Moscow - President Vladimir Putin offered a glimpse of international compromise over Syria yesterday, declining to entirely rule out Russian backing for military action as he prepared to host a summit of world leaders.
As the United States and allies prepare to bypass any Russian U.N. veto and attack Damascus, there is little chance of Putin's support. But his words may herald new efforts to overcome great power rivalries that have let Syria descend into bloody chaos.
At the same time, Moscow said it had sent a warship it calls a "carrier killer" to the eastern Mediterranean, where a U.S. fleet is waiting for Congress to approve orders from President Barack Obama to launch punitive strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following his forces' alleged use of poison gas.
Putin's remarks on the eve of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg stressed Russia did not share Obama's conviction that Assad has resorted to chemical warfare - he noted suggestions the August 21 gassing was instead the work of al Qaeda-linked rebels.
And only proof, plus backing in the U.N. Security Council that depends on Moscow, would justify using force, he added. Nonetheless, in saying he did "not rule out" his support, Putin gave a shot of warmth to relations with the West that the Syrian conflict has helped chill to levels recalling the Cold War.
Moscow has been the main arms supplier to Assad, who is also backed by Iran as part of Tehran's wider confrontation with the United States and its allies in Israel and the Gulf Arab states.
And Russian media reports on military deployments have provided a reminder of continuing tensions. On Tuesday, Russian reports of missile launches in the Mediterranean moved the world oil market and set nerves on edge in Damascus before Israel explained it had fired a rocket in exercises with U.S. forces.
Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday quoted a source saying the guided missile cruiser Moskva was heading to the eastern Mediterranean to take over as flagship. The agency noted that the Soviet-era Moskva, designed to attack other ships, was known as a "carrier killer". Only the United States and European allies are likely to deploy any aircraft carriers in the region.