The Kremlin’s desire to project a firm image to the world, the West and its own people in an election season mean Moscow is unlikely to turn on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and seek sanctions or his resignation.
Amid growing global pressure on Assad, Russia’s more supportive stance is also rooted in resentment over Western action in Libya and reluctance to lose one of its few footholds in the Middle East.
And as Europe struggles with a debt crisis and the United States prepares for an unpredictable presidential vote next November, Russia’s leaders may have calculated they have little to gain from falling in line with the West.
“Russia believes it is very important to show that it holds a position independent of the United States and the West,” said Moscow-based political analyst Yevgeny Volk.
“To withdraw support for Assad, in the Kremlin’s opinion, would be seen by the whole world as abandonment of a loyal ally and following in the wake of Western policy,” he said.
Russia drew a line in the sand over Syria after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Qaddafi.
Moscow had let the NATO operation go ahead by abstaining in the U.N. Security Council vote that authorized it, but then accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the resolution to “medieval calls for crusades”.
As Western pressure for Security Council action against Syria mounted, Russia emphasized it would not support a resolution that condemned only Assad’s government. With China, it vetoed a U.S.-backed European draft last month, saying it would have opened the way for military intervention.
“After that, it’s very hard to imagine Russia supporting any actions that could even be interpreted as permission for any use of external force in Syria,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Foreign Affairs.
For Putin, who has made opposition to Western interference in the affairs of sovereign states a mantra in over a decade in power, to accede to the West on Syria would be a big departure.
Polls indicate that Putin, president from 2000-2008 and still Russia’s most powerful leader, will have little trouble returning to the highest office in an election next March.
But his approval ratings have fallen in the past year and his ruling United Russia party, always less popular than Putin himself, faces a challenge retaining its constitutional two-thirds majority in a parliamentary election on Dec. 4.
Qaddafi’s demise cost Russia billions of dollars in arms sales and jeopardized several oil and infrastructure deals.
Volk said Syria was “practically the only ally of Russia in the Middle East”.
It has been a hard-currency buyer of Russian weapons and hosts a naval maintenance facility on the Mediterranean that is the closest thing Russia has to a military base outside the former Soviet Union.
Syria accounted for 7 percent of Russia’s total of $10 billion in arms deliveries abroad in 2010, according to the Russian defense think tank CAST.
To be seen as giving in on Syria would deepen discontent in the arms industry and hand United Russia’s electoral rivals, the Communists and flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, fodder for campaign rhetoric.
“The number of dissatisfied people in Russia - primarily those in the military-industrial complex whose business will be destroyed - will be quite significant,” Lukyanov said.
Of course, if Assad is forced out, Russia’s support for him will presumably leave it an even tougher position than in Libya, where it is struggling to restore Qaddafi-era contracts.
But analysts say Moscow has little to lose because opponents of Assad, if they win power, would likely turn elsewhere anyway.
Russia has urged Assad to implement promised reforms faster and condemned the violence in Syria, but has echoed the government’s assertion that its opponents share the blame.
The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed in an eight-month crackdown on pro-democracy, anti-government protests, while Syrian authorities say armed “terrorist” gangs have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hosting a Syrian opposition delegation on Tuesday, Russia resisted pressure to urge Assad to resign and repeated calls for the opposition to hold talks with the authorities.
Syria’s growing isolation after its suspension from the Arab League could prompt Russia to tone down its rhetoric. But Lukyanov predicted it would not call for Assad’s resignation and would resist pressure for sanctions “as long as possible”.
“Russia does not want to take responsibility for the fall of the Assad regime,” he said.
In the past, Russia has used what influence it has in the Middle East as a lever in diplomatic maneuvering with Europe and in particular the United States, Moscow’s Cold War foe.
Amid a “reset” of strained ties since he took office, President Barack Obama signed a nuclear arms limitation pact with Medvedev and scaled down U.S. plans for a European missile shield that Moscow opposed. Russia supported new U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program last year and scrapped a missile sale to Tehran.
But with Putin already looking to his own election and the outcome of the U.S. presidential vote uncertain, analysts said his incentive for compromise had diminished, and pointed to persistent Russian complaints about Obama’s revised missile defense plan as evidence.