Russia's Self-Marginalization

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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 recognized. 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 as well are 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 Tartous, 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, Predominantly-Shiite 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 to listen. 

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 the 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 ten-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, the arming of Syria’s 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, Mr. Assad may agree to relinquish power and seek a safe haven some place else and spare the Syrian people continued death and destruction. Russia, who has special relations to the Syrian army, may wish to encourage a military coup with the promise of continued support to the military post Assad’s reign. In 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.

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