Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Russia, Ukraine, and NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Gorby and Me

I often tell my students and other audiences the story about how I wrote my dissertation on Soviet policy toward the Third World and how my career benefited from this being a hot topic throughout the 1980s, but then how the Soviet retreat from the Third World and elsewhere under Gorbachev resulted in this topic becoming increasingly unimportant by the early 1990s. I then relate how I lamented this development in a Washington Post op-ed piece published in January 1991 entitled, “Gorbachev Ruined My Career.”

“My only consolation,” I then observe, “is that he ruined his own career too.”

But things changed, I go on to say, after Putin came to power. His assertive foreign policy led to so much renewed interest in my expertise that in February 2008 I was able to publish another op-ed piece, this time in the Moscow Times, entitled, “Putin Saved My Career.” I conclude by saying that Putin’s policies have not only kept me in business ever since then, but they appear likely to do so for many years to come.

Yet although I have told this story to many people in many places, I never expected that it would come to the attention of Mikhail Gorbachev himself. Yet it did. Here’s how:

A few years ago, Gorbachev accepted an invitation to speak at George Mason University.   One day shortly before he arrived, I was informed that Jack Censer (who was then the Dean of our College of Humanities and Social Sciences) wanted to include a book of mine as one of four that would be presented to Gorbachev. The book Jack chose was one I had published in 1989 entitled, Gorbachev’s Military Policy in the Third World. This was not my most recent book, but it had the advantage (I was told) of being the only book by a GMU faculty member with Gorbachev’s name in the title.

On the evening of March 24, 2009, I was one of the estimated 1,575 people who came to the GMU Center for the Arts in order to hear Gorbachev speak. C-SPAN, it turned out, also sent a crew to record the event.

Gorbachev gave his speech through his interpreter, who had accompanied him from Russia. When the speech was finished, Jack Censer came up on stage to make the book presentation while microphones were being set up for the question and answer session. “I want to offer to President Gorbachev a gift from the University,” Jack said.

After a little back and forth with his good buddy Mikhail over whether being given this gift meant that the lecture had been good, Jack went on to say, “Let me explain the gift. The gift is something [of] a tribute to you. There are four books. One book is by a political scientist and [he] is at George Mason, and it is basically about you.” After this was translated for him, Gorbachev nodded.

“And, I give you a little story about that,” Jack continued. Much to my surprise and amazement, he then proceeded to tell Gorbachev, the 1,575-strong audience, and everyone watching C-SPAN 2 the whole story of my two op-ed pieces describing how Gorbachev, by his liberal reforms, had put me out of business, but how Putin had put me back in business.

When all this was translated for him, Gorbachev smiled. Through his interpreter, he observed, “That is interesting.”

A moment later, he added, “It means that he is doing a better job.”

Putin, I have no doubt, would agree wholeheartedly.


The conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Jack Censer can be seen beginning just after 29 minutes into the C-SPAN 2 broadcast of “Mikhail Gorbachev on the Cold War” at http://www.c-span.org/video/?284802-1/mikhail-gorbachev-cold-war




Read Full Post »

I was in Moscow last week where I participated in a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (commonly known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO), did a radio interview with Ekho Moskvy, and talked with many Russian scholars and journalists about the current international situation.  Here is a summary of the views I heard from my Russian interlocutors over the course of the week:

Crimea:  Most Russians I spoke to strongly support President Putin’s annexation of Crimea.  They believe that since the majority of Crimea’s residents are Russian, the region should belong to Russia.  It was wrong of Khrushchev to transfer it from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.  Whatever the West might think, they regard the March 2014 referendum in favor of Crimea joining Russia as generally reflecting the will of the people of Crimea.  Even those few I spoke to who opposed the annexation (or the forceful way in which it was carried out) acknowledge that this has been highly popular in Russia and has boosted support for Putin tremendously.

Ukraine:  The situation in Ukraine is seen as being extremely complicated and the risk of civil war there as being strong.  Stalin is seen as being at fault for his redrawing of Eastern European borders at the end of World War II in which he assigned captured territory where the population was European-oriented to be the western provinces of Ukraine.  Russians I spoke with view eastern and southern Ukraine as part of the “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) that does not want to live in a Western-oriented country belonging to NATO.  Western Ukraine (the region around Lviv that Stalin joined to Ukraine) they do not see as belonging to the Russkiy Mir.  They see the region around Kiev in central Ukraine as being linked to both Russia and the West.

What to do about Ukraine is unclear.  Some believe that it should remain intact (minus Crimea, of course) as a neutral nation that is allied neither with Russia nor the West.  Others see the division between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements in the population as being so great that it would be best to divide the country.  Eastern and southern Ukraine (plus Transnistria—that bit of eastern Moldova with a large Slavic population which had been part of Ukraine before Stalin redrew that border) should either be joined to Russia or become a new country, “Novorossiya,” that is allied to Russia.  Many I spoke to could accept what remains of Ukraine being allied with the West, though some can’t bring themselves to exclude Kiev from the Russkiy Mir.

Whatever happens, Ukraine’s current problems are partly the result of being dominated by oligarchs who benefit from the country’s current borderland status which gives them the ability to extract support from both Russia and the West without having to make a firm choice between either.  The increasing division within the Ukrainian population between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, though, is undermining their ability to continue doing this and maintain order.

While Putin was very much in control over what happened in Crimea, he is not in control of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk where pro-Russian separatists have declared independence from Kiev.  While these groups are seen in the West as being under Russian control, several of my interlocutors insisted they are not, and that they are actually trying to force Putin to come to their aid through engaging in confrontation with Kiev’s forces.  If this occurs, Russia could find itself involved in a messy, long-lasting conflict.

CNN and other media reported while I was in Moscow that Chechen fighters loyal to the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, were supporting Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk.  I heard three different explanations about why this has come about:  1) the Chechens have been sent to impose discipline over the unruly Russian separatists; 2) Kadyrov sent them to show his loyalty (and indispensability) to Putin; and 3) these Chechens came of their own accord to eastern Ukraine because they are being paid well to be there.

America and the West:  The Russians I spoke with are all concerned about the economic sanctions that America and Europe have imposed on Moscow over Crimea and how this will affect them.  I argued that these sanctions have been relatively minimal, and that they were imposed mainly to show domestic audiences in the West that their governments are “doing something” in response to Russian actions in Crimea.  My Russian interlocutors, though, worry that the sanctions will soon increase.  Together with decreased European purchases of Russian natural gas, they fear that the Russian economy could be hurt badly. 

Whether supportive of Putin or not, the Russians I spoke with thought that America in particular was mishandling relations with Russia.  Some referred to the expansion of NATO and the bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s as unnecessary acts that alienated not just the Russian government, but the Russian people too.  Others noted that America has fewer people knowledgeable about Russia who can advise Washington than it did during the Cold War when relations were tense, but dialogue between us was too.  Many noted that Moscow and Washington have a number of common interests, such as preventing conflict on the Korean Peninsula, making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, combating jihadism, and maintaining peace and prosperity in Europe.  They worry that differences over Ukraine will put cooperation on all this in jeopardy.  They are especially unhappy that America is encouraging Europeans to buy less gas from Russia and to buy more from other sources, including the United States itself.

China:  In late May 2014, Russia and China signed an agreement whereby China will buy $400 billion worth of Russian gas over thirty years.  This should more than make up for any Russian loss of gas sales to Europe.  The Russians I spoke to, however, are all wary both of this agreement and of China generally.  My Russian interlocutors interpreted the announcement that the price Russia would receive from China for this gas was a “trade secret” as being bad news for Russia.  Moscow’s desperation to reach an agreement with Beijing, they believe, has allowed China to pay an embarrassingly (for Moscow) low price—perhaps so low that Russia will make no profit.  Whatever the price, they worry that increased tensions between Russia and the West will result in Russia becoming increasingly dependent on China.  One person indicated that while China has privately signaled its support for Moscow against America and the West in Ukraine and has offered to spend billions in Russia to re-orient its economy to export petroleum and much else to China, Beijing does expect something in return:  Russian support for the Chinese position in all its disputes with other Asian countries.  This is something that he did not see as being in Russia’s interest at all.

Putin and the Advice He Receives:  Someone else I spoke to indicated that Putin is also quite wary of China and would never allow Russia to become so dependent on Beijing.  But Putin may be assuming, this person said, that the current crisis with the West over Ukraine will blow over when, in six months or so, American and European leaders come to realize just how much they need Russia.  It is not clear to my Russian interlocutor, though, that the West will come to any such realization. 

Putin’s conviction that it will may be based on advisers who tell him basically what he wants to hear, and not on more thorough and objective assessments from academics.  Indeed, the Russian government seems to be increasingly suspicious of Russian academics.  My Russian interlocutors note that during the Cold War, the Kremlin sought and valued analyses from the international institutes (such as the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and the USA and Canada Institute) of what was then the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  Now, though, the Russian government seems highly distrustful of these as well as the many other research institutes that have sprung up.  Researchers now live in fear of being identified as foreign agents for collaborating with foreign foundations and research institutes.  But in addition to the negative impact that this distrust has on these individuals and institutions, it also means that Putin is depriving himself of advice that he needs to consider in order to avoid the pitfalls that will surely result from listening to those who tell him only what they think he wants to hear.

While the Russians I met with are generally (and genuinely) pleased with Putin for having rejoined Crimea to Russia, there is a sense of foreboding among them that the crisis in Ukraine has set in motion larger forces that are leading to a worsening situation in that country which Russia and the West cannot control, and to a worsening of Russian-Western relations that will only benefit China.   And much to their regret, they feel that there is little that they can do to prevent any of this.

Read Full Post »

Many believe that Putin intends to do with eastern Ukraine what he did with Crimea:  annex it to Russia.  Putin, though, may well prefer the “federal solution” that he has proposed that would leave Ukraine (shorn of Crimea) intact, but devolve power from the central government to its regions.  Here’s why:

If Russia annexes eastern Ukraine, what remains of Ukraine is likely to be even more anti-Russian than it is now and seek to join NATO—something Putin does not want.  Putin, though, does not want to have to annex all Ukraine in order to prevent any of it from joining NATO.  Attempting to occupy such a huge country where much of the population is hostile to Russia would undoubtedly prove difficult and costly for Russia.  Indeed, even annexing eastern Ukraine could prove to be so.

A “federal solution” similar to the one prevailing in Bosnia, however, could alleviate these difficulties.  While Ukraine, like Bosnia, would be an independent country with a pro-Western government, the more Russified eastern Ukraine would play a similar role to that now being played by the predominantly Serbian “Republika Srpska” region within Bosnia.  Just as Republika Srpska is largely autonomous from the central Bosnian government in Sarajevo and coordinates closely with its eastern neighbor Serbia, eastern Ukraine would be largely autonomous from the central Ukrainian government in Kiev and coordinate closely with its eastern neighbor Russia.

Further, just as Republika Srpska has been able to veto Sarajevo’s ambition to join NATO, Putin may well anticipate that eastern Ukraine would veto Kiev’s ambition to do so.  Putin, then, could prevent that part of Ukraine controlled by Kiev from joining NATO without actually having to occupy it.  And if NATO can accept such a situation in Bosnia which is so close to the center of Europe, Putin may reason that NATO will do likewise in Ukraine on its eastern edge.

NATO, of course, will not want to do this.  Putin, though, may calculate that it will have no other realistic choice.

Read Full Post »

Quick Comment on Crimea

The disposition of Crimea has an odd history.  At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.  The majority of Crimea’s population, though, is Russian.  And ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians there and in Russia itself have called for its return to Russia.  Ideally, the question of whether Crimea should belong to Ukraine or Russia, or be independent, should be decided by an internationally-monitored referendum.  What Putin has done is highly provocative, but it also has support on the ground.  The question now is whether he’ll go after other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations but where they are not a majority (Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where they are).  Obama’s reaction so far has been underwhelming.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what he can do.  

Read Full Post »

How Powerful Is Putin’s Russia?

I recently received a query from Greek journalist Ειρήνη Μητροπούλου (Irini Mitropoulou) of Το Βήμα (To Vima) asking me to comment on whether I think that Russia is back as a major or even a super power in the global economy and the international arena.  In an article published in her newspaper on December 8, she was kind enough to include a quote from the much-longer-than-asked for response that  I sent back to her.  I am not sure, though, what part of my response she quoted from since it’s all Greek to me.  So here is my entire commentary in English:

Many see Russian President Vladimir Putin as having successfully built Russia into a major power both politically and economically.  The influential American business magazine, Forbes, even listed him as number one in its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people.  But while Putin has succeeded in restoring the image of Russia as a great power that was shattered by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, that image is largely illusory.  Indeed, it is not clear that Putin will even be able to succeed in maintaining the illusion of Russia as a great power for much longer.

In the economic realm, Putin benefited from the steady rise in oil prices that occurred during his first stint as president (1999-2008).  While still high, oil prices have come down considerably since then.  More importantly, the leverage many believed Russia would gain over Europe through being its major gas supplier has eroded as a result of Europe’s ability to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Algeria, and other sources.  Further, the increased possibility of improved ties between Iran and the West raises the prospect that Iranian gas will soon become available on the European market.  In addition, the increase in American petroleum production combined with Russia’s problems with maintain its current production levels are further eroding Moscow’s ability to leverage petroleum exports into political influence.

In the political realm, Russia’s weakness has been starkly revealed by the popular protest in Ukraine when pressure from Putin influenced that country’s president not to sign an association agreement with the EU.  The mark of a true great power is that other countries ally with it voluntarily.  Putin’s Russia has precious few such allies.  And Putin’s efforts to gain allies through intimidation either push countries toward the West or result in alliances that only last as long as unpopular leaders remain in power.

A prosperous, democratic Russia might be more successful in attracting allies—as well as customers and investors.  But so long as Putin’s stagnant authoritarian rule continues, Russia’s economic and political influence in the world appears destined to decline.

Read Full Post »


The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria.  The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address.  Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:

OSTEUROPA:  The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?

Katz:  The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level.  Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can.  In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall:  a Sunni radical regime.  Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.

OSTEUROPA:  Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?

Katz:  It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.

OSTEUROPA:  When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?

Katz:  Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P.  While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.

OSTEUROPA:  Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?

Katz:  The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.

OSTEUROPA:  Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?

Katz:  Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.”  Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.

OSTEUROPA:  What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?

Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria.  Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not.  It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.

OSTEUROPA:  What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?

Katz:  Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime.  If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is.  This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict.  If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.

OSTEUROPA:  Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?

Katz:  No.

Read Full Post »

I am posting here my lecture notes for a presentation I gave at the Kennan Institute/Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on Monday, October 7, 2013:

Why has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?

More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Russian President Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.

Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

One way in which Putin has sought to do this is through restoring Moscow’s ties with its Cold War era allies in the Middle East.  But these have either been not especially interested (i.e., Algeria), or have fallen from power—Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining Arab ally.  If he falls, then, Moscow will have no allies there.

And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.”  Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.

Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western.  Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen—even if not all Western leaders recognize this.

And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as Central Asia.  Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces don’t need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them.  But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.

There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:

–The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington too fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

–President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern.  But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.

–There is also the Israeli factor.  Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus.  Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.

–Further, despite Turkish and Arab public hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably.  Russian-Turkish trade booming; Putin and Erdogan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.

–The new military government in Egypt has soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.

–While Moscow frequently cites what happened to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as reason for not allowing a Security Council resolution authorizing any use of force or even economic sanctions against Syria, Moscow gets along with the new government in Libya as well as anyone else has—notwithstanding the recent attack on the Russian embassy there.

–And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.

Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself.  (For their part, these two see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.)  Their actions—or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions—have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.

There are, however, limits on what Russia can accomplish:

Moscow clearly wants to prevent a Western intervention in Syria as occurred in Libya.  And this goal appears likely to be met—not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it.

But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.

Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, or what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya:  the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.

Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now.  The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government.  Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire.

Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.  It may be that nobody else is either.  But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.

The possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy.  If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad.  If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.

If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.

Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.

Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »