A recent piece in the New Republic, titled “In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy,” raised an important question of whether Moscow’s obstructionist stance with regard to sanctions on Assad is truly a Russian policy, or just that of Vladimir Putin’s undemocratic regime. The title of the article suggests the former—although no actual representatives of the Russian opposition are quoted.
There are indeed some among Putin opponents for whom he is not aggressive or anti-Western enough. On the first day of the 2008 Georgia war, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov urged the Kremlin to launch “immediate” strikes against the country, while the leader of the nationalist Another Russia party, former émigré writer Eduard Limonov, called on the government to “annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Russia, because we need southern territories.” The same usual suspects are raising their voices on Syria. In a recent blog post, Limonov affirmed that “the principal aim of the [US] human rights war in Syria is an almost unconscious desire for world domination, for the suppression of the last dissenting states that are still not controlled by Western civilization.”
It would be wise, however, to listen to the other voices in Russia’s opposition: those who espouse a democratic future for the country, and who have been leading the recent anti-regime protests. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia, called the Kremlin’s vetoes on UN sanctions against Assad a “disaster” and “against Russia’s interest,” and suggested that Putin is protecting the Syrian dictator because he believes that if Assad falls, he himself will be next. Another Republican Party co-chairman, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, described the Kremlin’s position on Syria as “not responsible,” stressing that Putin is “defend[ing] the criminal Syrian regime that systematically used weapons against peaceful citizens.” Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the liberal Yabloko party, called the situation in Syria “a terrible tragedy,” expressing his regret that Moscow “has not found common ground with the international community.”
Aggressive and obstructionist foreign policy is often a function of an internally repressive regime. It is not surprising that those in Russia who share the political values of the community of democracies are also more aligned with them on the world stage.