If geopolitics were a game of cards, Russia would be holding onto its stack for as long as possible.
Its latest card, in the form of the conflict in Syria, is no exception.
Much has been written about why Russia makes the decisions that it does when it comes to Syria and the Assad regime; however, the answer to many of the “whys” may be as simple as Russia’s attempt to ride out the situation for as long as possible to try to get concessions from countries, including the U.S., on other contentious issues.
And in the case of Russia vs. much of the rest of the world, the issues are plenty.
Russian officials understand that they have the power to decide, or at the very least heavily influence, the outcome of the situation in Syria. And with that in mind, the Kremlin will do whatever it can to ensure that it stays that way.
Russia, citing Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and warning against outside military intervention, has blocked UN Security Council resolutions that would impose sanctions. It’s also prevented efforts by the U.S., European, and Arab League to guarantee that Assad and his officials would not have a stake in a transitional government.
Late last week, talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi might have moved the process forward rhetorically, but resulted in no groundbreaking results or agreements.
The meeting came at a particularly tense time in the ongoing conflict as the U.S., Russia, and NATO warned the Assad government against resorting to its stockpile of chemical weapons.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly said that the use of chemical weapons is the red line Syria must not cross. The main concern was and will remain whether or not these weapons could get into the hands of terrorists and radical elements from either side.
This is something neither the international community nor Russia wants to see.
At the same time, Russia and others have shared, rightfully so, the “day after” concerns:
What might happen if Assad really is ousted? Would the country experience an even longer and bloodier civil war? Would radical Islamists attempt to seize power, and what if they were successful?
The United States realizes that not only does it not have the answers to these questions, but even if it did, no answer would calm fears that things might get even worse if Assad is deposed.
In turn, the State Department has tried to isolate radical elements even within the opposition, moving to label Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization even though the group includes experienced and effective members who have fought against the Assad government.
Brahimi plans to meet with Russian and American officials again soon in the hopes of drawing up a specific plan to end the violence.
But as always, there are no guarantees.
The stalling game, though, is very important to Russia.
Unrest in that region of the world almost always results in higher oil prices. This is something Putin desperately needs to bolster the Russian economy.
Russia is also thinking about its relationship with Iran and the card it holds at the United Nations Security Council, particularly when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.
Add to that the fact that Russia would not like to see the end of its defense contracts with Syria.
For Russia, these contracts are not just about money, but political influence as well.
STRATFOR’s George Friedman once wrote,
“Countries don’t have friends. They have interests.”
And those interests will be played out until the very end. In this case, until Russia is finally ready to fold.