09/11/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

With Syria, Russia Plays for the Favor of Undemocratic Leaders

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Russia has repeatedly thrown its weight behind Bashar al-Assad, beguiling the international community's attempt at intervention. Syria has become Russia's boldest international action since the 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Why is Russia risking its global reputation to stick its neck out for Assad?

Though Russia's actions might seem abhorrent to the West, their true audience might lie elsewhere -- in the other undemocratic countries of the world.

The Russian course in Syria is guided in part by the Kremlin's belief in absolute sovereignty -- the conviction that what goes on internally in a country should not be subject to manipulation or intervention by outside forces, including other nations and global governance institutions. In Russia's view, international intervention in sovereign affairs is always about forcing regime change. This is part of why, under Putin, Russia has repeatedly asserted its right to do things the Russian way, regardless of what the international community might want. This ideology grew out of the humiliating 1990s and the threatening Color Revolutions of the 2000s, where Western-funded movements forced regime change in several former Soviet countries. This principle contributed to Russia's initial stance in support of Assad.

At the same time, Russia is looking to rebuild and expand its own global authority. Reasserting its claim to great power status -- a status that Russia never felt it lost -- is essential for Russia, which sees itself as a bulwark against a world where the U.S. stands alone as a superpower. But if Russia wants to be a great power, it needs to increase its strategic partnerships without the military power and money of the U.S. or the economic might of China. In standing by Assad, Russia may have found the niche that will build its soft power worldwide.

In this light, Syria has provided Russia an opportunity to test and expand its global muscle. First, Russia supports the right of Assad, as the leader of a sovereign nation, to do whatever he wants to restore stability within his own country. The Kremlin views the Syrian opposition as a radical rebel movement seeking to overthrow a legitimate government, and support of the rebels, as intervention to oust Assad. Protecting the right of a sovereign state to take whatever actions necessary to preserve order is not just important for Russia; China backs this principle too. Other non-democratic regimes might not have the clout to stand up for non-intervention, there are many that would like to be able to act their borders without worrying about international norms. These countries are now more likely to see Russia as a potential ally.

As a potential ally, Russia has the right connections. With a seat on the UN Security Council, Russia has repeatedly thwarted resolutions on Syria, leading American Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to say in a statement that Russia was holding the UNSC "hostage." Undermining the Security Council in this way is to Russia's advantage. Ironically, though Russia tends to resent global governance institutions, it supports the Security Council, where its historical veto gives it added global clout. In an interview before the G20 last week, Putin emphasized that, "according to current international law, only the United Nations Security Council can sanction the use of force against a sovereign state. Any other approaches, means, to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state, are inadmissible." By vetoing sanctions against Syria while affirming the primacy of the Security Council, Russia demonstrates its own power as well as the limitations of the UN system. Russia also stands for the principle that the UN is not a vehicle for American imperialism. Moving forward, Russia is unlikely to vote in support of military intervention with humanitarian aims in the future, as it felt deceived when the bombing campaign it permitted in Libya resulted in Muammar Gaddafi's capture and murder. Russia has become so associated with blocking resolution on Syria that Power did not mention that China had also vetoed resolutions to act against Assad. Undemocratic leaders take note: a close relationship with Russia might be useful when overstepping UN standards.

Though more states are purportedly democratic than ever before, the world still has no shortage of governments that have little more than the trappings of democracy and leaders who would rather not have the international community sticking its nose in domestic business, particularly if they are faced with Arab Spring-type unrest. Russia's stance on Syria has served as an advertisement for its potential as a great power protector for these likeminded leaders.

But as the threat of bombing moves closer to reality and Assad's ouster seems unavoidable, Russia has the opportunity to strengthen its soft power by using it to facilitate a transition. Russia has made its statement to the democratic and undemocratic world, but no matter how much it might want to support Assad's sovereign authority, it can't do so much longer without ending up on the losing side. The conflict in Syria has become a proving ground for a new geo-political order. Russia's best strategy now is to show it can lead where the rest of the world has failed. For now, it appears to be taking that course with Syria's chemical weapons. An end to the conflict, however, remains elusive.