Analysis: Russia holding firm in Syria crisis

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By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — In the face of increasingly harsh criticism from the West, Russia is holding firm in its opposition to international intervention in Syria, warning the U.S. and other nations against any temptation to resort to actions like the NATO airstrikes in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi.

"I strongly hope that the United States and other nations will learn from the sad experience and won't try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote in a foreign policy article published Monday in the Moscow News. "I can't understand that bellicose itch."

That determination has several roots: Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East and the regime of President Bashar Assad is a major customer for Russian arms; Moscow harbors longstanding suspicions that Washington and the West aim for international hegemony; and the Kremlin has a displayed consistent disdain for protest movements.

Criticism of Russia's stance on the Assad regime's crackdown on the nearly year-old uprising has become increasingly bitter. At an international conference Friday in Tunisia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Russia and China "despicable" for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria.

Such harsh language may only reinforce Russia's ingrained sense of exceptionalism, its self-image as a lonely opponent of Western machinations.

With the Obama administration's initiative to "reset" relations with Moscow in a downward spiral, Russia seems to have little to lose by incurring Washington's disfavor.

Russian officials are taking pains to appear principled rather than merely obstinate. The Foreign Ministry has been energetic in expressing support for former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's new role as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution.

On Monday, Annan spoke with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and said he was ready for "active cooperation" with Russia on Syrian problems, a ministry statement said.

The ministry also was quick to praise Syria's weekend referendum on a new constitution — a vote that Clinton denounced Sunday as "a cynical ploy ... to be used by Assad to justify what he's doing to other Syrian citizens."

Although the Syrian opposition boycotted the balloting, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "We regard the referendum as confirmation that the policy of reforms enjoys people's support."

Russia so far has been publicly indifferent to Clinton's acidic comments of last week — unlike China, whose Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Monday said, "We cannot accept them at all."

But Putin's article showed resentment underlying any diplomatic tact.

He said the West had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region, and defended Moscow's recent U.N. veto, saying Russia wouldn't allow a replay of what happened in Libya after it abstained from a Security Council vote.

"Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in domestic processes in Syria," Putin said.

He said both the Syrian government and opposition forces must pull out of populated areas to end bloodshed, adding that the West's refusal to demand that from Assad's opponents was "cynical."

The stance persists amid a sharply rising death toll in Syria. Activist groups say more than 8,000 people have died in the 11-month-old uprising. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told The Associated Press that more than 5,800 of the dead were civilians and the rest were either members of the military or army defectors.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich on Saturday derided the observatory's reports, saying it was a tiny group with little credibility. Syria has prevented most independent media coverage and has refused to issue visas for most foreign journalists.

The timing of Putin's article is no coincidence, coming less than a week before the presidential election in which he seeks to return to the Kremlin.

Dismay with the West has been a key piece of Putin's campaign for Sunday's election, which he is widely expected to win, aimed at rallying support among his core electorate of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees widely suspicious of the West after years of government propaganda. But it is far more than a campaign ploy and there are no signs he would become more flexible if he regains the leadership he held in 2000-08.

Putin made his first strong political impression by launching Russia's second war in a decade against Chechen separatists and has built much of his career on a tough line against opposition. He consistently expressed contempt for popular mass protest movements in Georgia and Ukraine that forced government changes.

Now that a substantial protest movement against Putin himself has burst forth in Russia in the past three months, he can be even more wary. Any move that could appear to be even tacit support for Syria's opposition uprising could encourage his domestic opponents.

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Heintz, an Associated Press newsman in Moscow, has covered Russian politics since 1999.

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