James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Most of the time Russia loves to play host. The 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup are intended to show that Russia is part of the civilized world. Yet Russia – as its leaders themselves would claim – is different. Indeed, it often appears that its international policy is based upon the principle of doing the opposite of Western consensus, such as it is.

The gathering of the G20 in St Petersburg on 5-6 September may be more awkward than usual for Vladimir Putin. As the build-up to Western intervention in Syria reaches a crescendo, Russia's position differs markedly from some of the many other significant powers. The leaders of those other, particularly Western, powers may also feel uncomfortable as they wallow in splendid Russian hospitality. But if they can find some collective backbone, as President Obama managed recently when he cancelled his one-on-one session with Putin, then he and several of his counterparts, if they can manage a concerted effort, ought to be able to put an unusual degree of pressure on the Russian president.

This explains Putin's apparent concession on 4 September that Russia would not exclude the possibility of punitive military force against the Assad regime. Russia has not changed its mind over Syria for the past two years, and it is not likely to now. The latest comments are an expedient way to avoid embarrassment ahead of the G20, but they will fool none but the uninitiated in the ways of Russian political machinations. 

There is some irony that both Russia and the West 'agree' that military operations in Syria are undesirable. The last thing America and Europe needs, as many have pointed out, is to be dragged into another war in the Middle East. The difference is in having clear principles on intervention. For America, the use of chemical weapons meant a red line was crossed, provoking a possible military response. Russia, for whom sovereignty is absolute, has lacked guiding principles and hitherto objected to intervention – whatever may occur within Syria. Thus, Russia denies almost any 'responsibility to protect'. 

This attitude leaves Russia with little room to manoeuvre when facts on the ground change. The Russian position has been to, first, deny that chemical weapons were used in Syria; next, question which side was using them; and finally, question the professionalism of the international investigators. As damning evidence seeps out, Russia’s arguments disintegrate. But national pride prevents progress and even former UK foreign minister Lord Owen’s suggestion that Russia could be brought on board if it had an integral part in the removal of chemical weapons from Syrian territory seems overly optimistic.

Russia's official position deserves attention. Not so much its insistence on UN authorization – essentially a self-serving Russian stamp of approval. But Russia's eminently reasonable argument that military intervention has unpredictable consequences is undermined by its inability to propose an alternative which will save lives, and, particularly, its shipments of arms to the Assad regime which extinguish them. Russian arms sales constitute less than 5% of its GDP, sales to Syria amount to less than a tenth of that figure, so this is not a question of money.

Instead, this is far more about the familiar but entirely warranted Russian fear that it is losing voice and influence. It is Russia's official position to be 'an independent pole in world politics', and it performs this solitary role with bluster, but without conviction.

It needs to be said that Russia is not alone or by any means the worst miscreant of the G20 when it comes to respecting international norms of behaviour. China and Saudi Arabia, for example, arguably treat their populations with even more casual disdain. But Russia shouts the loudest, which tends to highlight its own shortcomings. 

It is a common Russian tactic to defend itself by pointing out flaws in the West. Deficient democracy? Look at the US 2000 election. Human rights abuses? I take your Magnitsky and Pussy Riot complaints and I’ll raise you a Guantanamo and an Abu Ghraib. No free press? But Murdoch dominates the UK's. Loss of [Soviet] empire pangs? What about the UK again in Gibraltar, the Falklands or Ireland. Friendly with corrupt dictatorships? Two words: Saudi Arabia. It’s an easy game to play because it is essentially right. The West does have double standards or makes errors which it is unable or unwilling to correct. The comparisons are patently absurd. But it is an argument which plays well with the ill-informed or those of a certain political persuasion.

So Russia makes both arguments: different because it holds non-Westphalian views. But apparently the same: because its domestic and international policies are – to its way of thinking – no less ethical than the West's. 

Whether this contradictory stance will stand the slim test of G20 – and more importantly, beyond – depends on a combination of Western solidarity, Russian defence under pressure, and events 3,000km to the south in Syria.