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There Is Hope For Russia's Stance On Syria

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The United Nations Security Council is now crucial for Russia to achieve its foreign policy aims, and this should provide grounds for optimism over Syria.

For all the criticism levelled at Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, his government's policy of non-interference has remained remarkably consistent over the past decade. If anything Russia's decision not to veto a Libya no-fly zone, rather than its veto of Syrian sanctions, mark the exception.

To dub Russia's approach to the UN as purely obstructionist is hardly supported by the facts. Although the USSR was liberal with the use of its Security Council veto, over the past decade the Russian Federation has employed it only six times while the US wielded theirs to block nine votes.

Yet the policy of non-interference certainly appears more flexible than presented and is frequently realigned to the requirements of realpolitik as the Kremlin perceives it. In practice this has meant, for example, that there is apparently no contradiction between Moscow sending election specialists to Kiev to aide a preferred candidate and denouncing the West for fomenting a "colour revolution" there to sway the election results.

When it comes to the Middle East these problems become all the more acute. National interests are, of course, fundamental to the discussion but in many ways too much time is devoted to the analysis of this fluid and almost indefinable subject matter. It is clear that in the cases of Libya and Syria a combination of strategic and economic considerations have provided a complex problem for Moscow.

For recent context it is important to consider the treatment of Russia in the aftermath of the campaign to oust Moammar Gaddafi that has been a cause of significant bitterness among the country's politicians. Indeed it formed a major theme in Vladimir Putin's series of articles during his presidential campaign earlier this year.

In his piece on foreign policy for the Russian daily Moskovskie Novosti he pointedly questioned "Western colleagues" over the motivation behind their interventionist spirit:

"It appears that with the Arab Spring countries, as with Iraq, Russian companies are losing their decades-long positions in local commercial markets and are being deprived of large commercial contracts. The niches thus vacated are being filled by the economic operatives of the states that had a hand in the change of the ruling regime."

Such criticism may be far from new but it has very particular relevance to Russia's attitude towards the al-Assad regime in Syria.

Moscow's tacit acceptance of limited intervention in Libya was seen by the Kremlin to have disadvantaged them both strategically and economically. As a consequence the appeal of a similar approach against an old ally in Syria was already much diminished before they even reached the negotiating table.

The economic and strategic cases are fairly clear. In 2008, the Russian parliament ratified a deal that forgave 73% of Syria's $14.5 billion outstanding Soviet-era debt in exchange for use of Tartus port, which currently serves as Russia's main port in the Mediterranean. On top of this, it has been widely reported that the Russian Federation is Syria's largest arms supplier with $4 billion worth of outstanding contracts.

These are not insignificant concerns, nor should we expect elected politicians to act against their own perception of the national interest.

Yet Russia continues to voice its grievances through the UN, without resorting to unilateral negotiations with Syria. Today Lavrov again pressed both the Syrian government and the opposition to abide by Kofi Annan's peace plan:

"We are insistently demanding from our Syrian colleagues the strict fulfilment of their commitments," he told a press conference.

While their stance may frustrate many in the international community, Russia's commitment to a UN-led solution should also be heartening. The difficulty for Putin and Lavrov now is that there is a humanitarian crisis in Syria that cannot be ignored or explained away. If nothing else this should be enough to force all sides back to the negotiating table.