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MOSCOW — As Syria's uprising against Bashar al-Assad deteriorates into a potentially nation-destroying civil war, most of the diplomatic discourse has been dominated by a high-stakes blame-game between Russia and the West over who is most at fault for the horrific massacre and mayhem.
The most recent example: Monday’s tense meeting between the Russian and US presidents in Mexico, in which Obama failed to get Putin’s help in easing Assad from power.
So far Russia has been losing this rhetorical battle. But the Kremlin insists that its case transcends mere self-interest, and points the way back to a world governed by the rule of law.
Moscow's community of foreign policy experts — many of whom routinely excoriate the Kremlin — seem uncommonly united in support of Russia’s stance on Syria. They argue that the Kremlin is adhering to a conservative set of international values, based on respect for national sovereignty and the right of Syria's people to sort out their own future.
The West, they claim, is out of legal bounds and pursuing its own geopolitical interests thinly disguised as a humanitarian "responsibility to protect" in a manner that is reckless, hypocritical and — perhaps the unkindest cut — incompetent.
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"The West talks in terms of noble goals, but their actions tend to wreck any stability, threaten the lives of millions, and leave people worse off than before," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "I don't carry any brief for the Kremlin, but in the case of Syria, the Russian aim is to try to minimize negative outcomes. Russian approaches may be old fashioned and conservative but, I'm sorry to say, they're more rational than current Western policies."
Russian experts dish out examples of botched Western interventions going back to the 1999 Kosovo war, which Moscow helped to resolve after receiving NATO's assurances that Kosovo would never be given independence; a few years later Kosovo was made independent. The long and inconclusive US occupation of Iraq and the ongoing imbroglio in Afghanistan are cited as examples of "making things worse."
But uppermost in Russian minds is the UN-authorized NATO intervention in Libya last year, which Moscow acquiesced to as a measure to protect civilians, only to see it morph into a full rebel campaign for regime change backed by Western air power.
"We've been lied to repeatedly; not a single promise the West has made to us in the past two decades has been honored," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past.
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"We've learned to take our own counsel on problems like Syria. What we see is an extraordinarily difficult situation that threatens to explode into a massive bloodbath. Nobody likes Assad, but if you just remove him the entire state will collapse with awful consequences. We wish we could have an intelligent conversation with Western leaders about this, but so far that hasn't proved possible," he says.
After vetoing (along with China) two UN Security Council resolutions that would have imposed tough sanctions and enabled a process for easing Assad out, Russia got on board with the UN-sponsored Kofi Annan plan, which envisaged democratic reforms and UN observers but no sanctions or outside military interference. With the Annan plan in shreds, and violence spiraling in many parts of Syria, the war of words is heating up again.
Russia's primary argument for its position is that it conforms with international law. Sovereignty is the supreme principle, Russian officials say, and Western attempts to change those rules have not led to good results anywhere.
The fixation on sovereignty is rooted in self-interest, and comes with its own healthy dose of hypocrisy. The Kremlin harbors a deep-seated fear that authorizing outside military force to support rebellious populations might one day be used to license intervention in Russia. And the principle does not seem to apply when Moscow is dealing with its own neighbors in the post-Soviet area; after defeating Georgia in 2008, Moscow effective dismembered its southern neighbor by granting independence to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Putin, who has effectively ruled Russia for the past 12 years, viewed the pro-democracy "colored revolutions" that erupted in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past decade as the creations of foreign intelligence services. When tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters took to the streets of Moscow last December to demand fair elections, his first public response was to blame Hillary Clinton: "She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work," Putin said at the time.
"Russian leaders fear revolution very deeply, and they look with horror on the Arab Spring and the totally disordered changes that have followed in its wake," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
"The only thing that's worse for them is the idea of popular revolution approved of and supported by the West. They observe all that's happening through a conspiratorial lens. Hence they see Western-backed rebels creating a pretext for Western military intervention that leads to pro-Western regime change. The biggest regret in Russian official foreign policy circles, and the worst accusation against (former President Dmitry) Medvedev, is that he authorized our UN delegation to abstain on the Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya last year. They are determined not to enable anything like that, not ever again," Strokan says.
Russia also has significant financial and political reasons to back Assad.
Syria has been Moscow's most important strategic partner in the Middle East since 1971. It’s been a major customer for Russian arms and engineering goods. Russia currently has about $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria, plus as much as $15 billion in other traditional military and economic cooperation — including Russia's only foreign military base, a naval refueling station at the Syrian port of Tartous.
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Financially, abiding by Western-backed sanctions never seems to work out in Moscow's favor. Over the past year, Russia has sacrificed about $4.5-billion in broken arms deals with Libya, and lost as much as $13 billion due to UN sanctions against Iran, experts say.
"Moscow is afraid events in Syria will spin out of control," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "We have lots of economic interests that we stand to lose, but this is not the main thing. The loss of political influence is more important, because Syria is the last point in the Middle East where Russia has a major role to play."
Still, the Kremlin has reacted defensively to charges that it is fueling Syria's civil war by continuing to sell arms to Assad. Stung by Hillary Clinton's recent claim that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria for use against demonstrators, Russia's state arms exporter Rosoboronexport made public the list of weaponry it does sell to Syria, including anti-aircraft systems, coastal defense missiles and jet trainers. "We supply armaments that are self-[defensive] rather than attack weapons, and there can be no talk about any violations by Russia or Rosoboronexport either de jure or de facto," the agency's spokesman, Igor Sevastyanov, told journalists.
(It also appears that Clinton's claim was incorrect. Syria's fleet of at least 36 Mi-25 "Hind-D" helicopter gunships — a deadly flying artillery platform made famous by Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980's — was purchased from Russia at least 20 years ago. The helicopters Clinton was referring to were recently serviced in Russia, and were being returned to Syria, but no new helicopter contracts have been signed in over ten years, experts say.)
Russia retorts that it's the West, and Sunni-dominated Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are smuggling in weapons to fuel the armed rebellion against the Alawite minority rule headed by Assad in Syria.
"We think we know how the world works as well as anyone else, and our diplomats have been active in the Middle East for a long time. We do not have the slightest romantic illusion that something that comes after Assad will be better," says Satanovsky. "We see a religious war shaping up in Syria, and across the region — Sunni against Shia — and we want no part of it. We see all sorts of extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, fighting alongside these anti-Assad rebels and we wonder why you don't seem to notice that ....
"Our Western colleagues point to these terrible atrocities (taking place with increasing frequency in Syria) and say, 'We have to do something!' But your own Western track record shows that you get the regime change you wanted, then lose all interest in the humanitarian problems," he says.
"As for Russia, we've learned to base our policy on national interest. We simply don't believe Western leaders know what they're doing, and we're not listening to all that chatter anymore. So, Russia's Syria policy will remain basically the same, and there is no significant debate over this in the Russian establishment today," he adds.