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Why Putin Continues To Back The Assad Regime


There's an intersection between two huge ongoing stories - the situation in Syria and the after effects of the U.S. elections - and you can find that intersection on a map. It's Moscow. Vladimir Putin called the U.S. airstrikes in Syria an obstacle even as his forces continue to prop up the Assad regime. And he's questioned the credibility of U.S. and U.N. claims that Syria used chemical weapons. He's also denied meddling in the U.S. presidential race, even as contacts with his government have taken down a U.S. national security adviser and increasingly alarmed congressional investigators. Steven Lee Myers has been watching Russia's president for a while now. He's a correspondent for The New York Times and author of the book "The New Tsar The Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin." Mr. Myers, thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Good morning. It's great to be with you.

SIMON: Why is it so important to Russia to prop up the Assad regime in Syria.

MYERS: I think there are a couple reasons. First of all, Russia views the government of Syria - not so much Assad but the government itself - as the central pillar of stability for the country. And they've always viewed it that way. It's not so much about Putin's personal relationship with Assad or even the historical relationship. But they believe that if the government, the central authority of the state, collapses, you'll end up with chaos. And Putin often points out what happened in Iraq after 2003 and in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi.

SIMON: He has no strategic interest? I mean, that makes it sound like his interest is almost humanitarian, which is not a word we often associate with him.

MYERS: Well, I actually think that is a strategic interest. I don't think humanitarian interest is really what motivates him so much as in his view of the United States intervenes and brings down governments, which is how he views what happened in Iraq certainly and then subsequent events. Even the Arab Spring, more generally, he believed was sort of an American plan to undermine the stability of the East government. And, you know, he thinks that there is a pattern of U.S. behavior toppling regimes. It's something that he sees being destabilizing in the near region but also even in Russia itself or in Ukraine or other countries around Russia. They see this hyper power of the United States toppling governments, and it's something that Russia wants to intervene to stop.

SIMON: And how is he affected by something like the airstrikes? Does it make him back off the Syrian regime or double down?

MYERS: I don't think they're going to back off by any means. What's really interesting and hasn't really been explained yet is the extent of the warning that the Russians got ahead of time from the Trump administration in order to essentially de-conflict and ensure that these strikes didn't hit Russian forces, which they don't appear to have done. Russia reacted angrily. They call it an act of aggression. Today, the foreign ministry talked about the United States being one of the most dangerous powers in the world right now. Nonetheless, they didn't really react to the strikes, and so I think it'll be really interesting to see if by this very demonstrable signal that the United States sent with these strikes that will change Russia's equation in terms of either pushing forward with a process to end the civil war there or even to cooperate more with the United States going forward. But I don't think you'll see Russia back off its support for the Assad regime for the reasons already mentioned.

SIMON: But when they, for example, reposition a couple of big Russian ships in the area, that's just essentially for theater?

MYERS: It's theater on one level, but on another, it's also sending a message back that Russia is prepared to act if it needs to to support the regime. I mean, I don't think at this point that Russia is interested in a conflict, an open conflict, with the United States. You know, if anything, after the election, there were high hopes in Moscow that this new administration, which they clearly supported, to which degree, you know, is still being investigated on many levels, but they clearly hoped that they were going to have a better relationship than they did with the Obama administration. And, you know, the disappointment has been palpable even before the strike but certainly after the strike, that they're not going to necessarily have better relations with the United States. But I still think that Putin is holding out hope. You know, the two leaders haven't met yet. And, you know, I - Rex Tillerson is going to be in Moscow next week. And so I think there will be still an effort to see if there's any kind of common ground they can find on this. And I think that might explain why, for all of the denunciations publicly, Russia hasn't really reacted yet.

SIMON: Donald Trump, when he was a candidate - and I believe even shortly after he was elected president - said and I - this is a pretty fair paraphrase - say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he's a leader. Perhaps that emboldened the Putin regime to think that they could get along. Where do you see that relationship headed now? Is it still a bromance, frenemies, rivals?

MYERS: You know, it's interesting. This week, if you step back a little bit, that the first really major meeting that Trump had with a foreign leader was not with Vladimir Putin but Xi Jinping. And I think that reflected the importance of the Chinese relationship with the United States foremost. And Trump has said famously many times he thinks he can get along with Vladimir Putin, thinks he can make a deal with him, thinks that we should be together fighting ISIS, the Islamic State. But he hasn't done much to advance any kind of new relationship, which is, you know, why the disappointment is palpable in Moscow now with the new administration.

SIMON: Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, thanks so much for being with us.

MYERS: It's a pleasure as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.