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Posts Tagged ‘Russian foreign policy’

Judged by the foreign policy accomplishments made by the reputedly unsuccessful Brezhnev, Putin’s achievements appear far more modest.

Read the full article at: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-would-brezhnev-have-assessed-putin%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-188778

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The Atlantic Council has just published my issue brief on Russian policy toward the Mediterranean region: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/putins-mediterranean-gambit-endgame-unclear/

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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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Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.

 

 

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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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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.

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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.

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