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Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have initially calculated that the Russian invasion of Ukraine which he launched in February 2022 would quickly result in the surrender or even downfall of the Zelenskyy government. This did not happen due to fierce resistance on the part of Ukraine and large-scale Western (especially American) arms transfers to Ukraine. Six months on, the war has become a grinding war of attrition. As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged, Russian forces occupy approximately 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. But while Western-backed Ukrainian forces may prevent the Russians from making further advances, Kyiv appears unlikely to be able to push Putin’s forces back over the border into Russia either. Neither side, though, seems ready for a ceasefire, and so the war continues on—perhaps for months or even years.

Eventually, though, wars do come to an end. How might this one do so? Read the full article at: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/russo-ukrainian-war-attrition-how-will-it-end-204435

On July 19, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Tehran with Iran’s top two leaders—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi—as well as with President Recep Tayyib Erdogan of Turkiye (the new official name for Turkey).  While Putin’s interaction with the Iranian leaders was largely successful, his dealings with Erdogan were less so. 

At the summit, Putin received a wholehearted endorsement of his war effort in Ukraine from Supreme Leader Khamenei, who stated, “In the case of Ukraine, had you not taken the initiative, the other side would have taken the initiative and caused the war. NATO would know no bounds if the way was open to it. And if it was not stopped in Ukraine, it would start the same war some time later using Crimea as a pretext.” 

With this statement as well as reports that Iran is not only selling drones to Russia but also providing training on how to use them, Iran has now become closely associated with Putin’s war effort against Ukraine. 

Yet despite Khamenei’s endorsement of Putin’s war, Iran has been hurt since it began by Moscow selling Western-sanctioned Russian oil at an even steeper discount than Iran had been doing, taking market share away from Iran in both China and India in particular.  Moscow, though, has sought to mitigate the losses it has imposed on Iran through a deal whereby Gazprom will invest $40 billion in the Iranian energy sector which was announced at the Tehran summit.  Whether Gazprom can make good on this promise, however, remains to be seen.

Iranian government officials had previously made statements which steered a more even-handed position on the war in Ukraine, calling for its peaceful resolution.  But if Raisi ever had had any hope of playing Russia and the West off against each other, like Turkiye’s President Erdogan has done, Khamenei appears to have foreclosed this possibility.  Then again, Khamenei may have made his statement because the U.S. recently increased sanctions on Iran aimed at limiting its ability to sell Iranian oil even though the West is desperately seeking extra supplies to replace the Russian oil that it is no longer buying.  Whatever the reason for Khamenei’s endorsement of his war effort against Ukraine, Putin has cause to be pleased with it.

Putin, though, does not appear to have been pleased with his interactions with Turkish President Erdogan.  In addition to their bilateral meetings in Tehran, the three presidents held a meeting of of the Astana Forum—the ongoing Russian-Iranian-Turkish effort to resolve the conflict in Syria which excludes America and the West.  The Russian news agency, TASS, made clear before the summit that Russia hopes to dissuade Erdogan from undertaking a military move against Kurdish forces inside Syria which Erdogan had signaled that he would do.  Erdogan was unsuccessful in gaining Russian and Iranian support for a Turkish incursion against the Syrian Kurds, but indicated that he might militarily intervene in Syria anyway. 

One of Putin’s goals for the summit was to show that despite the war in Ukraine, Russia will continue to play the role that it has been playing in Syria.  Erdogan’s unwillingness to back down from his threats to intervene in Syria against Kurdish forces there, however, indicates that he may see Putin’s preoccupation with Ukraine as creating an opportunity for Turkiye to act in Syria. 

Putin’s visible discomfort with Erdogan’s keeping him waiting in Tehran (apparently in retaliation for Putin’s having kept Erdogan waiting at a previous meeting) was an indicator that there is some tension between the Russian and Turkish leaders.  Still, Putin may not be willing to do too much to thwart any move Erdogan might make in Syria for fear of driving Turkiye back toward America and Europe, thus undoing the trend toward more contentious Turkish-Western relations that Putin has sought to encourage.  Khamenei may not be willing or able to play Russia and the West off against each other, but Erdogan is. 

Finally, the Tehran summit may have been counterproductive for Putin by showing Israeli and Arab leaders that despite Russian professions of friendship toward them, Israel and the Gulf Arabs cannot count on him. With Iran now supporting Russia’s war effort against Ukraine, it is doubtful that Putin will seriously oppose Iranian hostility toward Israel and the Gulf Arabs.

Despite their many differences in the past, Russia and Iran now have much in common as a result of their both having hostile relations with the West in general and with the United States in particular. One of these common interests is that Moscow and Tehran both seek relief from the U.S.-led economic sanctions campaigns against them, which increased against Iran after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iranian nuclear accord in 2018 and against Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine which began in February 2022. One way Russia and Iran can seek relief from the impact of these sanctions, of course, is through economic cooperation with each other. But, to the recent dismay of one Iranian observer, this possibility has not been developed to its full potential.   

An Iranian scholar, Mandana Tishehyar, recently published an article entitled, “A New Order Outworn Too Soon: An Overview of Iran’s New Position in the Multipolar World,” on the website of the Valdai Discussion Club—a high profile Russian government-backed forum discussing international relations. 

In her article, Prof. Tishehyar noted how “Russia is at the forefront of the war against the West,” and described how “Russian investors and merchants” are expanding their activities in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and throughout Asia in order to “make Russia more resilient to sanctions.”  

She then observed that, “Iran can be of special importance to either side of the international chess game”–a formulation indicating that Iran could either help Russia or help its opponents. She noted, though, that “what gives significance to Iran’s geopolitical position is that this country could link Russia to various Asian regions and establish a direct link between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.” 

But Russia, she notes regretfully, is not taking advantage of this opportunity which Iran provides. And this is something Prof. Tishehyar does not see as being in Russia’s interests: 

“Given the fact that Russia is facing tough international sanctions from the Western bloc, it would be strange if it continues to impose Western economic sanctions on Iran. Today, the continuation of Russian economic sanctions on Iran…constitute a form of self-imposed sanctions.”

Indeed, why do Russian firms continue to observe U.S.-backed sanctions against Iran even when Moscow is so strongly at odds with Washington? For the same reason that Chinese ones do: they do not want to damage their more valuable, even if diminished, economic ties with the West which the U.S. would impose as result of their either not observing sanctions against Iran, or from observing them less strictly than they are doing now. 

But Prof. Tishehyar warns that continued Russian observance of economic sanctions against Iran is something which could be seriously harmful to Russia:  

“The changing conditions in the international sphere and the lack of immediate use of existing capacities might lead to a different destiny in regional and international relations, and lead countries to embrace other policies to ensure their national interests and security.”

This formulation raises the possibility that if Russia does not stop observing U.S.-backed economic sanctions against Iran, Tehran might cooperate with other countries instead. She did not say so, but this might even include ones in the West willing to trade with Iran (as many are even if the U.S. is not). In other words: Russia should not take Iran for granted. 

The author of this article, it should be noted, is not a high level Iranian government official, but an academic instead. According to Tishehyar’s  brief bio on the Valdai Discussion Club’s website, she is a “Faculty Member at the ECO College of Insurance, Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran, Iran.” (ECO stands for Economic Cooperation Organization—a 10-member group of countries consisting of Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the six predominantly Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.) Thus, the possibility that she raised in her article of Iran moving away from Russia and toward other countries if Moscow continues to observe U.S.-backed economic sanctions on Iran should not necessarily be taken as a reflection of current Iranian government thinking, much less an indicator that Tehran is about to change its policy with regard to Russia. 

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Prof. Tishehyar or any other Iranian academic inside Iran would write something for a high profile foreign website like that of the Valdai Discussion Club if she anticipated that the Iranian government would be hostile to the expression of such a view. Nor is it likely that the Valdai Discussion Club’s website editors were unaware that Prof. Tishehyar’s article raised the possibility that Iran might adopt a less friendly approach to Russia if Moscow did not adopt a friendlier policy toward Iran—perhaps because they themselves want Russia to trade more with and through Iran as a way of thwarting Western sanctions. 

Yet while Prof. Tishehyar raised the possibility of Iran moving away from Russia, it is difficult to see Russian-Iranian relations deteriorating seriously so long as Russian-American and Iranian-American relations remain so hostile. Still, her article is a sign that Russian-Iranian cooperation is not guaranteed despite their common antipathy toward America and the West. 

Before and during the January 19, 2022 summit meeting between Russian President Putin and Iranian President Raisi, the two presidents and top officials from both countries expressed great satisfaction with how close Russian-Iranian relations have grown. Both predicted that they would grow even closer still.  Yet amidst all this bilateral bonhomie, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, made a statement to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that raised doubts about how close the Russian-Iranian relationship is now or will grow in the future.   

According to IRNA, “At the end of his remarks, Amirabdollahian underscored that the Iranian foreign ministry as the country’s diplomatic apparatus is dutybound to defend Iran’s political independence.  He said the policy of ‘No to West, No to East’ lies at the hardcore of Iran’s political independence, stressing that his ministry will zealously pursue the policy of creating a balance in its ties with both western and eastern countries to safeguard the nation’s interests.”  This went well beyond Amirabdollahian’s subsequent, more well publicized statement that Iran would now “consider” direct talks with the U.S. instead of indirect contact via European mediators at the ongoing talks in Vienna about the resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iranian accord that the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018 is known. 

What did Amirabdollahian mean by this?  “No to West, No to East,” of course, is similar to the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s, “neither East nor West” dictum.  When Khomeini was alive, though, Tehran was very much at odds with Moscow as well as Washington. Soviet forces were occupying Afghanistan to Iran’s east and Moscow was supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran during most of the 1980s.  So Khomeini’s “neither East nor West” formula made sense back then.  Now, though, Tehran and Moscow are both emphasizing how good their relations are with each other, as well as how bad both their relations are with the United States. 

So why would Amirabdollahian now say, “No to West, No to East,” and stress how his ministry will, “zealously pursue the policy of creating a balance in its ties with both western and eastern countries”? 

Was this an indication of Tehran offering an olive branch to the U.S.?  Or was he referring to the West more broadly?  Perhaps he was referring to the West ex-U.S. (ie, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, etc.)?  In Khomeini’s time during the Cold War, the West unequivocally meant the U.S. and Western Europe while the East meant the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.  Perhaps now, though, Amirabdollahian said, “East,” in reference to China, which has become an economic superpower and is well on its way to becoming a military one.  Russia, of course, is north of Iran, and so Amirabdollahian might not have been referring to it at all here.  But this seems unlikely. 

It is also possible that Amirabdollahian made his “No to West, No to East” statement more in deference to Khomeini’s legacy and did not intend it as a comment on the current state of Russian-Iranian relations. 

But whatever the reason why Amiraabdollahian said what he did, it was probably not what Moscow wanted or even expected to hear him say. 

President Biden has been strongly criticized over his statement that there would be disunity in NATO over a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine.  White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sought to “clarify” his remarks by insisting that, “Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”  But however deplorable many consider Biden’s statement about NATO disunity over a Russian incursion into Ukraine to have been, the truth is that it might be accurate analysis.  Indeed, despite Biden’s warnings of Russia suffering “severe consequences” for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin may well have reason to believe that he will not. 

Predictions about how Russian forces would become bogged down in Ukraine and that the Russian economy would be crippled by increased Western sanctions may more reflect wishful thinking in Washington than reality.  Instead, a Russian invasion of Ukraine might not only be successful in reasserting Moscow’s influence over that country, but in causing serious divisions within the NATO alliance. 

With the buildup of over 100,000 Russian troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine, Putin has obviously lost the possibility of launching a surprise attack.  But a Russian attack on Ukraine with such an overwhelming force might not need surprise in order to prevail.  And if Russian security services somehow manage to set up a replacement or alternative to the existing Ukrainian government (as the British government has warned that Moscow is trying to do, Moscow will not need surprise since that pro-Russian government will invite Russia to intervene and “restore order.” 

The Ukrainian military has greatly improved since Russia first annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine in 2014.  But while it might initially put up a valiant fight, it may simply be unable to withstand superior Russian forces.  And Moscow knows that NATO is not going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine.  A fast and furious Russian attack, then, may force Kiev to quickly choose between agreeing to peace on Moscow’s terms or risking both the destruction of Ukraine’s army and the loss of even more territory to Russia.  

If Putin intervenes in Ukraine, Washington will indeed impose a raft of sanctions on Russia and insist that its allies—especially those in Europe—join it in doing so.  But Moscow knows that the Europeans are divided on this issue.  While there will undoubtedly be some such as the U.K., Poland and the Baltic states that call for European Union and other sanctions on Russia, many other European countries—especially Germany—may prove unwilling to halt or even lower their purchases of Russian gas when no replacement for it is readily available and winter is upon them.  Neither might they be willing to heed American calls to cut Russia off from the international bank payment system, SWIFT, or seriously curtail their trade with Russia.  

More specifically, Washington will expect Germany to cancel the opening of the now completed but not yet functioning Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running directly from Russia to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea.  Although the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has recently indicated that he “may consider” halting the Nord Stream 2 project if Russia intervenes in Ukraine, he (as well as many others in Germany) is clearly unenthusiastic about having to do so.  A “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine is likely to increase his unwillingness to halt this expensive project.  Even if Berlin does comply with Washington’s demands to halt Nord Stream 2, Moscow would be pleased by increased German resentment toward the United States over being pushed to take this step. 

In addition, many have predicted that guerrilla resistance against Russian occupation may emerge in Ukraine, and point to how this occurred in Ukraine both during and after World War II.  It should be recalled, though, that Moscow defeated that Ukrainian resistance then, and that it could well do so again now.  Indeed, Moscow may calculate that many Russians and Russified Ukrainians would welcome Russian intervention, and that more nationalist Ukrainians may not prove as willing or able to fight against Moscow’s forces as their forbears did in the World War II era.  Western willingness to support them may also be limited due to the fear of a wider conflict with Russia. Finally, as former U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey of the Wilson Center pointed out, Russia’s willingness to conduct a truly ferocious counter-insurgency campaign against any attempt at armed resistance in Ukraine should not be underestimated. 

In short, Putin may calculate that he can reassert Moscow’s influence over Ukraine quickly, divide Western governments over how to respond, and show the world—including the West itself—how ineffective NATO is. 

Would such calculations by Putin be overly optimistic?  Maybe or maybe not.  Ukraine and Ukrainians, though, will suffer mightily either if these calculations prove accurate or by the effort that will be needed to disprove them if Russia does indeed intervene.

Several Western and Arab media sources have reported that the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman signed a “military cooperation agreement” on August 24 with one of his Russian counterparts at the seventh annual International Military-Technical Forum—an arms expo—near the capital Moscow. What exactly has been agreed to, though, is not yet clear.

Read the full article at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/saudi-arabia-is-trying-to-make-america-jealous-with-its-budding-russia-ties/

After the U.S. military withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, the governments there that the U.S. had been supporting were all overthrown and replaced by Marxist regimes. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Moscow-backed Marxist regime there fell in 1992. It is not surprising, then, that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would lead to the downfall of the regime that Washington had been supporting. What is surprising is that the Kabul government fell to the Taliban even before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal.

Read the full article at https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/568091-after-the-fall-of-kabul-will-there-be-more-islamist-revolutions?rl=1#bottom-story-socials

Judged by the foreign policy accomplishments made by the reputedly unsuccessful Brezhnev, Putin’s achievements appear far more modest.

Read the full article at: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-would-brezhnev-have-assessed-putin%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-188778

The Atlantic Council has just published my issue brief on Russian policy toward the Mediterranean region: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/putins-mediterranean-gambit-endgame-unclear/

The title of this blog, “Travels and Observations,” has become out of date (at least temporarily) as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.  I, for one, have not been doing any traveling since early in 2020.  But observing is something that I can still do.  And with Zoom and similar platforms, virtual travel is possible.  Thanks to Zoom, I was able to participate in a session of a conference in China that discussed the emerging world order, including the evolution of great power relations within it. 

In my session, there were four speakers from China, one from the USA (me), one from India, and one from Russia.  We each had ten minutes to make our presentations.  The four Chinese speakers all agreed that the USA is in decline as a great power, and that the liberal world order it has sought to uphold is breaking down.  They did not seem to say this with any sense of triumph, but just in a matter-of-fact manner as if this was something that was well known and understood by all.  They also seemed to view economic strength as the most important factor that allowed a country to play the role of a great power.  And it is well known that China has grown strong economically and will assuredly continue doing so. 

When it was my turn to speak, I gave a brief summary (as I had been asked) of my paper, “Fluid Dynamics: Global Great Powers in the 21st Century,” that the Finnish Institute of International Affairs published in 2017.  I noted that while many view the emerging world order as one in which US power is declining and that of others is rising, this was not necessarily the case.  Even if American power is declining, this does not mean that all other great power contenders are on the rise.  Nor do what now seem like actual or potential global great powers (America, China, India, Russia, and the European Union) seem able to be the predominant great power like the USA appeared to be for a while at the end of the Cold War.  Instead, a multipolar world is emerging involving several great power combinations:  1) Putin’s vision of America vs. Others (unlikely since two of those others, China and India, are at odds with each other); a Chinese-American bipolar world order; and 3) (what I see as most likely) a Chinese-Russian alliance on the one hand and a European-American alliance (to contain Russia) and an Indian-American alliance (to contain China) on the other.  I also noted that it was possible that none of the great powers might be in a position to control an increasingly chaotic world.  Finally, I observed that based on America’s experience of providing development assistance, it was doubtful that China would be repaid all the money that it is lending to other countries through its “Belt and Road Initiative.” 

The Indian speaker discussed the recent Chinese-Indian conflict along their common border in the Himalayas (as had one of the Chinese speakers).  But he, like his Chinese counterpart, also discussed the possibility of Chinese-Indian cooperation. 

The Russian speaker also saw American power as on the decline—and made clear that this was something that he welcomed.  He foresaw that the incoming Biden Administration would, like Obama and Trump, seek to ally with Russia against China, but that Russia (as before) would refuse.  But he also saw Washington as unrealistically expecting Russian power to decline precipitously without the U.S. having to do anything to bring this about.  What seemed to bother him in particular was the possibility of a Chinese-American bipolar world order.  He also warned the audience that while they might think that Biden would usher in a more normal American foreign policy, Trumpism was alive and well in America and could return to the White House as early as 2024. 

What I found noteworthy about this statement was that it seemed contrary to the Russian government’s preference for Trump over Biden, and for Republicans over Democrats.  Yet here was a Russian scholar warning the Chinese audience about the imminent resurgence of Trumpism.  If his views are reflective of those prevailing in Moscow, what this suggests to me is that Putin valued Trump not out of the expectation that Trump would do Putin’s bidding (on so many issues—including sanctions, strategic arms control, Ukraine, and Syria—Trump did not).  Putin valued Trump instead because Trump had alienated so many other countries—including China—that this helped improve Russia’s relations with them.  The Russian speaker also suggested that Russia could head an alliance of states that wanted to avoid choosing between the USA and China.  He did not indicate, though, what other states might join this alliance or discuss why they would regard Russia as their leader.  I wondered what the Chinese audience thought of this proposal. 

During the Q&A period at the end of the session, one of the Chinese speakers asked whether it was possible that the European Union might act as a great power.  With no European speakers in the session, he addressed this question to the Russian participant—who said categorically that Russia did not regard Europe as a great power (and then warned again about the reemergence of Trumpism in the USA).  Had there been a European speaker present, I think he or she would have answered this question very differently. 

When the session ended, so did my virtual visit to China.  I was left with the impression that while China and America may well be rivals in the future, it is not yet clear whether this rivalry will be intense and bitter or whether the two powers will see a common interest in keeping their rivalry contained and cooperating where their interests converge.  I was also left with the impression that so long as it is led by Vladimir Putin, Russia cannot be expected to do anything to ameliorate Chinese-American relations but will try to benefit from antagonism between Washington and Beijing instead.