Russia’s offer of a new UN Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria is a pragmatic step by a country increasingly isolated in its support for a widely discredited leader.
The shift allows Russia to look less recalcitrant without giving ground on its opposition to sanctions or foreign military interference, which it has vociferously opposed since the NATO operation in Libya.
With the death toll mounting in bloodshed the world blames mostly on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin is under increasing pressure to abandon a government that has given Moscow one of its firmest footholds in the Middle East.
It took a small step in that direction on Thursday, circulating a draft resolution that refers to “disproportionate use of force” by the Syrian authorities and urges them to stop “the suppression of those exercising their rights.”
In the short term, analysts said, Russia sees that it must distance itself from Assad in the eyes of the world.
“Russia is changing its position because to completely defend the Syrian regime is impossible given that everyone is against it, including practically all the Arab nations,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“The point is to show that Russia favors a settlement, but is not a protector of Assad’s regime,” he said.
Russia has hosted Syrian opposition groups in recent months, but has rebuffed their pleas to press Assad to step down. Its diplomats have frequently said his opponents share much of the blame for the bloodshed.
In October, Russia and China used their veto power as permanent UN Security Council members to block passage of a Western-drafted resolution that would have condemned Syria’s government, calling it one-sided.
Western nations said Russia’s own draft made an unacceptable attempt to assign equal blame to the government and opponents.
The proximate cause for presenting a new one may have been a report this week in which UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said the death toll in nine months of protest exceeded 5,000 and that Syria’s actions could constitute crimes against humanity.
“We think that it’s because Russia has felt the pressure of the international community, especially after the shocking report of Mrs Pillay,” French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud said.
Longer term, Russia is hedging its bets on a game whose outcome is unclear.
Syria has been a major client for Russian arms sales and hosts a Russian naval maintenance facility on its Mediterranean coast, a rare outpost abroad for Moscow’s military.
Assad has been perhaps the closest Russia has to an ally in a region where a year of unrest has set back its efforts to build influence and economic clout.
However, short of the restoration of Syria’s pre-protest status quo, the best result for Russia would be a negotiated solution, especially if Moscow can claim credit.
That would be a big diplomatic victory for Russia on the world stage and would help it gain purchase in Syria in the future, something that would be out of the question if Assad’s opponents prevail and Russia is seen as backing him to the end.
Analysts said, however, that Russia would hold out against sanctions as long as possible, a strategy that may be supported by the draft resolution.
Any further movement is likely to be incremental because the Kremlin fears a sharp shift on Syria would be seen as a sign of weakness in the face of the West, unwelcome as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin prepares for a presidential election in March.