Today's news that Russia would be sending several warships down to Syria in anticipation of a need to protect its own citizens from violent actors in that nation sent shockwaves through the international community. Many analysts have suggested that the move is intended as a warning to the United States that Russia is prepared to go to war in the event that U.S. forces are sent to directly intervene to stop the violence.
Yet at the same time, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have reportedly remained eerily cozy. The Hill reported today (emphasis added):
President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for nearly two hours ahead of the Group of 20 Summit in Mexico on Monday, and the White House was ready with a 1,600-word joint statement signaling all the two leaders agree on. In brief remarks both leaders gave after the meeting, Putting said the leaders had many “commonalities” on Syria, and Obama said they agreed there had to be a “cessation” of the violence.” [...]
In their public statements, however, the two leaders ignored many areas where they clash, not the least of which is the situation in Syria, from the dust-up over Russian-made attack helicopters in Syria last week to Russian marines headed to Syria to the U.N. Security Council vetoes.
The press pool report after the meeting where the leaders spoke might have provided a hint about the tenor of the meeting. The report said that “during the couple of minutes that it took all the photographers, TV crew and reporters to gather their equipment and head out the one door leading into the room, Messrs. Obama and Putin remained seated, their interpreters had stepped away, sitting side-by-side on the other side of the room — and they just stared straight ahead. No interacting or chit chatting.”
This is scarcely the sort of behavior one would expect from foreign leaders who are on good terms, whatever their public statements say. More to the point, Russian media sources like the Moscow Times have an alarming take on Russia's intentions:
What's more, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing anonymous military sources, reported that the Defense Ministry is considering sending soldiers from the elite Pskov airborne forces and special forces from the "Zapad" and "Vostok" units based in Chechnya to protect Russian interests in Syria, if necessary.
Despite numerous denials from President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry, it is clear that Russia is committed to protecting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad at all costs. If push comes to shove, this could lead to a direct Russian military intervention in Syria's civil war.
No matter how much the Defense Ministry and Kremlin propagandists try to justify sending a military contingent for the "legitimate defense of Russian installations," they overlook the fact that in civil wars, such installations are either dismantled or abandoned.
If true, how much of this "at all costs" approach has Putin shared with Obama? And might that be the cause of the outsized tenseness between the two leaders? Moreover, might this perhaps be making President Obama reconsider his promises of "flexibility" to the Russians? Time will tell.