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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.

Now here’s something odd.  Moscow has long claimed that its arms supply to the Assad regime in Damascus is occurring on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011.

According to a Reuters report of March 30, 2015, though, Assad told the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that Moscow is supplying arms to Syria both on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict began as well as of contracts signed afterward.  When asked about this, official Russian sources have either provided evasive answers that neither confirm nor deny what Assad has said, or they just have not responded at all.

The news that Russia and Syria have signed additional arms contracts since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 does not exactly come as a surprise.  What is surprising, though, is that Assad has contradicted Moscow about this.

Why would he do this?  He certainly has not pleased Moscow by contradicting it.  It is possible, then, that not everything is smooth in the Russian-Syrian relationship.

Perhaps Assad is fearful that the Russian government might intimate to the “moderate Syrian opposition” representatives due to meet Syrian government envoys in Moscow April 6-9 that the Kremlin is willing to push Assad harder to make concessions to them.  If so, revealing that Moscow has continued to sign arms agreements with Moscow might be Assad’s way of signaling to all he deems in need of receiving the message that Russia continues to stand firmly behind him.  Perhaps Assad hopes that after learning this, some of the Syrian opposition figures who agreed to go to Moscow in April will decide not to attend.  (Several Syrian opposition figures refused to attend a similar meeting Moscow hosted this past January because it would not lead to Assad’s removal from power.)  Assad, after all, does not want to make concessions to any of his opponents, moderate or otherwise.

Of course, it is also possible that Assad was not thinking in these terms when he revealed that there have been new arms contracts between Russia and Syria.  Perhaps he was just being indiscreet.

Either way, he has not endeared himself to Moscow.  But Moscow is not likely to stop shipping arms to Damascus just because of what Assad said..  Moscow does not get embarrassed that easily.

I visited Berlin March 10-14, 2015 to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues. I was able to speak with several highly knowledgeable German government officials and scholars about this subject. I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Berlin.

Nobody I spoke with was happy about Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine or optimistic that the situation there would be resolved satisfactorily any time soon. Nor is anybody certain what Putin’s goals are or how far he will go. There is hope that the augmented version of the Minsk Accords that have led to a tentative ceasefire will hold, but there are widespread doubts about whether they will.

If not, the West may have to do something more than it is now doing. But none of my German interlocutors saw the proposals by some in Washington to send American arms to Ukraine as being a good idea. Indeed, there is fear that this is not something that just some Republicans in Congress want, but that influential figures in the Obama Administration are also enthusiasts for this approach. My German interlocutors are hopeful, though, that President Obama will not allow U.S. arms to go to Ukraine and so risk a bigger conflict which could have serious consequences for all of Europe.

On the whole, however, the people I spoke to in Berlin regard German-American cooperation as strong. The German government, though, is limited by two important factors. One is German public opinion, which has a large anti-American element. The U.S. is widely seen here as being too willing to use force without thinking about the long-term consequences of doing so. The German public, some noted, is not actually pro-Putin, but is desirous of understanding Russian concerns and accommodating them in order to resolve the crisis.

And this desire stems from the second factor limiting the German response to Russian policy in Ukraine: the legacy of the Nazi past. People I spoke with emphasized that this factor, and German angst over it, plays a huge role in determining—and limiting—Berlin’s response to what Russia is doing in Ukraine now. As is well known, Germans have gone to great lengths to acknowledge and atone for Nazi treatment of the Jews. One senior scholar told me that Germans have similar feelings about Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. (The German-Soviet war in the East, several emphasized, was far more vicious than the war in the West.)

But while this factor contributes to a greater German willingness to accommodate Russian concerns, it does not mean that Germans approve of what Russia is doing. Indeed, there is great disappointment that Putin has not respected the friendship and cooperation with Moscow that Germany has taken pains to build up over the course of several decades now. Putin’s sending Russian military aircraft to violate the airspace of several European countries—especially that of Sweden and Ireland, which are not NATO members—is seen in Berlin as inexcusable.

There is hope that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach of continuing to talk with Putin as well as continuing negotiations through the “Normandy Format” (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine) will succeed in calming the situation and preventing further Russian incursions. People I spoke with, though, recognize that there is a possibility that this will not succeed (Russian action against the Baltic states is seen as possible, but less likely than further incursions into Ukraine as well as efforts to prevent Kiev from cooperating with the West). If so, then Chancellor Merkel can at least show the German public that Berlin tried hard to accommodate Moscow, but that Putin refused to cooperate. And this will justify Germany working more closely with America (as well as, of course, with NATO and the EU) on a tougher approach toward Russia. Nobody I met would specify, though, what a tougher approach would entail.

Germans I spoke with did not seem to be at all in awe of Putin. Having experienced a demagogic leader of their own, they have little doubt that the current one in Moscow will not serve to benefit Russia. While Putin is seen as having many advantages in the short-run regarding the crisis in Ukraine, Russia suffers from many structural disadvantages (population decline, economic stagnation, ethnic unrest, and suboptimal leadership, among others) that will weaken it in the long-run. Further, Putin’s policy toward Ukraine does nothing to ameliorate any of these problems.  Eventually, then, Russia’s long-term disadvantages will ripen to the point that they undercut Putin’s current short-term advantages in Ukraine.

How long this process will take is unclear. But many whom I spoke to in Berlin see Putin’s continued efforts to strengthen Moscow through reckless means as only making Russia’s further decline as more likely instead.

I visited Paris March 4-10, 2015, to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues.  I was able to speak with highly knowledgeable French government officials, scholars, and journalists about this subject.  I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Paris.

There was much praise for the degree to which Washington and Paris have collaborated on this matter (as opposed to previous instances—namely the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq—when they did not).  Indeed, there was a sense that the members of NATO and the EU have succeeded in working together in opposing Russian policy toward Ukraine, and that even the somewhat troublesome governments in Hungary and Greece will not pose an obstacle to this.

French observers, though, are unanimous in opposing the suggestions made by some American politicians and officials that the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine in order to fight against Russian and Russian-backed forces on its territory.  Indeed, I was frequently asked whether these suggestions were actually serious.  They oppose such a move for several reasons, including:  1) Moscow’s ability to easily counter it with additional arms to the Russian separatists or deployment of its own forces; 2) the Ukrainian military’s weakness which casts doubt on its ability to make effective use of any arms that it might receive; and 3) the prospect that this could lead to an expanded conflict.

But just as my French interlocutors fear the impact of American over-involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, they also fear the impact of American under-involvement.  There is concern in Paris that the Obama Administration is not sufficiently engaged in this conflict due to its prioritization of other issues.  President Obama’s characterization of Russia as a regional threat is seen as an indicator that he may think that Russian policy in Ukraine is less America’s problem than it is Europe’s.

Some I spoke with in Paris see Europe as unable to deal with Russia on its own—partly because of the growing strength of Russian influence with business interests as well as with certain political parties.  The motives of those wishing to protect their business interests in Russia are straightforward:  they don’t want to suffer the damaging losses that further sanctions or open hostilities would lead to.  The views of pro-Putin politicians are more complex.  Many of these are motivated not so much by genuine support for—or even understanding—of Russian foreign policy, but by seeing Putin as an ally in their generally anti-American, anti-EU, and anti-German cluster of resentments.  Further, some of my interlocutors felt that in France, these views are not just limited to the far right or far left, but to many mainstream politicians as well.  When asked if there was anything Washington could do to change this, one observer responded with a flat, “Non!”

None of this, of course, makes it easier for Europe and America to respond effectively to Russia’s forward policy in Ukraine.  Some French observers expressed fear that Putin might make similar incursions into the Baltic states—especially Latvia, where there is a large, disgruntled Russian population living along the border with Russia.  This would be far more serious since the three Baltic states are members of NATO, which the other members are all bound to defend.   Some, though, believe that Putin will not pursue policies toward the Baltics similar to those he has pursued toward Ukraine due to the greater risks this would run.

Yet while specific proposals about how to deal with Putin were in short supply in Paris (just as they are in Washington), there was a general sense that although Putin is in an advantageous position to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the short run, he faces many disadvantages in the long-run.  His rule in fragile and it is not in his interests to get Russia bogged down in numerous conflicts that could go on indefinitely.  Putin, they believe, is rational enough to recognize this.

The best that the West can do, then, is to avoid measures (such as arming Ukraine) that could lead to a broader conflict, but make it clear to Putin that further expansion is unacceptable and will have significant costs for Russia through, among other things, continued—or perhaps even increased—economic sanctions.  At the same time, Europe and America should encourage Kiev not to focus on regaining lost territory, but on reforming Ukraine economically and politically—a difficult task, but one that Putin’s behavior has made Ukrainians more willing than before to undertake.  If there is one silver lining that my French interlocutors see in all this, it is that the United States government—especially Secretary of State John Kerry—has been more willing to consult and confer with the French government about this crisis with Russia than over a decade ago about the one in Iraq.  Both Washington and Paris do better when they work together than when they are at cross purposes.

Top level Russian government officials have reacted angrily to the Ukrainian parliament’s recent vote to seek NATO membership.  But what did they expect after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, supported Russian secessionists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine pays what Moscow claims Kiev owes as if nothing untoward had happened?  Indeed, each one of these actions could reasonably be expected to induce Ukraine to seek NATO membership.  All of them together were practically guaranteed to do so.

If Moscow had really not wanted Ukraine to seek NATO membership, then it never should have seized Crimea from it in the first place.  Instead of regarding the downfall of Russia’s dubious ally, President Yanukovych, as a Western plot, Moscow could have recognized it for what it was (a popular uprising against an unpopular autocrat) and sought to establish good relations with the new government in Kiev.

Even if Moscow had insisted on seizing Crimea, it might have then sought to prevent Ukraine from seeking NATO membership by trying to assuage Kiev and those residents of Crimea who objected to the Russian annexation by offering to compensate them generously and by forswearing any further ambitions in Ukraine.

And even if Moscow went ahead (as it did) in supporting Russian secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk, it could have made clear that these were the only regions where it would do this, and offer compensation to Kiev (including in the form of guaranteed petroleum deliveries at a reduced price).  Instead, though, Putin and his allies have indicated that they might well seek to protect Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in Ukraine as well as other Soviet republics if they do not behave how Moscow wants them to.

In short:  if Moscow really did not want Kiev to seek NATO membership, it would have sought to reassure Kiev (and everyone else) about the limits of its ambitions in Ukraine as well as offered compensation as a way of giving Ukrainians some incentive not to seek NATO membership.

Moscow, of course, has not done anything like this.  Indeed, it does not seem to even have occurred to Russia’s current leaders to do so.  They truly seem to think that they can take as much as they please from Ukraine, and that both the West and Ukraine should declare that Ukraine will never join NATO in response.

Moscow sees the Western imposition of economic sanctions on Russia in reply to its actions in Ukraine as completely unreasonable.  Russian leaders seem to believe that they should be able to take what they want from Ukraine, and that the West should simply accept this and continue doing business as usual with Moscow.

The truth, of course, is that Putin’s actions have pushed the Ukrainian government and public to seek NATO membership.  Putin seems to believe that by making others fear Moscow, they will respond by seeking to mollify Russian wrath through altering their behavior to please Moscow.  Predictably, though, this has backfired.  Instead, Putin’s making others fear Moscow has resulted in their seeking to work with others (including NATO) to constrain Russia.

The claim by Putin and Russian nationalists that Ukraine and other former Soviet states joining NATO is somehow a threat to Russia appears paranoid.  It is simply not credible to believe that NATO is planning to attack Russia. But if Moscow genuinely fears this, then the best way for Putin to prevent Ukraine and other former Soviet states from seeking NATO membership would be to reassure them that they have nothing to fear from Russia.  Threatening Russian behavior, by contrast, is what drives them to seek NATO membership.

Putin, though, seems not just unwilling to understand this, but unable.  If so, then he has condemned Russia to a vicious cycle in which its hostile responses to cooperation between its neighbors and the West only leads to further such cooperation between them and isolation for Russia.

Some twenty years ago, I wrote up the following notes for myself after reading John C. Wilkinson’s The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987):

While Omanis are virtually all Muslim, many (roughly half) belong neither to the Sunni nor the Shi’a sects, but to a smaller third sect called Ibadi.  Temporal and spiritual authority in Oman was traditionally exercised by an Ibadi Imam.  The Ibadi Imam was, at least in theory, elected by the faithful on the basis of his personal qualifications.  Many elections to the Imamate in the past, though, had not been regarded as legitimate, and this lack of legitimacy had been the cause of civil wars among the Ibadis.  Ibadi political theory allowed for an Imam to be deposed by the faithful if he became incapacitated or acted against the precepts of Islam, and some had indeed been deposed.  Ibadi political theory “rigorously excluded…any notion of a hereditary Imamate,” though it tended to be dominated by different families in different periods (pp. 169-76).

According to Wilkinson, the Imamate has experienced repeated historical cycles in which it has “always declined into dynastic power, but equally inevitably re-emerged as the national ideology reuniting the state” (p. 4). At times, Wilkinson records, the Imamate has disappeared altogether due to defeat by foreign or non-Imamate Omani forces, but its memory has always remained among the Omanis who have restored it whenever the opportunity arose.

From the 1850s until the 1950s, there existed two power centers in Oman:  the Imamate in the interior of the country and the Sultanate on the coast which was backed by the British.  There were several clashes between the two in which the Sultanate would have been defeated completely had it not been for the intervention of British forces.  In the mid-twentieth century, however, oil was discovered in interior Oman.  The Sultan’s British-backed forces overran the Imamate completely in 1955.  The Imamate leadership launched a rebellion in 1957 which it took the British two years to crush, and the Imamate then came to an end (pp. 299-328).

I cannot not help but wonder, though, whether it really did.  If the memory of the Imamate and the desire to restore it remained with the Omanis in other periods when it disappeared, is it possible that this is also true now?

This question has become more relevant than when I first wrote the above due to the  increasing uncertainty about the state of Sultan Qaboos’s health, about who will succeed him (no heir has been named and the process he set up for choosing his successor is untested), and about whether there will be a smooth transition or a power struggle.

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