Vladimir Putin on Wednesday provided a window into the logic behind Russia’s vote to block UN sanctions against Syria, warning that the world faced a growing “cult of violence” stoked by western interference and raising the spectre of the Arab spring reaching Russia.
In a meeting with religious leaders, the Russian prime minister warned that Moscow must not let the uprisings of Libya and Syria be repeated in Russia and criticised what he suggested was western interference in these countries.
“We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like a bull in a china shop,” Mr Putin said. “Help them, advise them – limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons – but do not interfere under any circumstances.”
“A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade. This cannot fail to cause concern … and we must not allow anything like this in our country.”
Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution over the weekend that it said it feared could open the door to foreign military intervention, in the same way as the 2010 UN resolution against Muammer Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader.
The apparent criticism of western interference in the Middle East comes as Mr Putin faces one of the biggest challenges of his 12-year rule as tens of thousands take to the streets in opposition to his dominance of politics just as he prepares to return to the presidency in elections in March.
Mr Putin has frequently dismissed the protests as sponsored by western intelligence services attempting to sow instability in his country.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday telephoned Dmitry Medvedev to call on the Russian president to support the Arab League initiative on Syria to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down, avert a civil war and allow a transition to democracy, the Elysee palace said in a statement.
Mr Putin’s comments came as the EU prepared further sanctions against Syria, including a possible ban on commercial air flights and a freeze on central bank assets, although diplomats acknowledge that the bloc has limited means to bring a swift end to the worsening violence.
EU diplomats have begun studying a range of options to try to increase pressure on President Assad’s government, whose escalating bombardment of the city of Homs has claimed 150 lives this week, according to opposition estimates that cannot be independently verified.
The UN’s human rights chief on Wednesday condemned “the Syrian government’s wilful assault on the city of Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city”.
Navi Pillay said it was extremely urgent “for the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the civilian population”.
In addition to targeting the central bank and commercial flights, the new measures could also include a ban on sales of phosphate, one of Syria’s chief exports to Europe, and precious metals, such as gold.
“In principle, everyone is ready to move along with increased sanctions and we will get increased sanctions against Syria,” a senior EU official said, predicting that measures could be adopted at the bloc’s next meeting of foreign ministers on February 27.
Syrian activists said that at least 50 people were killed in a fresh attack on Homs, which began in the early hours of Wednesday morning. There were reports of heavy shelling and mortar fire into the city in what is thought to be one of the most aggressive assaults on a rebellious area since the uprising began 11 months ago.
“There is more shelling, more mortars, more rockets – they don’t stop,” one activist in Homs told the Financial Times.
Syrian state news reported that “armed terrorist groups” had detonated a car bomb in the opposition neighbourhood of al Bayada and shelled a university building and an oil refinery in Homs. “Authorities . . . are pursuing and clashing with these groups,” said the report.
The worsening violence highlights the limits of efforts to apply pressure to the Assad government. Western governments were dismissive of comments from Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, that he had “received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria” for dialogue with opposition members who “so far are refusing to talk”.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, on Wednesday telephoned Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, to urge him to support the Arab League initiative on Syria to force Mr Assad to step down, avert a civil war and allow a transition to democracy, the Elysée palace said in a statement.
Mr Sarkozy expressed his “profound regret” over Russia’s veto of the Arab League-backed UN Security Council resolution and underlined the necessity to maintain pressure on the Syrian regime to end its “brutal repression”, the statement said.
The EU has already banned imports of Syrian oil and frozen assets and imposed travel bans on dozens of regime officials. The measures have deprived the government of an important source of hard currency and contributed to widespread fuel shortages.
However, in January Mohamed Nedal Alchaar, economy minister, told the FT that while the sanctions had had a severe effect, Syria could withstand them with increased self-sufficiency.
Ibrahim Saif, an economist at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said of the fresh EU sanctions: “The economy is deteriorating, and these measures will make it worse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the economy will collapse as a result of this. It’s just piling pressure on the economy and on the regime.”
The senior EU official acknowledged that there were disagreements among member states about the specifics of new measures.
One point of contention about banning commercial air flights was that it would also disrupt humanitarian aid supplies. Similarly, central bank sanctions would have to be designed so as not to harm legal trade.
Military options, such as the imposition of the sort of no-fly zone imposed on Libya, were not under consideration, the senior EU official said. “Nobody wants it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tom Burgis in London and Hugh Carnegy in Paris
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