Vladimir Putin, the newly restored president of Russia, is visiting Britain for the first time in seven years. And he’s over here not primarily for reasons of diplomacy, but to see the Olympics. That alone tells you something about the state of his relations with the West. Putin will meet David Cameron today and the two leaders will certainly discuss Syria. The Prime Minister will no doubt try to convince his guest that Russia’s continuing support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime is futile and self-defeating, as well as being immoral.
But my bet is that this will continue to be the diplomatic equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall. Putin’s stance on Syria has ceased to be merely a calculation of national interest, based on the value of arms exports to Assad and the importance of his country as a base for Russian influence in the Middle East.
Instead, you can sense how Russia’s position has become almost a matter of personal dignity for Putin. In blunt terms, he thinks the West cheated him over Libya last year. In his mind, Russia acted out of genuine humanitarian concern by allowing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Then Britain and France turned this into a de facto campaign of regime change that duly overthrew Gaddafi. What was billed as a humanitarian intervention ended up with a convenient outcome that favoured Western strategic interests. Russia’s then president, Dmitry Medvedev, was supremely naïve to have believed otherwise. Or at least that’s how Putin would see things.
That makes him doubly determined to make sure that nothing similar takes place over Syria. Putin thinks that Russia was fooled once, and he will not allow that to happen again. Would anything lead him to reconsider? The only possibility I can imagine is that if events on the ground in Syria were to become even more awful, with the fighting escalating to the point where Assad’s downfall really was imminent. Then Russia would be confronted with the futility of trying to stave off the absolutely inevitable. Unless and until that moment arrives, Putin will probably remain implacable.