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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.

 

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News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.

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There has been tremendous press coverage about what former National Security Advisor John Bolton had to say about President Trump and other top administration officials in his recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened.  Bolton’s book, though, also offers insights into the thinking of many others, including numerous foreign leaders.  Especially fascinating is Bolton’s account of his June 27, 2018 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed (among numerous other subjects) the Iranian role in Syria.

In response to Bolton’s statement of the Trump Administration’s desire to see Iranian forces withdraw from Syria, Putin asked Bolton, “Who would accomplish that?”  Putin then told Bolton to convey the following points to Trump (pp. 130-31):

–Moscow did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria, and there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there;

–Iran’s policy agenda with regard to Lebanon and the Shi’a were not the same as Moscow’s, and in fact, Iranian policy was causing problems both for Russia and the Assad regime;

–But while Russia wanted to see an Iranian withdrawal from Syria, Putin could not ensure that this would happen;

–And if Iranian forces did withdraw from Syria, there would be “large-scale aggression” against Assad regime forces;

–And Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones;

–Putin, though, did want a U.S.-Russian agreement on their respective military dispositions in Syria;

–Putin warned that up to 5,000 “locals” near where U.S. forces were at Al Tanf were actually ISIS fighters who would “ostensibly” follow U.S. direction, but then betray Washington when doing so suited them;

–These Syrian opposition forces were not reliable allies for the U.S., and could not be trusted;

–Instead, the U.S. should support the (Russian-led) peace process in Syria.

There are several observations that can be made from this set of statements which Putin made to Trump.

First of all, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in them.  Putin’s statement that Russia did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria and that there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there is directly contradicted by the later statements about how if Iranian forces withdrew, Assad regime forces would come under attack that Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones.  Iranian forces remaining in Syria, then, clearly do have some utility for Russia.  For Putin, the level of effort Iran is making to defend the Assad regime is not one that he wants Russia wants to undertake.

Second, whatever the merits of Iranian forces remaining in Syria, Putin seemed quite clear that Russia was not in a position to get them to withdraw.  And for Putin, there would be no benefit in attempting something that was bound to fail. Indeed, if Putin believed that Bolton understood this to be the case, then the Russian president may have suspected that Bolton was urging Russia to move against the Iranians in Syria not because he thought Moscow could succeed at this, but because the U.S. thought that the attempt would bring about a worsening of Russian-Iranian relations.  This might be in Washington’s interests, but not Moscow’s.

Third, if and when Assad’s opponents were ever completely defeated, then the differences between Russia and Iran in Syria might come to the fore.  Putin’s call for the U.S. to support the Russian-led Syrian peace process seemed to suggest that the best way for the U.S. to limit, if not remove, Iranian influence in Syria would be for Washington to cooperate with Moscow.

Bolton response to this last point of Putin’s was, “I said our priorities were to destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces.”

This exchange revealed not just a difference in policy, but in how to analyze the situation.  Bolton’s statement suggested that he thought it was possible to remove both ISIS and Iranian forces from Syria.  Putin’s statements, by contrast, indicated that at present, the only way to weaken ISIS was for Iran to remain in Syria, whereas ISIS and other jihadists would only grow stronger in Syria if Iran withdrew.  In other words, Bolton’s preference—“destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces”—were mutually incompatible goals if they were being pursued simultaneously.

Putin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is appalling.  But his July 2018 comments to Bolton indicate that Putin may have a more accurate assessment of what Russia can and cannot accomplish in Syria than the Trump Administration has about what the U.S. can do there.

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Like his Tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin has been highly successful in projecting Russian power and influence in the Middle East.  But the Tsars and the Soviets also suffered setbacks in the region.  Crises closer to home—the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and the collapse of the USSR—all led to Russian pullbacks from the Middle East.  In other words, crises in Europe or Russia itself have negatively affected Russia’s ability to pursue its grand strategy in the Middle East.  But as both the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s showed, Russia’s overreaching in parts of the Middle East can contribute to a decline in Russian influence throughout the region.

Up to now, Putin’s grand strategy toward the Middle East has avoided the reverses that Tsarist and Soviet grand strategies experienced.  But the Romanov dynasty lasted for just over three centuries while the Soviet Union lasted over seven decades.  Putin, by contrast, has been in power for only two decades.  Although Putin led Russia’s rebound after the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Putinist regime’s not yet having experienced in its brief lifespan the sort of dramatic setback negatively affecting Russia’s position in the Middle East that its longer-lived predecessors did does not mean that Putin or his successor will not do so.

In that Russia has experienced so many crises and debacles affecting its position in the Middle East in the past, it is useful to consider what sort of events might trigger similar setbacks in the future, even if what these might be and when they might occur cannot be foretold.  One is the possibility of a power struggle to replace Putin getting out of hand, especially if he exits the political stage suddenly without having designated a clear heir.  Another is the eruption of domestic opposition to Putin or his successor that is so massive that the security forces themselves are unwilling to suppress it (especially if the same oppositionist spirit has spread within their ranks).  Yet another is the possibility that the decline of Russia’s ethnic Russian population and the growth of its Muslim population will lead to increasing demands on the part of the latter either for independence or (more frightening for ethnic Russians) a greater role in governing Russia. Even if such movements do not succeed, Moscow will have to allocate more and more resources to suppressing them should they rise up.  And if the status of Muslims in Russia becomes a cause célèbre in the broader Muslim world, Moscow’s ability to separate its efforts to suppress Muslims domestically while having good relations with them abroad may diminish drastically (as occurred during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan).  Crises such as these, of course, might occur in combination and so make Russia’s ability to pursue a grand strategy in the Middle East all the more problematic.

Events in the Middle East itself could also undermine Putin’s grand strategy toward the region.  Compared to the Cold War when the Middle East contained some governments allied to Moscow and others allied to Washington, Putin’s having established good relations with all Middle Eastern governments appears to be a more successful approach.  The Middle East, though, is a region where sudden political change has occurred in the past and could well occur again.  The Soviets were usually able to take advantage of that change when a pro-Western regime was replaced by an anti-Western one (the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the exception).  By contrast, in supporting the status quo everywhere in the Middle East, Putin risks the possibility that Russia will lose influence if it falls anywhere.  The same, of course, can be said for Western powers which also support the status quo in the Middle East, even if they sometimes (usually hesitantly) call for progress toward democracy and human rights while Putin does not.  But if the change that occurs is the rise of jihadist regimes which are anti-Russian as well as anti-Western, this may be of little comfort to Russia.

Finally, while many in Moscow believe that U.S. power and influence is declining and that its doing so is contributing to the rise of Russian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, this may not necessarily be the case.  For the decline of the U.S. as a great power may actually serve to further the rise of China more than Russia.  And if China decides to assert its influence in the Middle East, status quo governments there may find Beijing—which is far stronger than Russia economically and which buys petroleum from the Middle East instead of competing to sell it like Russia does—to be a far more useful external partner than Moscow.  Further, if Russia’s own economic dependence on China continues to grow, Moscow may not be in a position to compete with China in the Middle East if Beijing decides to assert its influence there more vigorously.  Finally, if the U.S. with all its resources is having trouble maintaining its influence in the Middle East and even questioning how much it should even try to do so, it is not clear how Russia, with far fewer resources, will be able to acquire the role of most influential external great power in the Middle East much less maintain it.

 

This article was adapted from Mark N. Katz, “Incessant Interest: Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist Mideast Strategies,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2020, https://mepc.org/journal/incessant-interest-tsarist-soviet-and-putinist-mideast-strategies

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I attended the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East that took place in Moscow February 19-20, 2018.  During the opening session on the first day, representatives from the governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria all denounced American policy toward the conflict in Syria.  By contrast, they portrayed Russia and Iran as fighting together against terrorism while U.S. actions were seen as supporting it.

Yet while speakers from Russia, Iran and Syria had the same view of the U.S., there was an important difference among them with regard to Turkey.  Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, bitterly denounced Turkey’s recent intervention in Afrin in northwestern Syria.  She described Ankara’s actions as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and accused Turkey of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Syrian-Turkish border.  She also accused Turkey of not implementing the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

The view of Turkey’s role in Syria expressed by both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, though, was quite different.  Both of them portrayed Turkey as a partner in Syria.  Lavrov pointed out that American support for Syrian Kurdish forces has alienated Turkey.  Ankara fears that the more powerful the Syrian Kurds grow, the more powerful that separatist Kurds in Turkey will also become.  For his part, Zarif described Turkey’s anxiety about American support for Syrian Kurdish forces as “understandable.”

Yet despite these more positive views expressed by the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers of Turkey’s policy toward Syria at the Valdai conference, Moscow and Tehran are widely reported to be apprehensive about Turkey’s intervention in Syria.  There have even been reports that Russian forces in Syria have helped transport Kurdish fighters opposing the Turkish incursion to the battlefield.

But if Moscow and Tehran actually share Damascus’s anxiety about Turkish policy toward Syria (even if not to the same degree), why would Lavrov and Zarif downplay their differences with Ankara about it at this conference?

One possibility is that whatever their discomfort with Turkey’s military action in Afrin, Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the U.S. as simply too tempting to forego.  Since U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds (whom Washington sees as allies against both ISIS and Iranian-backed forces in Syria) is promoting Turkish hostility toward Washington, neither Moscow and Tehran wants to discourage this dynamic by directly confronting Turkish policy in Syria.  And to achieve this “greater good,” Moscow and Tehran are quite willing to ignore Damascus’s denunciation of Turkey’s intervention.

Yet Moscow’s policy may have yet another layer of complexity, as the session on the Kurds on the second day of the conference made clear.  While not directly opposing Turkey’s intervention against them, Moscow appears to be competing with the U.S. for influence with the Syrian Kurds by arguing that they would be better protected from Turkey through allying with the Damascus regime.  This, they argue, would afford Syrian Kurds better protection than relying only on U.S. support, which they see Washington as unwilling to sustain in the long run.

But can Russia really hope to get closer to Ankara by exploiting Turkish-American differences over the Syrian Kurds while at the same time luring the Syrian Kurds away from Washington through offering them a “better” means for resisting Turkey?  These aims seem to be quite contradictory.  But as contradictory as these two aims may be, it is America’s Syria policy that may have encouraged Russian hopes of achieving them.  This is because the U.S. has supported the Syrian Kurds enough to alienate Turkey but not enough to protect them from it, thus giving Moscow the opportunity to simultaneously exploit both Turkish and Syrian Kurdish unhappiness with American policy.

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President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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