MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than ever before from his longtime ally in Syria on Thursday, saying he understands Syria needs change and that he is not protecting its president.
Putin, however, warned that efforts to unseat Bashar Assad could plunge Syria even deeper into violence. He insisted that Russia has not changed its stance and believes that only a negotiated settlement can end the civil war.
Putin's assessment came a week after Russia's top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Assad's forces were losing control of the country. Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to Assad's fall.
Russia has blocked international attempts to step up pressure on the Assad regime, leading to accusations that it is supporting Assad.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has long stated that Russia is not propping up Assad, as did Putin in strong words on Thursday.
"We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what's going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years," Putin said during his annual hours-long news conference. "Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes."
"We are worried about another thing: what happens next," he said. "We don't want to see the opposition come to power and start fighting the government that becomes the opposition, so that it goes on forever."
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, said Moscow's stance has been consistent and Putin's statements do not signal a change.
"Russia has always said it did not support Assad personally, that it wanted a political dialogue" between Assad's government and the opposition, Lukyanov said.
Putin said Russia's position "is not to keep Assad and his regime in power at any cost, but to allow the people to come to an agreement on how they will live further and how they will ensure their safety and their participation in governing the country and then start changing the current order based on those agreements."
Only a negotiated settlement, he said, would "prevent a breakup of the country and an endless civil war."
"Agreements based on a military victory cannot be effective," Putin said.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed reporting.