June 19, 2013

While world leaders managed to produce a joint communique on Syria at the end of the G8 summit, the closing media remarks made it clear that Vladimir Putin hasn’t actually moved an inch on the issue. The Russian president once again lashed out at the European Union and the United States for considering arms shipments to the Syrian opposition, suggesting it will further destabilize Syria. At the same time, he made it clear that Russia will continue supplying a range of weapons to the Syrian government, arguing that this will help stabilize the region while preventing a foreign intervention.

Welcome to Russian doublespeak.

Some of you may have trouble understanding Moscow’s logic, or will at least find it remarkably cynical. But anyone who used to watch the prime time Soviet show “International Panorama” will be at an advantage in interpreting what Russia really means. After all, this is the same program that trained viewers to be able to distinguish between the “ignition of new offensive arms race” (U.S. development of strategic weapons) and “maintenance of the power balance and international security” (Soviet development of strategic weapons). Of course, regular viewers would also never confuse the “blood-thirsty hirelings of Capital” (anti-communist guerrillas) with the “valiant freedom fighters” (pro-communist guerrillas). And audiences would also be fully aware that Western intervention anywhere in the world is a “shameless attack on sovereignty by ruthless NATO occupants,” while Soviet invasion is a selfless fulfillment of “an international duty to support brotherly peoples.”

The return of Soviet doublespeak is a clear and chilling reminder that the policy such rhetoric represents is back as well. And the sooner Russia’s international counterparts realize that, the better.

Russia’s relentless support of a government that has murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens is in no way due to its lack of knowledge of the situation on the ground. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has detailed information about large-scale war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces as well as the abuses committed by the opposition. This information has been documented by human rights groups, a U.N.-appointed Commission of Inquiry, and numerous journalists who traveled to Syria. I am confident that the Foreign Ministry has this information as I have met repeatedly with them over the past two years to share the results of our extensive research on the ground in Syria.

We have tried again and again to convince Moscow to play a constructive role to resolve the Syrian crisis – to use its influence with al-Assad to stop the attacks on civilians; to work with the moderate parts of the opposition; to assist with aid delivery to thousands of displaced people in opposition-controlled areas; and to support international efforts to bring war criminals on both sides to justice.

It is now becoming clear, however, that when Russia talks of a “peaceful solution” in Syria, it refers to only one acceptable outcome – the political survival, at any cost, of its authoritarian ally and the maintenance of the security apparatus that has ruled Syria for over 40 years. This is the only stability Russia believes in, and, unsurprisingly, this is the same stability it is trying to enforce within its own borders. In the past year, Russian authorities have imposed a severe crackdown on civil society, aimed at stifling political protest and ensuring Vladimir Putin’s unchallenged rule.

While pushing for a Syria peace conference, Russia has continued to send arms to al-Assad – and not only defensive weapons, as Moscow repeatedly claimed. A recently leaked document reported on by the Washington Post shows the Syrian government requesting 20,000 Kalashnikovs and 20,000,000 bullets as recently as March. And a Russian arms manufacturer just claimed that a contract has been signed to deliver at least 10 fighter jets. At the same time, Moscow consistently refused, for example, to support a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Syria or push for the release of peaceful opposition activists.

Russia’s backing of al-Assad is not only driven by the need to preserve its naval presence in the Mediterranean, secure its energy contracts, or counter the West on “regime change.” It also stems from Putin’s existential fear for his own survival and the survival of the repressive system that he and al-Assad represent. In Putin’s universe, al-Assad cannot lose because it means that one day he, Putin, might as well.

In the face of this unmasked duplicity, Western efforts to engage with Russia will be, at best, fruitless, and could even prove counterproductive in trying to stop the killing of civilians in Syria. By making regular trips to Moscow and spending endless hours talking to the Russian leader on the side lines of the summit in an effort to negotiate yet another dead-end initiative, the U.S. and European leaders fail to get any closer to ending the Syrian crisis. Russia interprets these efforts as a clear proof of its indispensability, and shamelessly exploits this to gain more time for the murderous government it supports.

The only way to get Russia to collaborate with the international community in a constructive way is to make it clear that this obstructive behavior has a real cost. As a first step, the U.S. and Europe should refuse to enter into any new deals with Russia’s state-owned arms trading company Rosoboronexport – including weapons purchase, the company’s planned appearances in arms trade shows, and its advertising in industry publications. They should encourage other Rosoboronexport clients around the world to do the same. Needless to say, deals with other countries supplying arms to the Syrian government should stop as well.

There is no reason to play by the rules imposed by Russia, especially if playing by these rules means dozens of civilian lives are lost on a daily basis. Those who describe themselves as “friends of Syria” have enough power to prove that their friendship is about more than empty words.

Anna Neistat is associate program director at Human Rights Watch and has undertaken extensive field research in Syria since the beginning of the uprising.