McCain: Russia backing Syria over longing for ‘old Russian empire’

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday that he thinks Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is partly a longing for the “old Russian empire” and Russian concern that the Arab Spring could spread beyond the Arab world.

McCain gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute Monday on the situation in Syria in which he chided the Obama administration for not doing more, such as arming the opposition and considering airstrikes to establish safe havens for the rebels.

ADVERTISEMENT
But during the Q&A section, McCain also weighed in on the other side of the equation, assessing the impact of Russia’s support of Assad and blocking U.N. Security Council action in Syria.

While McCain began with a caveat that he didn’t “pretend to be able to get into [President Vladimir] Putin’s mind, he said that Russia was protecting Assad out of a desire to maintain its old empire, and Russia’s naval base in Syria is “their last port on the Mediterranean."

But McCain said that Russia’s support of Assad was “doing enormous damage to their image in the Arab world.”

“They’re harming themselves dramatically, and I don’t quite understand that,” McCain said.

He also suggested that Syria was a test case for Russia over whether the Arab Spring would spread to other parts of the world. McCain specifically mentioned Chechnya, where he said the Russians used “incredible brutality” to put down an uprising.

McCain has previously taken aim at Putin over the Arab Spring, tweeting in December: “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you.” 

Putin responded by calling the senator and 2008 presidential candidate “nuts.”

Putin and Obama held a bilateral meeting on Monday at the Group of 20 Summit in Mexico, and Syria was one of the topics the leaders were expected to discuss.

McCain said he hopes Obama will be able to “bring about some change” in Russia’s behavior as a result of the face-to-face meeting.

McCain said he did not believe the Cold War would or should be reignited over the disputes with Russia but said the administration needs to “take a much more realistic view of our relationship with Russia and our ability to do business with it.”

In his speech on Syria, McCain continued his call for more action by the United States in Syria, which Russia has blocked through a U.N. Security Council veto. McCain suggested that Washington needs to act without the Security Council through a “coalition of the willing” if Russia continues to oppose intervention there.

McCain said he does not want boots on the ground in Syria but that safe havens need to be created for the opposition to organize, as was done in Libya.