China and Russia have cast three vetoes so far on draft U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions aimed at tougher international responses to the Syrian’s government’s brutal crackdown on protestors and rebels.

They have drawn much flak for their obstructionist resistance to United Nations efforts to force an end to mass killings in Syria. Yet, as with every great power, their positions reflect a mix of principled, commercial and geopolitical calculations. For the stark reality is that the debate over what to do in Syria is as much about relations with Iran, China, Russia and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian competition as it is about human rights, democracy and disorder in Syria.

The human rights norm has grown so powerful that those who would violate it in the privacy of their torture chambers are compelled to swear fealty to it in global public discourse. But how can outsiders step in to repair grave breaches and protect people from a brutal regime’s atrocities?

The debate over when and how force may be used to defend rights and protect against atrocities lies at the intersection of law, norms and politics. The use and non-use of force alike have real-world consequences, shape the struggle for power and help to determine the outcome of political contests.

Pared down to its essence, the responsibility to protect (R2P) is an acknowledgment of a duty of care by all of us who live in zones of safety toward those trapped in zones of danger. As such it is today’s normative instrument of choice for galvanizing a shocked world conscience into decisive collective action to prevent and halt atrocities. Both China and Russia endorsed the global consensus on the new principle at the U.N. world summit in 2005.

Libya last year showed a striking depth of consensus in support of R2P principles among U.N. member states, U.N. officials and other policy and civil society actors. But there is also deep disquiet among many and outright distrust in some about how far U.N. authorization for the Libyan operation was stretched. Nor has the continuing murder and mayhem in post-Gadhafi Libya — the desecration of the graves of Allied soldiers in Benghazi being the latest example — quelled unease at the nature and prospects of the new regime. Although preferable to Gadhafi’s capricious and cruel reign, neither the regime nor the situation in Libya today is a poster child for successful international intervention.

The price of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s excesses in Libya has been paid by several thousand Syrians. The Arab and Western countries introduced draft resolutions last October and again in February that, drawing on U.N. reports, pinned the blame for the violence on Syrian President Bashar Assad and foreshadowed regime change as the solution to the crisis.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States introduced another resolution, to impose additional sanctions on Syria and extend the U.N. Observer mission by 45 days, that too was vetoed by China and Russia on July 19. The two remain adamantly opposed to Security Council endorsement of any international action that can set in train a sequence of events leading to a Libya-type authorization for outside military operations in Syria.

Both China and Russia dislike intrusions into sovereign affairs and fear an intensification of an internal war if external troops are injected. They prefer measures that will calm, not inflame, the crisis. They also have concerns about the moral hazard of interventions, which encourage rebels and secessionists everywhere to increase violence as a ploy to internationalize civil wars. This is why they have repeatedly issued calls for an end to violence by all sides. They reject any U.N. right to impose political settlements on sovereign societies, arguing that the only solution to the crisis is through an inclusive, Syrian-led process to address the legitimate aspirations of the people in an environment free of violence and human rights abuses.

The pragmatic calculations include arms sales, a Russian naval supply base at Tartus, fears of a loss of international credibility if an ally is abandoned under pressure from abroad, and a sense of frustration and humiliation at how U.N. authorization of all necessary measures to protect civilians was abused to effect regime change in Libya.

For historical and geographical reasons, Russia’s opposition is stronger than China’s to the Western agenda in Syria. After the end of the Cold War, in a rare historical moment, Russia acquiesced to the terms of its defeat. Instead of treating Moscow with magnanimity, the West engaged in serial provocations, repeatedly rubbing Russian noses in the dirt of their historic defeat, contemptuously ignoring Russian interests and dismissing their protests as inconsequential. They forgot that a great power does not retreat forever, and Russia has been a great power in the European balance of power system for centuries.

Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously said that its goal was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down. After the history of the West’s dealings with them since the Cold War, including most recently in Libya, Russians might ruefully wonder if NATO’s purpose is not to keep the Americans in, the U.N. out and the Russians down.

The political importance of the Sunni-Shiite divide across the Middle East is also important. The Saudi Arabia and Turkey-led Sunni crescent is firmly pro-Western and indifferent to Russia. Syria is a key Russian bulwark against U.S. interests in the Middle East. Therefore Moscow has little to lose in regional relations by backing Syria.

A U.N. veto is a risk-free assertion of Russian boldness, independence and defiance without committing Moscow to a show of force that would expose its military weakness. It is also a useful reminder that Russia still matters, even if as a spoiler. If Westerners do intervene and leave behind a broken Syria to match the destroyed fabrics of governance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, Russia will be free of the taint of having triggered the chaos and bloodbath.

That said, it is also worth reminding ourselves, finally, that the Western permanent members of the Security Council are just as firmly wedded to keeping the veto power intact and Washington has cast the veto the most often of any of the five permanent UNSC members since the Cold War ended.

Ramesh Thakur is director of Australian National University’s Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

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