Russia says it is working on preventing attacks as it supplies weaponry to Syria

As Britain shies away from military action, Russia’s anti-US rhetoric is growing

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.  Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 01:00

In a further boost to its support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has announced it is continuing to supply weaponry to Syrian government forces.

Yuri Ushakov, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, confirmed in a statement to the state-owned Itar-Tass news agency that the supplies were continuing.

He did not go into detail about the nature of the weapons other than to say they were not of a category banned by international law.

“We are supplying weaponry in line with effective contracts,” he told the agency. “That’s normal practice and it does not run counter to any international regulations.” Syria has already received four S-300 air defence missile systems which could be used to counter US cruise missile strikes.

Ushakov refused to comment on reports that the Assad government had yesterday begun to pay for Russian arms supplies.

He said Russia was still working to prevent any attack on Syria but Moscow’s influence on the situation was extremely limited when one considered that even the British parliament’s refusal to back military action did not appear to have shaken American resolve.

The matter is likely to be raised on the sidelines of the G20 summit in St Petersburg next week but by then the US may already have acted.

Russia has been accused to supporting the Assad government out of purely financial interest but the situation is a great deal more complicated that.

Although Putin has kept quiet on the subject, his views have been made known in the regular statements by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia has Europe’s largest Muslim population. More than nine million practise the Muslim faith while a further five million are from an ethnic Muslim background.

In the Northern Caucasus, which has a strong Muslim majority, there have been two full scale wars in Chechnya and a long-running insurgency continues in Dagestan, where Islamist fighters have been involved in killing not only local police but also a series of moderate imams.

Russia has therefore viewed the regime changes in the Middle East and North Africa from a very different perspective than in Western countries. It has focused not on the liberation of oppressed people from their dictatorial masters but on the creation of a breeding ground for Islamist extremism.

While the Russian authorities have been extremely vocal on the issue, their views are not shared by ordinary citizens.

An opinion poll by the reliable Levada Centre has shown that the general public is simply not interested in the Syrian question. Ninety one per cent of Russians interviewed knew either “very little” or “nothing at all” about events in Syria and just 8 per cent said they were paying close attention to the situation.

Support for either side in the conflict is also low among the general public. The Assad government was backed by 19 per cent, according to the poll, with 9 per cent supporting the rebels and 51 per cent supporting neither side.

The sharp words coming from Lavrov and deputy prime minister Dmitriy Rogozin, who tweeted that the Western powers were like “monkeys with hand grenades”, do not appear therefore to be drafted for popular local consumption.

Russian media, with very few exceptions, have supported the official line on Syria and have given prominence to international news that could undermine moves toward military action.

The statement in May from UN human rights official Carla del Ponte of Switzerland that she had evidence that the Syrian rebels may have used nerve gas was widely reported here.

Even the most faithful supporters of Putin in the media though have given more attention to serious flooding in Russia’s far east and the forthcoming election for the mayor of Moscow than they have to the conflict in Syria.

More surprisingly the British House of Commons decision not to back the use of force has not made the headlines to the extent that might have been expected, although it may have a bearing on internal policy.

Up to now, the official criticism has been directed at “the West” but Britain’s absence from the scenario could lead to a heightening of anti-American rhetoric, which has been a feature in recent times.

Non-governmental organisations in receipt of funding from the US have been forced to register as foreign agents, Americans have been banned from adopting Russian children and America has been accused of trying to influence the Russian electoral process.

An American strike on Syria could lead to an even stronger reaction.