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Published: Sunday, 12/23/2012

U.S. twists Kremlin’s arm to soften support of Assad

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The United States may finally be shifting from wishful thinking in regard to Russia to a more practical approach.

The sanctioning of the Russian state-controlled weapons exports giant Rosoboronexport for selling Syria advanced weapons is a testimony to that overdue change in policy. Earlier this month, the Senate approved an amendment to the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act that would stop all U.S. trade with Rosoboronexport, the primary Russian arms dealer.

Despite the White House policy of playing down major points of contention with Russia such as the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons or the U.S. missile-defense program, the Senate has finally put pressure on the Kremlin by showing just how it could hurt its economic interest.

This is good news. Such a forceful approach has every chance to work after proving its worth when President Ronald Reagan helped the former Soviet Union along its way to bankruptcy and finally to its demise.

And lo and behold, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia realizes changes in Syria are needed.

“We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what's going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years,” President Putin told reporters in Moscow, according to the Associated Press. "Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes."

After Russia’s repeated efforts blocking international attempts to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in order to end the civil war, that policy shift indicates that Russia's support of the Assad regime is wearing thin.

Had the United States twisted Russia's arm sooner, many of the more than 40,000 deaths in Syria could have been avoided.

That’s because it is none other than the Kremlin that has supported the Assad regime with shipments of advanced weapons system and, even more importantly, by fighting every effort of the United States to unify the international opposition to the Assad regime. Rosoboronexport is simply one of the Kremlin's agents.

Had it not been for Russia, NATO could have put more pressure on the Assad regime. After all, Turkey, a NATO member and Syria’s neighbor, has been gravely concerned about the potential spillage of the Syrian civil war onto its territory.

But given its dependence on Russia's natural gas, Turkey has been careful not to antagonize the Kremlin, which views Syria — where Russia maintains a naval base — as its last standing Cold-War ally in the region where the Arab Spring had all but ended Russia’s influence elsewhere.

As far as the Kremlin is concerned, there is also an ideological aspect to the issue.

The Kremlin is loath to abandon its Syrian ally because it considers the Arab Spring to be akin to the so-called “color revolutions” in such former Soviet entities as Georgia and Ukraine, where mass protests had led to the toppling of despotic pro-Russian regimes.

The Kremlin chooses to blame those revolutions on the United States. Russian President Valdimir Putin has raised such paranoia to the level of state policy, with all nongovernmental agencies and individuals receiving foreign money deemed “foreign agents.”

In the long run, there is little the United States and its Western allies have to worry about in regard to the Kremlin's spoilsport role. Russia is going to drop from its position as the world’s largest producer and exporter of fossil fuels to the runner-up role, if not lower, in a matter of five years or so, doomed to lose its oil-pumped clout to its own systemic corruption and to impending growth of U.S. fossil fuel production.

In the short run, however, it would serve the U.S. national interest and the international community to help undermine the Kremlin’s international clout and domestic viability by spreading U.S. sanctions from Rosoboronexport — one of the Kremlin’s cash-stuffed pockets — to other major Putin pockets such as fossil fuel export monopolies.

Many deaths in Syria and lots of roadblocks to U.S. international security efforts can be avoided that way.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com or 419-724-6089.



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