The Continentalist: How Will Russia Manage Defeat Over Syria?

The Continentalist: How Will Russia Manage Defeat Over Syria?

Managing defeat well is one of the greatest skills a diplomat can have. Historians have a special admiration for statesmen who have extracted their countries from failed wars. These diplomatic heroes include Talleyrand, who brilliantly defended French interests after the fall of Napoleon, and Henry Kissinger, who devised America’s exit from Vietnam. As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reflects on the challenges ahead in 2013, he may wonder if he will be able to manage the consequences of a lost war.

For Lavrov, that lost war is the Syrian conflict. Although it has now claimed more than 40,000 lives, the Syrian conflict is hardly comparable in scale or importance to the wars that Talleyrand and Kissinger helped end. But over the past year, it has become a defining test of Russia’s claim to be a major power. Lavrov and Russian officials at the United Nations have steadfastly defended the Syrian regime against Western pressure, using adroit diplomatic tactics to delay, disrupt and dismiss repeated U.S. and European efforts to resolve the crisis.

Western diplomats believe that Lavrov is following an anti-Western agenda set by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seemed to be calling the shots on Russia’s Syria policy well before he regained the presidency this summer. Despite Lavrov’s skillful maneuvering, he and Putin now face the prospect of a decisive diplomatic defeat. A senior Russian official reportedly warned last week that the Syrian government is “progressively losing control” of the country. As I have noted in these pages, the real question now is whether the regime’s eventual fall will be followed by a political settlement or anarchy.

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