Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The extraordinary Russian scholar, Georgy Mirsky, passed away on January 26, 2016. He was an exceptionally warm human being, and also a relentlessly honest observer of Moscow’s foreign policy and international affairs broadly.  I first became acquainted with his work while working on my dissertation at the beginning of the 1980’s.  I remember thinking then that unlike so much Soviet writing that portrayed the world in very simple, ideological terms, Mirsky understood and sought to explain the world in all its complexity. 

I first met him, thanks to my colleague Karen Dawisha, in Moscow in 1986. I met with him on numerous occasions afterward, including in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and elsewhere.  He once came to George Mason University to speak to one of my classes. 

I last met him at his apartment in Moscow on May 28, 2014. He was not well, but he had several things about the “present situation” that he wanted to convey, and he insisted that I take notes.  I am posting these notes here as a remembrance to him and the way in which he thought.

There are four reasons why Putin is acting as he has done in Ukraine: 1) age-old Russian complexes; 2) Soviet mentality; 3) KGB conspiracy; and 4) Putin’s fear of being humiliated.

Russian complexes regarding the West consist of: 1) the view that life is better in the West than in Russia; and 2) the belief that despite this, Russians are more warm-hearted, open, hospitable, and spiritual than Westerners.  Thus, while Russians have an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, they console themselves with the idea that Russian people are better than Western people.  Russians want to visit the West, but Russians have long believed that the West is hostile to Russia.

In the 19th century, there was in Russia wide distrust of Queen Victoria.  In Soviet times, the West was seen as besieging Russia.  There is, then, an age-old distrust of the West in Russia.  Russians believe that the West will harm Russia if it can.

The USSR collapsed, but Soviet mentality has remained. Inside the Soviet mentality is an inbuilt mechanism for anti-Western, anti-American feelings.  This only disappeared for four years during World War II.  On Victory Day in May 1945 (which Mirsky described from personal experience), American were genuinely popular in Red Square.

Putin does not see the possibility of war with the West. He is not afraid of war occurring.  But Putin and his supporters believe that America and the West want to hurt Russian interests wherever they can.  They feel strangled by NATO expansion.  Russians see NATO expansion as NATO coming closer to Russia, making the situation for Russia more dangerous.

But what, Mirsky asked, is the actual danger to Russia? Who cares if Poland and the Baltic states belong to NATO?  The answer is not clear, but Putin sees their belonging to NATO as bad.

The NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s negatively affected Putin’s and Russian attitudes toward America. Mirsky was in Princeton when this occurred.  When he returned to Moscow, he saw what damage this war had done.  Serbs were seen as fellow Slavs.  Bombing them was seen as part of a plan for aggression against Russia.  “Yesterday Belgrade, today Baghdad, tomorrow Moscow,” was a common view after the U.S. intervened in Iraq.

Many saw the heat wave that occurred in Russia in 2010 as being due to deliberate American efforts at climate change (America had been blamed in the past as being somehow responsible for Soviet agricultural shortfalls). One third of Russian people that that it was possible that the U.S. introduced AIDS into Russia in order to harm it.  This was the sort of thinking that the KGB fostered among Russians, and succeeded in getting them used to.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is a popular, spontaneous sentiment resulting from the loss of superpower status and feeling of humiliation that Russia had been pushed out of world situations everywhere. Russia was feared in the past, but disrespected now.  This view is similar to anti-Americanism in Europe and Asia.  In fact, this form of anti-Americanism is universal, like anti-Semitism.  Even Israelis have this sort of anti-Americanism.   The only people who do not are Poles and Iraqi Kurds.

Putin exploits these feelings. After the Beslan attacks in 2004, Putin said that “certain forces” who were unhappy that Russia was still a nuclear power were responsible.  He also said that “some forces” want a part of Russian territory.  This, of course, must be the Americans.

Putin’s fear of being humiliated is based on his belief that American leaders have betrayed him. Putin supported Bush after 9/11, but Putin expected reciprocity from the U.S.  Putin thought Bush had double-crossed him when he strengthened U.S. forces in Europe and pulled out of the ABM Treaty.

Putin took all this badly. He saw the U.S. as deceiving him and Russia.  Putin was further upset by the 2004 “color revolution” in Ukraine.  (Mirsky noted that this was not a real revolution in the Marxist sense.)

The Arab Spring was seen by Putin as a color revolution, as an American scheme to instigate color revolutions to weaken Russia. Especially after Bolotnaya (anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in May 2012 at the time Putin resumed the presidency), Putin and his supporters were upset and apprehensive.  When Medvedev was president (2008-2012), Putin saw his popularity decline.  He saw this as part of an American plot to bring color revolution to Russia.  This contributed to his bad feelings toward the West.

The capture of Crimea in early 2014 was not planned in advance. The pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Yanukovich, had disappointed Putin.  But Putin feared what would happen after he fled and a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev.  Even though it belonged to Ukraine, Crimea was the home of the Russian Navy.  Putin wanted to eliminate the possibility that the Russian Navy based in Crimea would be taken over.

Putin is a Russian nationalist. He described the breakup of the USSR in 1991 as a geopolitical disaster, but he also regarded the 1917 revolution and the subsequent federalization of the Russian Empire into separate union republics as a disaster too.  Putin saw turmoil in Kiev as giving Russia the chance to recapture Crimea for Russia.

After Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, Ukrainians were seen as untrustworthy. The recapture of Crimea, then, was seen as justified.  Putin denied that Russian troops were involved in this, but of course they were.

On February 21, 2014, an agreement had been signed between Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition on elections to be held in Ukraine. But the next day, the agreement collapsed and Yanukovich fled.  At this point, Putin saw acquiescing to the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev as being a sign of weakness.  In his view, Yanukovich’s oppnents saw him as weak for signing the agreement, and so they pressed further.

Putin saw Russia as about to lose Ukraine, and believed that the West had double-crossed him yet again. The agreement had simply been a Western ruse.  He thought that after Crimea, the West would try to take the rest of Ukraine.  Putin hadn’t yet decided on annexation; Crimea could have been made into an independent state.  But once Yanukovich fled, Putin decided on annexation.

Eastern Ukraine: Putin was unhappy that the pro-Western Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency.  Putin then hoped Poroshenko would compromise regarding secessionist eastern Ukraine, with its large Russian population.  But Poroshenko decided to crush the pro-Russian rebels there instead.  Putin felt compelled to help “the people” in eastern Ukraine resist this.

But according to Mirsky, the Russian public isn’t really as concerned about eastern Ukraine as it is about Crimea. Crimea and eastern Ukraine were not regarded as the same by them.  But if Poroshenko succeeded in retaking eastern Ukraine, this would make Putin look bad.  And Putin did not want to look weak.

By this time, Russian relations with the West had deteriorated badly. The West was surprised and disappointed by Putin’s actions in Ukraine.  The West had expectations that Putin would play by Western rules, but these proved false.

In the short term, Putin has won. His ratings are high, and he hopes to be president for life.

Syria: Putin can’t be seen as backing down under Western pressure.  Thus, Putin is stuck with Assad.  If Putin stopped supporting Assad, he fears that he would be seen as a loser.

Putin is popular in Russia, but he has lost most of Ukraine for Russia. Putin is not afraid in the short-term, but what he has done will result in a long-term loss for Russia.

RIP, Georgy Mirsky.

IEMed (the European Institute of the Mediterranean) has published an article of mine in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of its journal, Afkar/Ideas, which is issued both in Spanish and in French.  With the permission of IEMed, I am posting the original English version of the article here.  Written before the dramatic deterioration of Russo-Turkish relations at the end of November 2015, I noted that Moscow has important reasons to pursue good relations with Ankara, but that their interests differ sharply over Syria.

Russia has several different geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Some of these interests, though, conflict with one another.  After reviewing what Russian geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean are and identifying in what ways they conflict with one another, this paper will discuss and assess Putin’s geopolitical strategy for advancing these conflicting goals.

A key Russian geopolitical interest in the Mediterranean is to maintain maritime access through the Turkish Straits in order for Russian naval and commercial vessels to easily transit between the Black Sea (which Russia borders) on the one hand and the Mediterranean and beyond on the other. The pursuit of this interest requires a stable Turkey that is able to ensure orderly passage through these straits as well as a Turkish government that is not hostile (and preferably, is friendly) toward Russia.

Another Russian goal is to promote Moscow’s economic interests in the region—especially in the petroleum sphere which the Russian economy is so heavily dependent on. Advancing this goal not only depends on market factors, but Russia’s image both as a reliable supplier and desirable partner for the region’s petroleum importing countries.  In pursuing this goal, of course, Russia must compete with other petroleum producing countries either in the region (such as Algeria), already exporting significant amounts to it (such as Saudi Arabia), or potentially doing so (such as Iran).  Yet even countries competing with Russia in the petroleum market (such as Algeria and Libya) can also provide investment opportunities for Russian firms.

In that Putin sees America, NATO, and even the EU as hostile toward Russia, he has seen undercutting each of these as an important Russian geopolitical interest. This can be pursued through supporting various actors (governments, political parties, public opinion) in the region that are also opposed to any or all of these to a greater or even lesser extent.

Yet another important Russian geopolitical interest is preventing the further rise of Sunni jihadist forces in the region that could threaten Russian interests as well as Russia itself. Putin has sought to work with any and all Mediterranean governments (as well as others active in the region) in pursuit of this goal, including Western democracies, secular Arab dictatorships (including Syria’s Assad regime), Shi’a forces (Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah), and even Israel.

As in Soviet times, Putin regards maintaining a permanent Russian military presence in the Mediterranean as an important geopolitical interest. Doing so can serve various purposes, including the specific goal of providing support for the Assad regime (Moscow’s beleaguered ally in Syria) to the more general one of projecting an image of Russia as a great power.  And, of course, other unanticipated purposes can be pursued more easily in the region through Russia already having some military presence in the Mediterranean. Pursuit of this interest requires at least one government in the region willing and able to provide Russia with military facilities.  Syria does this at present.

The problem with pursuing all these disparate geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean region, as was noted earlier, is that some of them conflict with others. Moscow’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, for example, conflicts with Moscow’s desire to build and maintain good relations with Turkey in particular when Ankara is calling for Assad to step down.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to maintain good relations (including in the economic realm) with European states which are members of NATO and the EU when they see Moscow supporting far right and far left political parties in them seeking to undercut European governments, these two institutions, and perhaps even democracy itself.  Similarly, it is difficult for Moscow to build and sustain the trade relations it needs with the European countries in the region when Russian politico-military actions (whether through support for separatism in Ukraine or unauthorized military flights over many European countries) serve to reduce Russia’s attractiveness as an economic partner.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to persuade both European and Middle Eastern governments in the Mediterranean that they should join Russia in backing the Assad regime in order to thwart the forces of radical Islam when many on both sides of the Mediterranean see the actions of the Assad regime (and its external backers) as only serving to strengthen these forces.

Russia, of course, is not the only country pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere). Indeed, the Mediterranean is a challenging environment not just because of its dual European and Middle Eastern natures (as well as tremendous differentiation within each), but also because Moscow perceives that Russia faces threats from both the European and the Middle Eastern sides of the Mediterranean.

Has Putin adopted an effective geopolitical strategy to deal with these challenges as well as Russia’s conflicting interests in the region? In order to address this question, it is important to understand what different geopolitical strategies are available for states pursuing conflicting interests.

One possibility is to devise an overarching strategy which manages to overcome the inherent contradictions in the foreign policy aims being sought and successfully pursues all of them more or less simultaneously. Another possibility is to make a determination that contradictory interests cannot successfully be pursued simultaneously, and that it is therefore necessary to prioritize among them by devising a strategy that pragmatically de-emphasizes what has been determined to be the less important or less achievable interests in order to successfully pursue the ones deemed to be more important and more achievable.  A third possibility is to subordinate foreign policy interests to domestic political ones because even though pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests simultaneously may interfere with achieving some or even all of them, doing so may serve to advance what are a government’s (or just a leader’s) higher priority domestic political goals.  A fourth possibility is not to consciously adopt an overarching, prioritizing, or domestically-oriented geopolitical strategy, but to pursue differing interests on a piecemeal, tactical basis as opportunities to do so arise.

Which of these approaches has Putin adopted? To some extent, all four.  Just as Moscow pursues contradictory interests in the region, Putin has employed differing strategic approaches for doing so.  The key to understanding the overall Russian geopolitical strategy that results from these differing strategic approaches is to understand how Putin prioritizes them, and when he tends to rely more on one than another.

Putin’s domestic concerns appear to underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean region. He sees the rise of Islamist forces on the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean as threatening to spill over into the Muslim regions of Russia.  And he genuinely sees America, NATO, and the EU (concerns that are not limited to but definitely include the European side of the Mediterranean) as threatening to topple his rule via democracy promotion.

What to do about this dual threat from the Mediterranean is variously informed by the three other approaches. When he is more optimistic, Putin appears to pursue something of an overarching geopolitical strategy of working against the “threat” from the West on the one hand while simultaneously working with the West against Islamist forces on the other.  This strategy is based on the assumption that whatever the West’s differences with Russia, the West sees the Islamist threat as an even greater problem, and thus should be willing to work with Russia against it.  Further, it is especially the European countries of the Mediterranean plus Turkey (and even Israel) that Moscow believes understand this since the Islamist threat is a more immediate one for them.  They, then, should act to persuade America and certain northern European countries that this is a far more serious problem than Russia.  In other words, even though they may not like certain aspects of Russian foreign policy, “the logic of the situation” will propel not just America’s allies in the Mediterranean, but America itself to subordinate Western concerns about Russia to dealing with the common Islamist threat in that region.  It was this logic that, despite sharp differences between Russia on the one hand and much of the West on the other over Ukraine, underlay Putin’s call to, “join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” in his September 28, 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly.

By contrast, it is when Putin is more pessimistic and sees the West as placing a higher priority on undermining Russia than on responding to the Islamist threat—or perhaps simply when the opportunity arises—that he pursues a more piecemeal, tactical approach toward the Mediterranean—especially vis-à-vis the European side and Turkey. Putin did not create right-wing and left-wing political parties such as the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, the Northern League and Forza Italia in Italy, or SYRIZA and Golden Dawn in Greece which are hostile to America, NATO, and the European Union.  Their political popularity as well as generally pro-Putin stance, though, present the opportunity for undercutting efforts by the U.S. and certain more anti-Russian European governments to increase sanctions against Russia, and even undermining both NATO and the EU, especially if—as in Greece—they become governing parties.

It is when Putin is in a more pragmatic mood, however, that he seems to pursue a geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean which prioritizes certain goals over other ones in the region. Further, in three recent instances in which he has made a choice between what Russian interests to pursue in the Mediterranean, Putin has adopted a pragmatic and not a confrontational geopolitical strategy.

For example, while Putin has frequently and loudly denounced the 2011 intervention in Libya against Qaddafi by certain Western and Arab states and vowed not to let something similar happen in Syria, Moscow has quietly established relatively good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan post-Qaddafi government based in Tobruk, with which it has revived various agreements that Moscow had previously reached with Qaddafi. Moscow is talking to the rival government based in Tripoli as well.  In this case, Putin’s interest in restoring Russia’s business ties with Libya are more important to him than any inclination to remain aloof from the forces that ousted Moscow’s longstanding ally there.

In Egypt, as is well known, Putin supported the 2013 overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Morsi, by his top general, al-Sisi, and has taken advantage of the Obama administration’s disapproval of al-Sisi’s actions to improve Moscow’s ties with Cairo. But when Morsi was actually in power in 2012-13, Moscow had relatively good relations with him. Morsi met with Putin at the BRICS summits in South Africa in March 2013 and again in Sochi, Russia, in April 2013. During the latter, the two reportedly agreed that Russia would help Egypt with the construction of a nuclear reactor and the development of its uranium deposits.  Thus, when actually faced with the question of how to deal with a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Putin chose a highly pragmatic course of action.

Furthermore, when Greek Prime Minister Tsipras appealed to Putin for Russian economic support as a way of avoiding the strict bailout terms that Germany and the EU were insisting on to resolve the Greek debt crisis, Putin refused and urged Tsipras to reach an agreement with the EU instead. Putin apparently did not see the potential geopolitical benefits that Moscow might garner from Greece moving toward Russia and away from the EU and the US as being worth the certain economic burden that Moscow would have to bear in supporting Greece.  In addition, the negative economic repercussions that Europe as a whole would have suffered from “Grexit” would have also hurt Russia which—despite Western sanctions—still prefers an economically stronger Europe which can afford to buy relatively more Russian petroleum to a weaker one that cannot.  Thus, when it came to actually making a choice between furthering Russia’s economic interests on the one hand and weakening EU institutions politically, Putin pragmatically prioritized the former over the latter.

What this suggests is that while Putin is strongly supporting the Assad regime in Syria now, if it should fall, he will pragmatically try to establish good relations with the regime (or regimes, if the country fragments) that replace him if they are willing to work with Russia. Moscow, then, might be able to keep (or regain if it loses) its military facilities in a post-Assad Syria.  And even if it cannot, Moscow might be able to establish new ones in Egypt, Cyprus, or Greece.  Obviously, though, Putin would prefer not to have to make such pragmatic choices.

It makes an enormous difference to the countries of the Mediterranean, as well as outside ones active in the region, whether Putin pursues an overarching (and usually aggressive) strategy that pursues most or all of Russia’s geopolitical interests simultaneously; a tactical, piecemeal one in response to what it considers aggressive moves by the West (or just from the opportunity to do so) that can actually undermine Russia’s larger interests; or a prioritizing strategy that often favors pragmatic interests over more confrontational ones. If indeed, as was argued here, that it is Putin’s domestic priorities that underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean, then his variable perceptions of the intensity of the threats Russia faces either from the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean, the European side, or both will affect the strategies he pursues in response, the allies (even if only temporary) he sees as available to work against those threats, and above all, whether he does or does not have to pragmatically prioritize among Russia’s contradictory interests in the region.

Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who served (among other posts) as prime minister and as foreign minister of North Yemen and then of all Yemen after unification in 1990, passed away on November 8, 2015. As he did with many other scholars, Dr. al-Iryani met with me on several occasions both in Sana’a and in Washington, DC.  At a time when Yemen is wracked by war, and unity and democracy there appear to have been completely shattered, those of us who knew Dr. al-Iryani know that he envisioned that there could be both democracy and unity in Yemen and the Arab world as a whole.  In remembrance of him, I am posting here an account that I wrote up back in 1992 but have never before published of what he said then about the relationship between democracy on the one hand and Yemeni as well as Arab unity on the other:

The highlight of the three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” held at the Yemeni Foreign Ministry September 22-24, 1992 was a speech by the then Foreign Minister, Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani. Dr. al-Iryani set out to examine the contradiction between the viewpoint of Bernard Lewis of Princeton University that the 1990-91 Gulf war over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had led to the final demise of pan-Arabism on the one hand, and the fact that the two Yemens had united in May 1990.

“Is Yemeni unity the last act of Arab unity, or is it the model for Arab unity as a whole?” Dr. al-Iryani asked. “It seems naive to answer `yes’ to the latter question, and yet it is hard to answer `no’ to the former.”

He then asked what made Yemeni unity different from previous unity efforts in the Arab world. Earlier attempts, he noted, occurred without democratization having occurred in the countries which tried it.  They all quickly foundered because the governments attempting to unify were unwilling to give up power or make meaningful compromise.  In the case of the two Yemens, however, progress toward unity occurred alongside progress toward democracy.

“Democratization is the key,” said Dr. al-Iryani. “Democratization must and will become the basis for Arab cooperation, integration, and in some cases unity.  Democracy was also the basis of European unity.  The other European countries were right to exclude Portugal, Spain, and Greece from European Community [as it was then known] membership before they had democratized.”

He noted that many observers, including Bernard Lewis, saw the recent Gulf war as having caused such deep divisions within the Arab world that cooperation, much less unity, seemed impossible. “The Gulf war was not nearly as serious as World War II.  But Europe began the process of unification soon after World War II ended.”

Returning to the question of whether Yemeni unity could serve as a model for Arab unity, Dr. al-Iryani stated that the fact that the Yemens united was less important than the process of democratization occurring in two neighboring Arab countries leading to successful unification. With democratization spreading to so many parts of the world, including Yemen in the Arab world, he predicted that the rest of the Arab world would not remain static.  “If democratization occurs in any two neighboring Arab states, then integration–if not outright unity–will occur between them.”

He concluded by predicting that if democracy takes root in the Arab world, political and economic integration is highly likely since the ties binding the Arabs together are stronger than the ties binding the democracies of Europe.

The Foreign Minister concluded his talk by saying, “Democracy also means listening to things that you don’t necessarily want to hear,” and then called for questions from the conference participants.

Attending the conference were scholars from many countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Egypt, and, of course, Yemen. The Western and Russian participants posed questions focusing on just how far democratization had proceeded in Yemen.  We did not challenge Dr. al-Iryani’s premise that democratization was the best way to achieve integration in the Arab world.  Two of the Yemenis who asked questions, though, directly challenged this notion.

A member of Yemen’s transitional parliament asked, “Is democracy the only means to achieve Arab unity, or are there better, faster alternatives?” He made it clear that he thought waiting around for all the Arab countries to go through the long process of democratically deciding on unity was less desirable as well as less efficient than if strong Arab leaders brought it about all at once.

(One of the ironic aspects of democratization in Yemen is that while there is no longer any bar to the formation of political parties, many of the political parties that have been formed are distinctly undemocratic.)

Dr. al-Iryani responded that all previous attempts to create Arab unity without democracy had failed. The idea that “strong Arab leaders” could bring about unity quickly was an illusion.

A Yemeni Foreign Ministry official asked whether it was possible to avoid U.S. domination and pursue democratization simultaneously now that the Cold War was over and there was no Soviet Union to protect Yemen. This was less a question than a statement since the gentleman spent over five minutes arguing how the U.S. was to blame for all the Arab world’s problems, including the divisions resulting from the Gulf war.

Dr. al-Iryani’s response to this soliloquy was simple but powerful: “Unless democracy emerges in the Arab world, we cannot blame others for our tragedies.”

The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015.  I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi.  I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:

There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications.  There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are.  Several see it as having very positive implications.  These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments.  Others see it as having very negative implications.  These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).

And then there is Russia.  Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement.  But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia.  Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market.  This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not.  Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.

At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations.  Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.  Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.

This fear, of course, is unrealistic.  Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance.  But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties.  And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields.  Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.

By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else.  Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else.  Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this.  Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.

The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched.  For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon.  For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.

Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia.  Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other.  Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns.  Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel).  Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).

Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational.  And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.  Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.

Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring.  What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved.  The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it.  Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy.  But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.

Prince Sa’ud Al Faysal, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for forty years, passed away on July 9, 2015.  On April 18, 1984, he met with me—a young scholar who had not yet turned thirty—in his office in Riyadh.  In remembrance of him, I am posting an adaptation from my travel narrative, Middle Eastern Sketches (1997), describing my meeting with him as well as how prophetic what he said to me then turned out to be.

Prince Sa’ud greeted me as I entered. He was a very tall man who spoke English perfectly. He, his assistant Khalid Jindan, and I were the only ones in the room.

Just recently, the new Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, had had dinner with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin. There was much speculation that this presaged the imminent resumption of Saudi-Soviet diplomatic relations (there had been ties between them in the 1920s and 1930s, but not since then). I asked Prince Sa’ud if this was about to occur.

He shook his head and said, “We will only recognize Moscow if it meets certain conditions:

“First,” he began, “they must completely withdraw their armed forces from Afghanistan.” The Soviets had invaded that country in 1979 to prop up a Marxist regime there against its Muslim opponents.

“Second, they must end all hostile propaganda against Saudi Arabia.”

“Third, they must withdraw from Ethiopia and South Yemen.” Ethiopia was just across the Red Sea while South Yemen directly bordered on Saudi Arabia. Both had Marxist regimes and a large Soviet military presence.

“Fourth, there must be freedom for Muslims to practice their religion in the USSR.”

“But even if they meet all our conditions,” the prince added, “relations will not be restored automatically. There must also be the right psychological conditions. ”

When the prince said this in April 1984, it seemed as if he was setting conditions which he knew the Soviets would never meet. Saudi-Soviet relations, then, would never be re-established.

In September 1990, though, Prince Sa’ud went to Moscow and met with Eduard Shevardnadze (then the Soviet foreign minister). Saudi-Soviet relations were formally re-established.

By the time this happened, all the conditions which the prince told me that Moscow must meet either had been met or were just about to be. Moscow had long since ended its hostile propaganda against the kingdom. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. Moscow made no move to halt the self-liquidation of the Marxist regime in South Yemen and its merger under the leadership of non-Marxist North Yemen in May 1990. Moscow had considerably reduced its assistance to Marxist Ethiopia and would end it completely by January 1991 (the regime would be driven out of power a few months later).

In addition, by the time Prince Sa’ ud went to Moscow, Muslims were free to practice their religion in what was still the USSR. Much to Saudi dismay, Muslims in the USSR had become so free that a little later many of them would vigorously protest Soviet support for the American-led, UN-sponsored coalition formed to protect the kingdom and expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

And last but not least, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait apparently created the right “psychological conditions:” Riyadh was finally willing to restore diplomatic ties with the USSR in order to make sure Moscow voted its way on UN Security Council resolutions aimed at Iraq–which Moscow did.

Although it seemed impossible in 1984, the Soviets had fulfilled all the Saudi conditions for resuming relations by 1990.

After he listed these conditions back in 1984, I asked the prince whether he thought the Soviets would ever fulfill them.

He smiled and said, “It is in the hands of God.”

Russians take pride in how whenever Russia has experienced a severe blow to its ability to play the role of a great power in the past, Russia has every time been able to recover and re-emerge as one—often in a very short period of time.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was soon followed by Russia being part of the winning coalition that defeated him in 1814-15.

Germany’s forcing Moscow to sign the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 which involved great loss territory for Russia was soon followed by the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power and recapture of most of that territory.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941 was followed by the USSR being part of the winning coalition that defeated Germany in 1945 and the USSR becoming one of the world’s two acknowledged superpowers afterward.

The collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the economic chaos under him and Yeltsin was followed by Putin restoring stability and prosperity internally and reasserting Russia’s role as a great power internationally.

Putin, then, appears to conform to the pattern of Russian leaders who succeeded in reversing precipitate decline and reviving Russia, like the phoenix, as a great power.

There is, though, another way of viewing Russian history:  instead of seeing Russia as always being able to bounce back from near collapse, the pattern can also be seen as one in which despite Russia constantly building up its power and prestige, it always experiences catastrophic setbacks—much like Sisyphus’s efforts to push a boulder up to the top of the hill always ending in futility.

Despite everything the 18th century tsars did to advance Russia into the ranks of the European great powers, Russia was unable to avoid the disaster of being invaded by Napoleon.

Despite the tremendous economic development that Tsarist Russia experienced in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the promising political reforms of the early 20th century, Russia did not avoid the disasters of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War

Despite the tremendous economic strides made under Stalin (albeit at enormous human cost), the Soviet Union experienced the catastrophe of the German invasion of 1941.

And despite the Soviet Union’s achievement of superpower status after World War II, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and Russia experienced severe economic decline..

All this raises the question:  Will Putin’s efforts aimed at reasserting Russia’s role as a great power also end in yet another painful setback?  Instead of another phoenix, will he prove to be another Sisyphus?

The answer depends on a determination about what has been the main cause of Russia’s repeated setbacks.  Many Russians would point to invasions by other powerful states—Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany—as the cause of them.  While there was no direct Soviet-American conflict during the Cold War, they see America’s containment policy as having served to weaken the Soviet Union.  Putin has long claimed that the West seeks his downfall.

Viewing Russia’s past catastrophic setbacks as being due to foreign aggression and overcoming them as the result of Russian grit and determination is a very comforting view for many Russians.  Russia’s setbacks were caused by hostile foreigners, and its recoveries are the admirable result of Russian initiative.

But in three of Russia’s most catastrophic setbacks, poor decisions made by Russian leaders—decisions that they did not have to make—played an important role in bringing them about.

Nicholas II did not have to decide to defend Serbia and enter World War I.  If the war had remained limited to one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the increasingly vulnerable imperial government in Vienna may well have exhausted itself in a conflict with nationalist Serbia.  The Tsarist government, though, could have survived even in the unlikely event that Austria-Hungary quickly defeated Serbia, and avoided the far greater catastrophe of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Similarly, Stalin did not have to agree to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which put Germany in a far better position to attack the USSR in 1941.  Stalin’s extraordinary belief that Hitler would not attack the USSR was a truly historic blunder.

And while Gorbachev was right in concluding that the USSR needed sweeping economic reform in order to keep up with a strengthening West, he did not have to try to implement his utterly naive economic reform plans—especially when he could have just copied the successful model of market-based economic reform while maintaining political control that Deng Xiao-ping had implemented in China.

Will Putin experience the same fate?  He clearly seeks to reassert Russia’s role as a great power.  But it is not at all certain that the way he has chosen to do so will achieve that aim.  He did not, after all, have to annex Crimea, get Russia involved in a prolonged conflict in eastern Ukraine, frighten many European nations, or do anything else that has unnecessarily resulted in antagonizing the West—Russia’s most likely ally against an increasingly powerful China which has been more slowly but more successfully reasserting itself as a great power than Russia.  Instead of strengthening Russia, Putin’s decisions may be similar to the avoidable ones made by Nicholas II, Stalin, and Gorbachev that resulted in harming Russia.

Just like previous Russian rulers, then, what Putin’s aggressive efforts to reassert Russia’s status as a great power may actually be setting Russia up for yet another catastrophic setback.

Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on transferring S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran raises important questions about Moscow’s expectations and even motivations concerning the achievement of a nuclear accord between Tehran and the P5 +1 (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia).

In 2007, Moscow and Tehran signed a contract whereby Iran would buy these air defense missiles from Russia.  Israel and the U.S. in particular objected to this sale for fear that Iranian possession of these missiles would enable Tehran to protect any nuclear weapons and delivery systems that it might be building against an Israeli or even an American attack.  Whether rightly or wrongly, they feared that if Iranian leaders thought that Russian air defense missiles could enable them to protect a nuclear weapons program (which Tehran vehemently denied it had), then Tehran would be more likely to embark on one.  Those in the West hoping to achieve a nuclear accord with Iran argued—just as the U.S. did when it was negotiating with Moscow in the initial strategic arms control negotiations in the early 1970’s—that Tehran’s foregoing defensive weapons that could protect a nuclear program would boost confidence in the West that Iran was serious about reaching a verifiable accord that would ensure it would not try to break out of such an agreement.

In September 2010, then President Medvedev canceled the sale of S-300s to Iran—even though Tehran had paid for them.  He may have been motivated to do so by the desire to encourage U.S. Senate ratification of the New START accord signed in April 2010.  He may also have seen denying Iran these weapons as a way to encourage Tehran to reach a nuclear accord with the P5 + 1.  Tehran, not surprisingly, was furious, and has sought the reinstatement of the contract ever since.

Just recently, important progress has been made toward the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord.  While formally an agreement between Iran and all the P5 + 1 governments, the bulk of the negotiations have taken place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  A final agreement, though, has yet to be reached.  Grave doubts about Iranian intentions have been expressed both by Obama’s Republican opponents and by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.  They fear that Tehran does not intend to abide by a nuclear agreement, but to use it to lull the West into complacency while it builds the bomb.  Similarly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian conservatives have expressed fear that the agreement would demand too many concessions from Tehran while giving it too little in return.

Why, then, has Putin now decided to end the ban on the transfer of Russian S-300s to Iran?  If a final agreement had already been reached, this move might have made sense as part of the incentive package to Iran for agreeing to rigorous inspections and other restrictions ensuring its compliance with the accord.  But by lifting the ban when the achievement a final accord is still uncertain, Putin casts doubt not just on whether he thinks a final accord can be achieved, but also whether he actually wants it to be.

Why would Putin not want to see an Iranian nuclear accord achieved?  With the serious tensions that have arisen between Russia and the West over Ukraine and European security as a whole, Moscow may not want to see a rapprochement between Iran on the one hand and America and the West that a nuclear accord would lead to.  Even a reduction of the economic sanctions against Iran could lead to a swift rise in Iranian trade with the West as well as Western investment in Iran.  Iran could not only export petroleum to the West, but could serve as a conduit for Caspian Basin oil and gas to reach the world market without having to go through Russia.  Further, Tehran is not likely to forego any opportunity to earn money from the West out of deference to Russia.

Moscow, then, has reason to doubt whether the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord would actually benefit Russia.  Moscow may not be in a position to halt an agreement if Iran on the one hand and the other P5 + 1 governments on the other were willing to sign one, since they might simply ignore Moscow’s objections and go forward with an agreement anyway.  Putin, though, may be positioning Moscow to benefit if such an agreement is not reached.  And by lifting the ban on S-300 exports to Iran, he may be increasing the likelihood that an Iranian nuclear accord is not reached.  This is because Iranian possession of S-300s will increase fears among those in the West who are skeptical anyway that Tehran intends to break out of a nuclear accord.

In making this move, Putin can be reasonably sure that Tehran will not suddenly forego receiving the S-300s after having demanded that Moscow deliver them for years now in order to reassure the West, much less Israel, about its intentions.  And if Iran does receive Russian S-300s, opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran on the part of Congressional Republicans, Israel, France, and perhaps others may grow so strong that the Obama Administration may no longer be able to continue pursuing one.

Perhaps Western governments can either persuade Moscow not to ship the S-300s to Iran or persuade Tehran not to accept them in the interests of achieving a nuclear accord.  Or failing both of these, perhaps the Obama Administration (along with France, Germany, and the UK in particular) can persuade Tehran to agree to measures offering reassurance about its nuclear intentions despite receiving Russian missiles.

But if indeed Putin is seeking to prevent the achievement of a nuclear accord between the P5 + 1 and Iran and the rapprochement between Tehran and the West that this would lead to, ending the Russian embargo on selling S-300s to Tehran may prove to be a highly effective means of doing so.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 822 other followers