The Russian statement questioning the reports that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons and urging the U.S. not to repeat the mistakes of the Iraq war should not be taken seriously as a sincere expression of belief.
Russian intelligence is no less aware than the West of the evidence pointing to a massive attack with chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus. The difference in positions is not a matter of facts but rather of the attitude that Russia takes toward the use of weapons of mass destruction and mass civilian casualties.
In 1995, Russian forces carpet-bombed Grozny, a city in their own country, causing an estimated 20,000 civilian deaths in five weeks. The victims were not only Chechens but also elderly ethnic Russians who had been trapped in the city.
The production designs for sarin nerve gas were sold by Russian officials to the Japanese doomsday group, Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a deadly sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo metro in March, 1995. The official who was responsible was later promoted.
Russia views the Syrian conflict exclusively from the point of view of its geopolitical interests. The moral issues that grip the West are simply not a factor in Russian thinking. It pays to keep this in mind in evaluating the public Russian position in the weeks ahead.
— David Satter is an adviser to the Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.