Russia said on Friday that it had not changed and would not change its controversial stance on Syria, after a top Russian diplomat said the defeat of the Syrian regime was possible.
In a bid to play down claims of a sudden about-turn in Russian policy, the foreign ministry irritably insisted the diplomat had made no special commentary for the media.
“We have never changed our position on Syria and we never will,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov said at a meeting of the Public Chamber oversight body on Thursday that the Syrian regime “is losing more and more control” and it was not excluded that President Bashar al-Assad could lose the conflict with the rebels.
The United States swiftly welcomed Bogdanov’s comments, saying it appeared Moscow was “finally waking up to the reality”.
“I think the question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Lukashevich retorted on Friday that “we were never sleeping to begin with”.
“Our position remains in effect,” he told reporters. “It is unchanged.”
It is not clear if Bogdanov – who is also the Kremlin’s special envoy for the Middle East – was aware that his remarks were on the record and would be reported by Russia’s news agencies.
Russia has so far refused to turn against Assad’s regime despite the conflict, which according to rights groups has killed 42,000 people since March last year.
It infuriated the West and anti-Assad Arab states by refusing to cut military and other ties with Damascus established during the Soviet era with the president’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.
Lukashevich released a statement earlier in the day saying Bogdanov “has made no statements or special interviews with journalists in the last days”.
In his comments on Thursday, Bogdanov also warned that even if the opposition were to win, the conflict still risked lasting many more months at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
Moscow has been seen by the West as a staunch ally of Assad’s regime since opposition rebels first launched their bid to topple him in March last year.
With China, it has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions, backed by the United States, aimed at imposing sanctions.
But Russia surprised the US last week when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to join US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in three-way talks with UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Dublin.
Top level officials then met over the weekend in Geneva, where they held “constructive talks,” Brahimi said.
They discussed ways “to move forward a peaceful process and mobilise greater international action in favour of a political solution to the Syrian crisis”.
Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with Indem think tank, suggested that Moscow was seeking to manoeuvre the ongoing negotiations on the Syrian conflict in a particular direction.
“The foreign ministry’s leadership understands that if it chooses a tough line on Syria it may see a repeat of the Libyan scenario where Moscow has lost its influence completely,” Korgunyuk said.
Moscow lost major arms and infrastructure contracts through the toppling of the regime of its former ally Muammer Gaddafi in Libya.
“Post-Soviet Russia lacks resources to support its former Soviet-era allies,” Korgunyuk said.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, downplayed the significance of Bogdanov’s comments.
“He expressed his professional opinion. Diplomats absolutely do not want sensationalism,” he said, referring to the foreign ministry’s desire to play down the comments.
Lukyanov added it may be too late to discuss Assad’s future.
“Assad’s future will be decided on the battlefield,” he said.