The Lavrov Proposal: What Are Moscow’s Motives?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

by Mark N. Katz

Why has Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made his dramatic proposal for the Syrian government to not only put its chemical weapons under international control, but also destroy them? There are two possibilities.

This could be a Russian attempt to avert the US military strike on Syria that President Obama called for in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against so many of its own citizens on Aug. 21. Fully understanding that support for such a move is weak within Congress, among America’s allies, and in Western public opinion, Moscow hopes that its diplomatic initiative will prevent a strike that would weaken the Assad regime’s ability to defeat its opponents with conventional weapons.

In light of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russian diplomatic efforts, the chance that such cynical motives underlie Lavrov’s initiative cannot be ruled out. But there is another possibility. Considering that Moscow has heretofore denied that Damascus has or ever would use chemical weapons, Lavrov’s proposal could be seen as a stark warning to Assad: either surrender your chemical weapons to international control and destruction, or Moscow will do nothing to defend you against an American strike.

The truth is that these two possible motives are not mutually exclusive. Russia could be simultaneously trying to rally forces in the West wishing to prevent a strike and warning Damascus that its use of chemical weapons last month went too far — even for Moscow.

One thing, though, is certain: Lavrov only made this proposal because Obama has issued a credible threat to strike Syria.

Bashar al-Assad may have accepted the Lavrov proposal because he understands that Saddam Hussein’s non-compliance with the UN Security Council’s weapons of mass destruction inspection program in 2002-03 was seized upon by the Bush administration as justification for a US-led invasion. It is doubtful, though, that Assad will give up his chemical weapons even at Moscow’s behest if he does not feel the threat of a debilitating American attack (even if it’s not an outright invasion).

The immediate reaction of both the Senate and President Obama to the Lavrov proposal has been talk of delaying any such attack — which is exactly what Moscow and Damascus wanted. For the US to incentivize Assad to actually surrender his chemical weapons Washington must maintain the threat of a large-scale attack against him unless Assad complies immediately.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at



  1. I can’t help but think this post today by Mr. Katz, is anything but warmed over P.R. that we’ve been subjected too since the 8-21-13 incident. The use of Assad being guilty of using C.W. on his own people, while knowing that the U.S. would bomb Syria if it did, would suggest that Mr. Assad is a bumbling inept fool, but perhaps Mr. Katz had the wrong person in mind when he wrote this. It seems this grand parade of intellectual elitists driving to bomb Syria then march upon Iran, are the fools, taken in by others who have a different agenda, one not in the best interest of the U.S. Diplomacy is the best way to stop the continuous killing of the innocent civilian population. Of course, there are those who believe that killing children eliminates the future, as well as having widows whose husbands were killed so they are left to fend for themselves. All this, while the atrocities are ongoing in Israel against the Palestinians, to keep the attention span diverted.

  2. Credible threat according to whom? Ivory-towered experts who speak from their positions of all-knowingness? Show me the evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that our society uses as a litmus test to determine the guilt of murder.

  3. A well-done assessment.A third motive may be added: Putin and Lavrov have jumped onto this oportunity to reinforce Moscow’s status as an unavoidable actor in the Middle East.Russia will push its advantage on other grounds,mainly on negociations on the iranian nuclear dispute.Besides,Obama may have understood as well that Washington’s continuously deteriorating relations with Moscow may have costs which may become heavy.Such a tension needs to find an exit.Moscow ,on the other hand,while officially showing its weight and taking advantage of current western unabilty to bring solutions alone not only to the syrian crisis,but as well to egyptian civil war,not to say to the endless israeli-palestinian conflict,may wish a more relaxed climate that Russia needs for getting cooperation on industry,trade,etc

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