Western press accounts jumped on suggestions today that Russia may be backing away from the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to reported remarks of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's point-person for Middle East diplomacy, "As far as the victory of the opposition is concerned, it cannot be ruled out, and, to our regret, one should face the facts. The tendency is right in that direction, the regime and the authorities are increasingly losing control over an increasing territory."
For the second time, remarks attributed to him are causing a big stir. Back in August, Bogdanov was quoted by Saudi newspaper al-Watan suggesting that Assad was prepared to step down. But the Russian government vehemently denied the interview had even taken place. When Saudi journalists posted an MP3 of the alleged interview on the Web, the Russians stuck to their guns and labeled it a forgery.
This time around, it actually wouldn't hurt to read the rest of what Bogdanov said. His remarks at a hearing of the Public Chamber in Moscow suggest that, while the Russians are indeed likely to drop their support for Assad when the writing is finally on the wall, we probably aren't at that point yet.
To understand Russia's current thinking consider the following passages from Bogdanov's appearance:
"They (the opposition) say they control 60 percent of Syrian territory, but we say: if you want to keep going, there is still 40 percent. If 60 percent [have been conquered] in two years of civil war, you will then need another year or a year and a half. If by now 40,000 people have died, the fight will get more fierce and you will lose dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people. If you agree to that price for overthrowing a president, what can we do then? We, of course, think that this is absolutely unacceptable."
"A campaign being waged by the West with support from the Arab League to distort Russia's stance on Syria is aimed at weakening our influence in the region and at freezing Russia's future relations with the Middle East and North Africa."
So what, if anything, has actually changed? Amid a flurry of comments from the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters that the Assad regime is finished, as yet there's been no meaningful sign that the Russians are willing to withdraw valuable political, military, and economic support for Assad. (To be sure, Iran's support for Assad is of far greater consequence for events on the ground.)