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 at 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. 

New Blog

I have begun writing a new blog entitled, “Adjusting to Change: American Foreign Policy in a Complex World.” Here is the website for it: https://marknkatz.wordpress.com/

I hope that you will read and follow it too. Meanwhile, I will focus this “Travels and Observations” blog more on write-ups from my travels and less on commentary about current events.

Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 




Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.