MOSCOW Russia denied on Friday that it has changed its position on Syria, trying to dampen speculation that remarks by a senior envoy point to policy differences in Moscow as the civil war turns against President Bashar al-Assad.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, a Kremlin envoy to the Middle East, made unusually pessimistic assessment of the situation in Syria on Thursday when he acknowledged that Assad's opponents might win.
The United States said the remarks showed Moscow was "finally waking up to reality". But Russia's Foreign Ministry said he had merely reiterated Moscow's view that any resolution of the conflict in Syria must not be based on Assad's departure.
"We have never changed our position and we will not change it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a news conference. "We have never been asleep."
His comments followed a ministry statement that also dismissed any talk of a change in policy, and he reiterated that Moscow was not discussing Assad's future or ways to get him out of Syria.
Russia, which is Syria's largest arms supplier, has with China shielded Assad from censure in three consecutive U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Its policy hinges on an international agreement reached in Geneva this year that calls for a transitional government to be set up in Syria but leaves open the question of what part Moscow's ally, Assad, might play in the process.
Bogdanov's comments, made during a discussion by experts on Syria and the Middle East in Moscow, raised questions about whether Russia is pursuing one policy in private and another in public as Assad's chances of staying in power appear to recede.
It has also fuelled talk of potential differences in Moscow over the situation on the ground in Syria, where the 20-month-old civil war has killed at least 40,000 people.
Lukashevich said Bogdanov's remarks followed the same "logic" as the Russian position that no deal should be predicated by Assad's departure.
But Bogdanov may have stepped out of line by serving up a more openly pessimistic view of the conflict than any other Russian official because he did not realise his comments would be made public.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and a member of an influential foreign policy council, said he saw no policy shift when Bogdanov said rebel gains on the ground meant their ultimate victory over Assad could not be ruled out.
But he added: "This discussion ... was not seen as a place where political statements will be made so Bogdanov said what he said as his professional expert assessment of the situation in Syria."
His remarks follow comments by Western diplomats suggesting that Russia appears increasingly to be preparing for an end game in which Assad is forced out of power.
A source close to Rosoboronexport, Russia's arms exporting monopoly, said the Foreign Ministry was planning to honour arms contracts to Syria that have already been agreed even if Assad is forced out of power.
The remarks suggest that despite what Russian officials say in public, Moscow is thinking beyond Assad and preparing for every possible outcome. It is also increasingly concerned by the chaotic situation in Syria and trying to shape policy around it.
"Russia can't see a post-Assad structure that will satisfy them. All they see is a mess and chaos," said one Moscow-based diplomat.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)