Russia has defiantly refused to back the West’s hard line on Syria not just because it retains interests there but also as Moscow wants to send a message it is still a great power, analysts said.
Russia last month used its U.N. Security Council veto to shoot down a resolution condemning the lethal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and has made clear it will not contemplate sanctions against Damascus.
In recent days, Moscow told the West it had failed to condemn violations by the opposition in the unrest and became the first major power to liken the unrest in the country to a civil war.
With Russia also slamming new Western sanctions against Iran over its nuclear drive and opposing U.N. Security Council action, Russia’s stance is increasingly reminiscent of the hardball heyday of postwar Soviet diplomacy.
The Soviet Union’s long-serving foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who held the post for 28 years from 1957 to 1985, then won the grudgingly respectful nickname of Mr Nyet (Mr No) from the West for his cussed intransigence.
The spirit of Gromyko, who died in 1989, still haunts the Russian foreign ministry and his 100th birthday was celebrated with full ceremony in its Stalin-era skyscraper in 2009.
“Russia inherited foreign policy and a foreign policy establishment from the USSR and in many ways continues the tradition of Stalin and Brezhnev times,” said Yevgeny Volk of the Yeltsin Foundation.
He said that Russia as the successor state to the Soviet Union still feels a loyalty to former Soviet allies regarded with distaste elsewhere -- including Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Under strongman leader Vladimir Putin, modern Russia has always wanted to show it remains a “velikaya derzhava” -- a great power -- despite the humiliating loss of the Soviet Empire two decades ago.
The tensions with the West over Syria and Iran also come at a time when the elite wants to flex its muscle ahead of parliamentary elections in December and presidential polls in March, when Putin is expected to return to the Kremlin.
“Russia is not going to drop its allies, especially before an election at a time when nationalist sentiment is growing. It would be seen as surrender on the part of Russia,” said Volk.
Moscow’s stubborn stance contrasts with how in March it opened the way for the Western air campaign in Libya by declining to use its veto and instead abstaining on the vote to create a no-fly zone.
That decision was championed by President Dmitry Medvedev, who made much of his strong personal relationship with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama but is now standing aside for the more prickly Putin.
“The West wants Russia’s support, but what will Moscow get in return?” said Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy head of the United States-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Russia received nothing for its support on Libya.”
The Soviet Union built strong relations with Assad’s father, the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, the kind of authoritarian but strongly secular Arab leader of whom the Soviet Union approved.
As a result, Russia remains a leading arms supplier to Syria and also has an occasionally-used but potentially strategic naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus which admirals have vowed to expand in the next years.
Kremenyuk said: “Syria has been loyal and this is appreciated. Moscow does not have so many allies in the world that they can just be easily cast aside.”
Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, bluntly stated earlier this month that Moscow would honor all previous military contracts to Damascus.
“Since there are no restrictions on arms supplies to Syria, Russia is performing all of its contractual obligations we have assumed before this country,” he said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
These are believed to include Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, a sale that has caused repeated alarm from Syria's foe Israel.
“Russia has invested a lot in Syria and does not want to lose its position,” commented Volk. But he warned that if Russia defended Assad “too stubbornly” it risked completely losing all influence in the country if he was toppled.
The ousting of the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi by rebels that Russia never fully backed -- even as the regime’s end become inevitable -- left it struggling to regain political influence and an economic foothold in the country.