(WASHINGTON) — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday that the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be made out of a desire to return Russia to the power it wielded in the 20th century.
“I don’t pretend to be able to get into President Putin’s mind, but there is a certain nostalgia in Russia for the old Russian empire,” the lawmaker said. “This is their last outpost and port on the Mediterranean.”
The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee was speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The U.N. estimates 10,000 people have died since uprisings began in Syria in March 2011. Syrian opposition groups put the death toll at 14,000.
McCain alleged Russia’s decision with China to veto U.N. Security Council decisions in North Africa were tied to ripples of dissent in their own backyard, noting recent harsh crackdowns on the massive protests surrounding Putin’s reelection.
“This is in many ways to [Moscow] a test as to whether this disease called the Arab Spring will spread to other parts of the world, including places like Chechnya, which was put down with incredible, exceptional brutality,” McCain said.
Russian fought wars to prevent Chechnya from breaking away.
McCain says he is not looking to chill relations with Russia into a new Cold War, but argued that a “realistic view” had to be embraced regarding “our ability to do business with them.”
Last week the White House reported Putin’s government had been supplying the Assad regime with refurbished Soviet-era attack helicopters to use against civilian populations. Meanwhile, media reports have surfaced suggesting Russia could be gearing up to send marines to reinforce their main port in the country at Tartus.
Monday, McCain said regardless of the specifics, the Russian involvement had created a scenario that was “clearly […] not a fair fight.”
McCain has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s role in Syria for months, calling for direct U.S. military action in the form of air strikes against Assad’s military. The former Republican presidential candidate has also advocated the arming of rebels against the regime, and the creation of “safe havens” from which they can coordinate resistance.
Telling his audience not to “go numb to the human tragedy” unfolding overseas, the senator asked once more if Obama would show the same “courage” former President Bill Clinton displayed during the American intervention in Bosnia.
Obama met with Putin Monday at the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. McCain said he hoped the two-hour bilateral discussion would “bring about some change” in the conflict.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Ivana Kottasova, CNN