Russia Will Not Use Military Force to Protect its Facility in Syria
Russia has suspended the use of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. But it is not planning to abandon it altogether. It has also formulated the principles underlying its relations with Damascus on military matters: Moscow is going to back the Assad regime politically and in the information and humanitarian fields, but is not planning to provide major arms supplies to Syria, military-diplomatic sources who recently took part in negotiations with an official Syrian delegation that visited Moscow this week told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
This explains why a task force consisting of ships from three fleets (the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets) has suddenly fallen apart, and the General Staff changed its plans for Northern Fleet vessels to stop off in the Black Sea.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov does not believe military support for the Assad regime is the main aim currently, because there are chances of reaching national reconciliation in Syria. Unlike the West, which has started arming the opposition, Russia deliberately withdrew practically its entire military grouping from the Mediterranean, thereby altering the initial aim of the Caucasus-2012 drills, during which three large landing ships were to have called in at Novorossiisk on August 11-12.
Following the drills, the warships could have continued their tour of duty in the Mediterranean. But the plans were changed. Large NATO naval task forces are concentrated off Syrian coasts while the Russian grouping looks like a dwarf. “We will be unable to keep our facility in Tartus by military means,” a Defense Ministry source told the paper. “We cannot, by military means, oppose countries that support the Syrian opposition,” he said.
He also denied reports that the staff of the Russian base had been evacuated due to the aggravation of the situation in western Syria. But he would not comment on reports that the naval facility in Syria would not provide supplies to Russian warships.
Sources in the Defense Ministry claim that Moscow is backing Damascus with intelligence and by military and diplomatic means.
“Russia is not interfering in the situation in Syria. More than that, it is opposed to the military scenarios being prepared by the West against the country,” director of the Center for the Analysis of Global Arms Trade Igor Korotchenko told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “So the future of the Russian military facilities will depend on how soon peace prevails there. Hopefully, President Bashar Assad will crush the armed opposition, show compromise and sit down at the negotiating table with the moderate political forces in the country who hold a constructive position.”
“Russia has no clear-cut plan for defending its geopolitical positions in the Middle East,” military expert Lieutenant-General Yury Netkachev believes. “The impression is that the situation was left to take its own course. Moscow could have given more effective assistance to the Assad regime, including militarily. With the fall of Assad, Russia will lose its only ally and partner in the region.”
Conservative Friends of Russia Under Fire for Putinism
Britain’s ruling party came under attack after launching a group, the Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR), at a lush party in the Russian Ambassador’s garden on Tuesday. Critics believe the event showed a lack of concern for flagrant human rights abuses in Russia.
The reception, which marked the establishment of a political group aimed at promoting dialogue between the UK and Russia, was a huge success according to the group’s news release. The embassy garden was “bursting” with 250 guests, “leaving over 100 people on the waiting list.” Those wishing to continue celebrating moved on to the nearby Archangel Bar afterward.
“Business people exchanged views with representatives of charitable and cultural organizations over Russian wine and barbequed shashlik,” the release said. “Conservative Party members were in high attendance with Conservative Future, Party Board members, Lords and MPs enjoying the festivities as a Russian musician played traditional tunes and a magician wowed the audience.”
According to The Guardian, the event also included “a raffle, with prizes of vodka, champagne and a biography of Vladimir Putin.”
The party caused many raised eyebrows from opposition MPs in Britain. Labour MP Denis MacShane said it was inappropriate for the Conservative group to accept hospitality from the Kremlin, describing it as “an error of judgment at a time of growing disquiet over Russia's abuse of human rights” days after a Russian court jailed three members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band.
“Friendship groups with Russia used to be a specialty of the left in the days of communism,” MacShane said. “Now we have Putinism it is the Tory party that is creating a pro-Russian group of fellow travelers.”
He added that the CFoR website links to propaganda statements in pro-government Russian media.
Although the group claims to be an NGO which adopts a “neutral stance” on the political forces in Russia, according to the release, Honorary Vice President John Whittingdale said at the party that he disagreed with the Russian Government’s recent decision on Pussy Riot, but added that disagreements should not hinder the development of Russian-British ties.
Yet it remains unclear how the group’s neutrality sits with what was an obviously official ceremony at the Russian Embassy in London, attended by Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko. There is already an all-parliamentary group on Russia, generally critical of the Kremlin.
“Our interaction with the CFoR is based on the same principle,” said an Embassy source. “Naturally, we conduct dialogues with other political parties and civil society groups.”
The initiative to organize the party came from the British group, the source added. Its Honorary President Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the media that the Russian side did not pay for the reception.
St. Petersburg Could Lose UNESCO Status
The St. Petersburg authorities’ decision to allow Gazprom and its subsidiary, Gazprom Neft, to build a skyscraper in the city’s Primorsky District has outraged city residents and disappointed UNESCO.
The 472-meter tall Lakhta Center will mar the city’s historical district and disrupt its architectural integrity. UNESCO is waiting for a report on the building’s potential influence on the public perception of a cultural heritage site.
“Before making a decision to approve the project, the authorities should submit a report to UNESCO to prove that it won’t damage a cultural heritage site,” said Eleonora Mitrofanova, Chair of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. “When we receive a large number of complaints from the public, we form a special UNESCO mission to consider the issue of a site.”
“As a last resort, the organization could remove the city from the World Heritage List. The only time this has ever been done was last fall for Dresden,” Victoria Kalinina, Russia’s official representative at UNESCO, told Izvestia. “The Germans botched the renovation of the city’s historical center.”
This precedent could be applied to St. Petersburg if an expert commission decides that the image of its historical center has been distorted. Kalinina said this never happens overnight and that before making such a decision the commission sends numerous warnings to city authorities.
If Gazprom’s skyscraper distorts the historical view of only part of the city, UNESCO could reduce the area to be taken off the Heritage List.
“I have reminded the St. Petersburg authorities that they should submit a report on the project’s potential influence on the public perception of cultural heritage areas,” Mitrofanova said. “UNESCO has not yet made any harsh warnings because the project is not located in the cultural heritage area or its buffer zones. First we need to analyze the digital representation of the skyscraper’s potential influence.”
Project representatives said they have a construction permit and that the project has been coordinated with Russia’s top agency for future projects.
“We received a positive response on July 31 of this year, including on the building’s height,” said Svetlana Afanasyeva, the PR director of the project management company. “Public hearings were held in June 2011.”
Following the hearings, the Committee for City Planning and Architecture issued a directive for a 500-meter height limit in Lakhta. The St. Petersburg City Court confirmed the legality of the directive in November 2011.
Some architects argue that the Lakhta Center design does not differ much from the original controversial building planned for Okhta, and that it will be seen from many parts of the city and that it will not blend into the historical center.
“They have moved the project to Primorsky District, which is not considered part of the historical center, and this facilitated the approval of the construction permit. However, Russian legislation protects not only buildings but also city views,” said architectural historian Yury Volchok, a professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute.
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