AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed Tuesday to "do everything" to support Kofi Annan's tattered peace plan for Syria as he hosted the envoy amid escalating fighting in the regime's stronghold Damascus.
"From the very start, from the first steps, we supported and continue to support your efforts aimed at restoring civil peace," Putin told Annan at the start of their Kremlin meeting.
"We will do everything that depends on us to support your efforts," the Russian leader said.The UN-Arab League mediator replied that "the Syrian crisis is at a critical time" before the discussion was closed to the press.
Annan's first meeting with Putin since his May return to the Kremlin came one day before Western powers plan to hold a vote on a UN Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions against the Damascus regime.
Russia has vowed to block the measure in the same manner that it has two previous resolutions that threatened any penalties against its Soviet-era ally for violence that activists believe has now claimed more than 17,000 lives.
Moscow has proposed its own draft that would extend a UN monitors mission whose mandate expires on Friday for another three months without penalising President Bashar al-Assad should he fail to pull heavy armour out of cities.
A failure to extend the mission's deadline would put a halt to a key component of an Annan initiative that intends to gradually help set up a Syrian transition government acceptable to all sides.
Russia has insisted that it is not helping Assad -- whose government it continues to supply with arms despite the fighting -- but advocating global laws that prevent big powers from interfering in the affairs of smaller states.
Moscow has seen several of its Soviet-era allies swept from power during the Arab Spring revolutions and was furious when NATO attacked ally Libya last year citing a loosely worded UN resolution that Russia decided not to block.
A top Russian daily said Putin had recently told a meeting of Russian envoys in Moscow that he intends to make sure that Western powers do not implement a regime change in Syria with the use of sanctions or force.
"The manner in which the Syrian crisis is resolved will largely determine the model the world community uses to respond to future internal conflicts of nations," the Kommersant business broadsheet quoted Putin as telling the meeting.
Russian diplomats have instead proposed extending negotiations with key Arab and Western states aimed at saving Annan's peace initiative no matter how bleak its future may look today.
Annan met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a private dinner on Tuesday during which Russian officials said Assad's future was never discussed.
"As you know, we do not discuss this subject with anyone," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency.
"We proposed convening an Action Group meeting in Moscow at the end of July -- but not at the ministerial level but at the level of senior officials," Gatilov added.
Russia has also insisted on inviting key Syrian ally Iran to the negotiations despite the US State Department's refusal.
Lavrov hosted two Syrian opposition groups in Moscow last week for talks aimed at showing Russia's desire to mediate a peaceful end to the conflict that began in March 2011 with a crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Both meetings ended without agreement and Russia's refusal to change its line on Assad