(CBS/AP) A Russian ship carrying small arms and ammunition and possibly a small contingent of troops is on its way out of the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean bound for Syria, CBS News correspondent David Martin reports. U.S. intelligence believes the weapons are intended to re-supply or beef up the defenses at Russia's naval base in Syria.
The move, while not necessarily an indication of new military support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, comes amid increasingly tense U.S.-Russia relations regarding the Syria crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week issued harsh words over Russia's refusal to take tougher measures on Syria, though her accusation that Russia "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria lost steam Thursday when the State Department acknowledged the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.
The claim had complicated the Obama administration's larger goals for Syria and U.S.-Russia relations.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that Moscow is only providing Syria with defensive weapons, adding that the refurbishment of the helicopters supplied many years ago had been planned in advance.
Also Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied Thursday's statement by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that Moscow and Washington "are continuing to talk about a post-Assad transition strategy," saying that Moscow isn't discussing Syria's future without Assad.
Lavrov, who met with the State Department's No. 2 official William Burns in Kabul on Thursday, maintained that Russia believes it's up to the Syrians to determine their country's future and said foreign players shouldn't meddle.
"It's not true that we are discussing Syria's fate after Bashar Assad," Lavrov said following talks in Moscow with his Iraqi counterpart. "We aren't dealing with a regime change either through approving unilateral actions at the United Nations Security Council nor through taking part in some political conspiracies."
Despite pressure from the West, Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Syria, its last remaining ally in the Arab world, from international sanctions over Assad's violent crackdown on protests that have left 13,000 people dead, according to opposition groups.
Lavrov argued that an international conference on Syria that Russia has proposed should focus on persuading the Syrian parties to sit down for talks. He said that a June 30 meeting on Syria in Geneva proposed by U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, should pursue the same goal, warning that Russia would oppose any attempt to use the conference to determine Syria's future.
"This meeting should be aimed at mobilizing resources that foreign players have to create conditions needed to start an all-Syrian political process, not to predetermine its direction."
He warned against using the conference to "justify any future unilateral actions."
Lavrov said that Russia believes that a conference on Syria it's proposing should bring together the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council along with all Syria's neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Arab League, the European Union and Iran.
In an apparent reference to the U.S. objections against Iran's participation, Lavrov said the conference organizers should be driven by a desire to settle the conflict, not "ideological preferences."
In an opinion piece posted Friday on the Huffington Post, Lavrov insisted that "Russia is not a defender of the current regime in Damascus and has no political, economic or other reasons for becoming one."
He also reaffirmed criticism of Assad, saying that "the main responsibility for the crisis that has swept over the country lies with the Syrian government, that has failed to take the course of reform in due time or draw conclusions from the deep changes unfolding in international relations."
But Lavrov also argued that a push for an immediate ouster of Assad would plunge Syria into an all-out war. "Pressing for an immediate ousting of Bashar al-Assad, contrary to the aspirations of a considerable segment of Syrian society that still relies on this regime for its security and well-being, would mean plunging Syria into a protracted and bloody civil war," Lavrov wrote.