Russia’s foreign policy doctrine appears to be based on rejecting every policy
initiative that the United States and the European Union take and only then
beginning to negotiate from ground zero. This has been demonstrated in Russia’s
Middle East approach where Moscow has chosen extremely shortsighted policy
options, allowing the massacre to continue in Syria while remaining mute
regarding Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As a global power, Russia
enjoys a unique position of tremendous influence on both Syria and Iran and has
the ability to play an extraordinarily positive role in defusing the internal
conflict in Syria and the Iranian- Western conflict in connection with Tehran’s
nuclear ambitions. Having failed to do so may risk turning these conflicts into
major regional, if not global, crises while marginalizing Russia itself both
regionally and internationally.
The role Russia, and to a lesser extent
China, is currently playing in the Middle East is destructive and
self-defeating. Russia’s obstructionist approach is reminiscent of the Soviet
Union Cold War mentality based on a zero-sum game in which Western gains were
seen as net losses for Russia and vice versa. This logic, however, fails to
appreciate that we currently face certain trends in the wake of the Arab Spring
that cannot be stopped and new realities on the ground that must be
The pro-democracy Arab uprising was and is not orchestrated
by any one person or group. It is a general outcry for freedom, humanity and
dignity and a voiced yearning for meaningful life with opportunity and hope.
This is what the Syrian people are seeking and are willingly sacrificing
themselves to achieve.
For Russia to suggest that there is a way to keep
Syria’s President Bashar Assad in power is nothing short of permitting him to
continue to slaughter his people with impunity. This policy is not only
misguided and dangerous but also most counterproductive for Russia itself. The
same is applicable to Iran. Moscow either believes that Iran is not pursuing
nuclear weapons or that Tehran might be willing to negotiate a peaceful solution
to its impasse with the US in particular.
The first assumption will prove
to be dead wrong and the second is simply based on wishful thinking. Russia
knows full well that along with its strategic interests, its major economic
concerns are also at stake. The question then is why the Kremlin is pursuing
policies that could potentially lead to catastrophic developments from which
Russia not only reaps no benefits but could also end up losing much of its
strategic and economic interests.
The explanation lies in four main
factors. The first is domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
will return as Russia’s president in March 2012 and he is determined to show an
assertive Moscow restoring its standing as a global superpower that can
challenge Washington, especially now as he faces a growing opposition to his
ascendancy to the presidency again. For a former KGB officer, it is extremely
important to hold on to what is left of the sphere of influence from the Soviet
era, especially in the wake of happened in Libya and how the US and the EU
presumably manipulated the United Nations resolution to bring about a regime
change in Tripoli.
Closely linked is the second factor, which is
political. By carving out a foreign policy independent from the West, Russia
wants to reassert itself, along with China, as the power who opposes the
principle of interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states in
the emerging new political order.
The third factor is economic. Russia is
the largest supplier of weapons to the Syrian army with outstanding export
contracts believed to be in the billions. And finally, Russia has a unique
military interest as Russia possesses a naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean
port of Tartus, which is Russia’s last military base outside of the former
Soviet Union republics.
Strategic and financial ties also exist with
Iran, as Russia is the major contractor for Iran’s nuclear facilities and a
supplier of arms to the Iranian naval and air forces. As such, Moscow has
developed a vested national interest in what Iran has created, referred to here
as the Khomeini-led, predominantly Shi’ite crescent, which is an anti-Western
regional block extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean including:
Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
A closer look at the implications of
these factors, nonetheless, would reveal the Kremlin is miscalculating. A
sound foreign policy cannot be one that is simply against something, but must be
for something. The Soviet Union collapsed not because it failed to defend its
areas of influence abroad, but because it failed to deliver the basic human
rights and public goods to its own citizens. Moreover, whereas Russia promotes
itself as the bulwark against non-interference, Russia itself now interferes in
the domestic affairs of its neighbors, particularly those of the former Soviet
Union, and this of course flies counter to what Russia preaches to whoever cares
Even the practical aspects that underpin the Russian
calculations are questionable. Bashar Assad of Syria has lost his legitimacy and
he certainly will not survive the popular uprising against his rule. Every
explanation Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has given to justify his
country’s veto of the resolution to bring an end to the carnage in Syria last
week in the United Nations Security Council is completely baseless. That the
“President of Syria assured us [Russia] that he was completely committed to the
task of stopping violence,” in Lavrov’s words, convinces no one, given the Assad
regime’s history of lies and their determination to crush the 10-month-long
uprising through whatever force was necessary.
Russia also knows that
Iran, too, will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons, which Israel and the US
are committed to prevent, if not peacefully, then through force. How will Russia
react should the US, EU and Turkey (with the support of the Arab League) decide
to take whatever measures necessary, including the imposition of a no-fly zone,
and the arming of freedom fighters in Syria, or if the US and/or Israel decide
to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? What is Russia’s leverage on the US, the EU
and Israel if they decide to act outside the UNSC framework to prevent events
from unfolding contrary to its design?
Russia is simply betting on losers and
the consequences must be clear. When the situation settles in Syria,
however long that might take, how will the Syrian people remember Russia? If the
Kremlin believes that ordinary Syrians will simply forget that it was Russia
that allowed this slaughter to continue, they must think again. In Iran, too,
the time will come when the Iranian people recognize who stood behind the
Ayatollahs in draining the nation’s resources and wasting them on exporting
terrorism and building a nuclear arsenal that paved the way for endless conflict
with the West.
Russia’s unwavering support of Syria and Iran, two
renegade states, points to Moscow’s determination to support any country,
regardless of its horrifying human rights violations and abuses, as long as it
serves its perceived national interests. Instead of inviting the Syrian
government and opposition to meet in Moscow, which would essentially be a
continuation of the regime’s denials, Russia should use its considerable
influence to mediate a solution acceptable to the Syrian people but one that
excludes President Assad and his cohorts.
Indeed, without Russia’s direct
military support and political shield, Assad may agree to relinquish power and
seek a safe haven someplace else and spare the Syrian people continued death and
destruction. Russia, which has special relations with the Syrian army, may wish
to encourage a military coup with the promise of continued support to the
military post-Assad. By the same token, Russia can also play a constructive role
with Iran and possibly persuade the mullahs that their insistence on acquiring
nuclear weapons, under the pretext of their right to enrich uranium, has the
potential for horrifying consequences.
There is no guarantee that Russia
can succeed in either case but it is guaranteed that unless Russia acts
constructively, it will be seen as the culprit behind the two most pressing
conflicts in the region, thereby not only marginalizing itself in the Middle
East but running the likely chance of bearing the full brunt of responsibility
for the currently unfolding disasters.The writer is a professor of
International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the Center for Global
Affairs at New York University and is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle East
Project Director at the World Policy Institute.