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A Russian peace mission to Washington over Syria?

Russian parliamentarians are weighing a trip to Congress to dissuade the House and Senate from authorizing force in Syria.

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A dockhand stands by a shuttle boat for the upcoming Group of 20 summit of world leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday. The G20 summit is scheduled to start Wednesday, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested a full discussion about Syria at the meeting.

Virginia Mayo/AP

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Russia may send a parliamentary delegation to Washington to dissuade members of Congress from authorizing the use of force in Syria, and instead press for a return to the now-stalled Geneva-2 negotiating process that is jointly sponsored by the United States and Russia.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested a full discussion about Syria should take place at the Group of 20 leaders summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, which begins Thursday. As this year's G20 chair, Russia has considerable influence over the shape of the agenda.

"This [G20 summit] is a good platform to discuss the problem. Why not use it?" Mr. Putin told journalists last week.

It could be a sign that Moscow is regaining confidence in its ability to sway the course of events, after it had appeared by late last week that Russia was out of options in its efforts to prevent a US-led military strike against its client, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria.

If so, ironically, Russia's hopes have been rekindled by an outbreak of democratic spirit in the West. Last Thursday, the House of Commons in London voted down any British involvement in a military strike on Syria, an event that apparently astonished Putin: "I will be honest: this was completely unexpected for me," he told journalists. On Saturday, Barack Obama stepped back from his earlier determination to launch a strike on presidential warmaking authority, and decided to consult with Congress.

'Our views are valid'

In a meeting with the heads of Russia's upper and lower houses of parliament Monday, Putin gave his blessing to the idea of a renewed dialogue over the way forward in Syria, saying it would be "very timely," and expressing the hope that such a mission to Washington would give US lawmakers "a better feel and understanding of the Russian position."

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Having a fresh conversation about Syria might help the US step back from the brink of war, and reignite enthusiasm for a negotiated settlement, says Alexei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"We think that if we can do anything to prevent this war – which has been as badly thought-out as the Iraq war was – then we should do it," he says.

Russia has been arguing all along that the Syrian conflict is not a simple clash between dictatorship and democracy, that it's increasingly a sectarian civil war with atrocities on all sides, that Al Qaeda-linked forces such as the al-Nusra Front are dominant among the rebels, and that destroying the Assad regime might plunge the country into chaos and sow instability around the wider region, Mr. Pushkov says.

"Now we see that critics of military action in Congress are using the same kind of arguments we've been making for the past two years. I don't mean they've adopted the Russian view, just that this shows our views are valid.... We hope that if we could have an opportunity to engage with US congresspeople, we might be able not just to reiterate our arguments but also bring to their attention certain things that don't often come up in the US discussion. We don't think they're having a full or clear debate over there, and we would welcome the chance to contribute in a helpful way," he says.

A half-hearted warmonger?

If the British parliamentary vote astounded many Russians, Mr. Obama's decision to turn to Congress has some of them scratching their heads in perplexity.

"Listening to Putin [talking about Obama], I got the sense that there was a note of mockery in his voice," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

"Obama is not showing strength, as Putin would expect him to. He's not sure how to react to that. Putin has not found a way to communicate in a satisfactory way with the US, and Syria is a big part of that puzzle.... This situation is strange, but it does present Putin with the opportunity to look like a full-fledged player in the big game again," Mr. Kremeniuk says.

Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's international affairs committee, voices the widely held view in Moscow that Obama is a half-hearted warmonger who has gotten trapped in his own tangled web of rhetoric.

"Now it looks like Obama and his circle are nervously looking for any possible excuse not to begin an attack against Syria. It is an awkward situation for everybody, including Obama," Mr. Klimov says.

"I wouldn't say this is some sort of new opening for Russia; we are just one participant in the search for peace. For the Middle East, there might be a window opening up for a peaceful solution," he adds.

Moral suasion

Moscow has made clear that it will not even hint at backing its Syrian client with military counterforce, as the former Soviet Union might have done.

The Russian Navy announced Tuesday that it will be sending an electronic reconnaissance vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to monitor unfolding events. But as they have done repeatedly amid rising tensions in the region, Russian military officials insisted they intend no appearance of force escalation.

"There have been no orders to expand anything there, and there will not be. The strength and type of forces that we have in the Mediterranean Sea today are sufficient to keep us fully informed about what is happening," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted an unnamed military-diplomatic source as saying.

Taking military displays off the table leaves Moscow with no options other than moral suasion in its efforts to convince the US to back away from force and return to the joint US-Russian project of bringing the two sides to a negotiating table in Geneva.

"The idea of sending Russian parliamentarians to Washington is a gesture, to show that we understand the complexity of the situation, and appreciate that Obama's not that eager to fight," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal.

"It's a positive sign, one that indicates Russia is not interested in breaking off ties with the US. Yet it also shows that our leaders haven't a clue how the US system works. If anything, a team of Russian parliamentarians trying to lobby US Congress is likely to have the opposite effect.... I think it's just a way of prolonging this situation. I don't think Putin actually believes he can change minds over there," Mr. Lukyanov says.


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