorities will be more alarmed about any changes in Russia or in other countries,” Shevtsova said.