Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting Western military action in Syria, so long as it is approved by the United Nations Security Council and based on conclusive proof that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons against civilians.
In a joint interview with Russian state television network Channel One and the Associated Press, published Wednesday, Putin appeared to strike a more diplomatic tone ahead of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg this week that will likely be dominated by the Syrian crisis.
While he renewed what have become routine warnings by the Kremlin against a unilateral US strike against the Assad regime, Putin also said that Russia had suspended shipments to Damascus of its S-300 missiles. Only some components of the powerful surface-to-air missiles have been delivered, according to comments reported by the Associated Press.
Russia’s multi-billion-dollar arms trade with Damascus, including its shipments of the S-300 rockets, has become a sticking point for Western critics who have slammed what they say is Russia’s tacit backing of Assad.
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Speaking a day before the opening of the summit, Putin also downplayed the high-profile strain in relations between Russia and the United States, which have suffered since the Russian leader’s return to the presidency last year — particularly over Syria.
US President Barack Obama canceled a planned meeting with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G20 after Russia granted National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, wanted for prosecution in the United States, temporary asylum last month.
“We work, we argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes one of us gets vexed,” Putin said. “But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems.”
Nevertheless, Putin strongly urged Washington against acting unilaterally in Syria, citing the George W. Bush administration’s use of false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to validate the 2003 invasion.
“All these arguments turned out to be untenable, but they were used to launch a military action, which many in the US called a mistake,” he said. “Did we forget about that?”
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Putin cast doubt, as many in Russia’s political establishment have in recent days, on whether it was indeed the Assad regime that used chemical weapons, suggesting it would have been “absolutely absurd” for the Syrian strongman to do so when his forces held the upper hand.
He insisted that all evidence collected from a UN inspection team, currently analyzing its findings from a trip to Syria last week, be handed over to the security council for examination.
“And it ought to be convincing,” Putin said. “It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that.”
It remains unclear how Russia would respond to a US attack on Syria, however.
Observers in Russia and abroad have pointed to Moscow’s relative lack of leverage in the conflict, arguing that it has few options as to how to respond. Putin, meanwhile, said it was too early to predict how Russia would answer a strike.
“We have our ideas about what we will do and how we will do it in case the situation develops toward the use of force or otherwise,” he said.
“We have our plans.”