Putin’s goal is to make Russia a viable alternative partner for repressive states in the Middle East (and by extension, in the rest of the world). His offer to such regimes is simple: Unlike the Americans, Russia will never judge other forms of government, violate the sovereignty of authoritarian states, encourage any “color revolutions” against their leaders, or hold any of them to any standards regarding human rights. Should those dictators take Putin’s hand, he can now use Russian support of Syria to buttress one more pledge: when the going gets rough, the Kremlin will not throw them under the bus the way the Americans did with their Arab allies.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this is Putin’s goal. I have my doubts that this is what Moscow is trying to achieve, but set that aside for the moment. Are there signs that any governments other than Syria and Iran are remotely interested in accepting the Russian “offer” described here? There don’t appear to be any so far. It’s true that Russia wouldn’t pressure authoritarian clients to adopt political reforms, nor would Moscow support protest movements against them. Russia is willing to shield authoritarian regimes from foreign intervention as long as this is limited to blocking measures at the U.N. However, besides offering to sell them weapons, that is just about all that Russia has to offer any would-be client in the Near East or elsewhere outside the former Soviet Union. It is therefore not surprising that Russia’s list of clients has been and continues to be quite short. No matter what happens with the deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future.
As frustrated with the U.S. as some authoritarian clients in the region may be at the moment, what incentive do they have to “partner” with Moscow? (For that matter, why would Russia want to “partner” with governments that support Islamist groups that Moscow strongly opposes?) In short, what would these states get from moving into Moscow’s orbit that they don’t already receive from the U.S.? Other than acquiescing in the coup against Mubarak, the U.S. hasn’t done much in recent years that could be interpreted as abandonment of its authoritarian clients. More to the point, Russia’s support for Assad puts it at odds with almost every other Arab government in the region, which hardly suggests that Russia is in a position to increase its influence with these governments. All that Russia has achieved in the last few weeks is to block military action against its only Arab client. That’s not nothing, but it does not represent an increase in Russian influence in the region, and even that wouldn’t have happened had the proposed military action not been so overwhelmingly unpopular here in the U.S. Russia lucked into stopping an attack on its client, but that’s all that it has done.