Why Putin sets Russia apart from US on Syria

Why Putin sets Russia apart from US on Syria

For more than an hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alone in the late-summer sun, patiently awaiting the arrival of his guests. He struck a solitary figure, looking proud and purposeful, perhaps a little aloof, definitely not someone to be messed with.

He was receiving world leaders here in his hometown of St Petersburg, and welcoming them to his presidential residence, the Konstantinovsky Palace.

The palace was built early in the 18th century and intended as a summer home for Russian czar Peter the Great. It was Mr Putin who ordered it refurbished in 2001 for presidential use. In 2006, he hosted G-8 leaders here. Last Thursday, he welcomed leaders from the G-20 countries, as well as six specially selected non-G-20 guests, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for a two-day summit.

The ornate Marble Hall, where the leaders held their meetings, has been painstakingly restored, reflecting a deep sense of Russian pride. Indeed, the nation's rich heritage is evident throughout this city, which served as Russia's czarist capital for 186 years, from 1732 to 1918, until Lenin's Bolsheviks launched their revolution here in 1917 and moved the capital to Moscow.

The city of five million is often dubbed the "Venice of the north" not only for its rivers and canals, but also because of its many grand buildings. These include the imposing Hermitage, Russia's answer to the Louvre museum in Paris, and the famed Kirov Ballet's home at the Mariinsky Theatre, which opened a new wing in May.

At the golden-domed St Isaac's Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood - so called because it was built on the site where czar Alexander II was assassinated - I found impressive mosaics and paintings of Christian figures, dating back centuries, which have been well preserved.

"Restoring history is an investment in the future," said a notice on the ongoing restoration efforts. In a way, Mr Putin is an embodiment of this Russian pride, imbued as he seems to be with an abiding sense of his country's historical place in the world. Like him, many of the Russians I met over the past week, while adopting the trappings of the modern world with their mobile phones and stylish fashion, seem also to set themselves apart from it. Few speak any English, for example, and see little need to.

I pondered this over the past week as I watched Mr Putin set himself against what he sees as the United States' rush to judgment in concluding that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 of his own people, including many women and children.

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