Feb 16th 2012

Russia's Self-Marginalization

by Alon Ben-Meir

 

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

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.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."
Oct 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The cost of electricity from solar plants has experienced a remarkable reduction over the past decade, falling by 89% from 2010 to 2022. Batteries, which are essential for balancing solar energy supply throughout the day and night, have also undergone a similar price revolution, decreasing by the same amount between 2008 and 2022. ---- These developments pose an important question: have we already crossed a tipping point where solar energy is poised to become the dominant source of electricity generation? This is the very question we sought to address in our recent study."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACT: "Sooner or later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s destructive political magic, which has kept him in power for 15 years, was bound to usher in a major tragedy. A year ago, he formed the most radical and incompetent government in Israel’s history. Don’t worry, he assured his critics, I have “two hands firmly on the steering wheel.” But by ruling out any political process in Palestine and boldly asserting, in his government’s binding guidelines, that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu’s fanatical government made bloodshed inevitable."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACTS: "....whereas Israel can prevail militarily over any of its enemies, albeit at an increasing toll in blood and treasure, it cannot stop the most dangerous threat of all—the deadly erosion, resulting from its continuing brutal occupation, of that moral foundation on which the country was established." --- "....the Israeli public must demand the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu."
Sep 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "......today’s American body politic has little patience for long-term thinking. This was not always the case. George Kennan, first as a diplomat and later as an academic, devised the containment strategy that the United States used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Andrew Marshall, as the head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, pushed the envelope on US military strategy. And Henry Kissinger, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of what has been dubbed “Grand Strategy.” "
Sep 23rd 2023
EXTRACT: "In a recent CNN interview, Paul Krugman of The New York Times finds it hard to understand why ordinary American voters do not share his euphoric view of US President Joe Biden’s goldilocks economy – which appears to be neither hot nor cold. Inflation is falling, unemployment remains low, the economy is growing, and stock-market valuations are high. So why, Krugman asks, do voters give Biden’s economy a lousy 36% approval rating?" .... "what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t."
Sep 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The fundamental lesson, then, is that the issuer of an incumbent international currency has it within its power to defend or neglect that status. Thus, whether the dollar retains its global role will depend not simply on US relations with Russia, China, or the BRICS. Rather, it will hinge on whether the US brings its soaring debts under control, avoids another unproductive debt-ceiling showdown, and gets its economic and political act together more generally."
Aug 31st 2023
EXTRACT: "TOULOUSE – The days between Christmas and the New Year often prompt many of us to reflect on the problems facing the world and to consider what we can do to improve our own lives. But I typically find myself in this contemplative state at the end of my summer holiday, during the dog days of August. After several weeks of relaxation – reading books, taking leisurely walks, and drifting in a swimming pool – I am more open to contemplating the significant challenges that will likely dominate discussions over the coming months and pondering how I can gain a better understanding of the issues at stake."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "Since the end of World War II, the United Nations has been the cornerstone of the international rules-based order. While numerous other international agreements address issues such as chemical weapons, biological warfare, and regional stability, the UN has been entrusted with the overarching role of maintaining global peace and stability. What made it effective, at least for a while, was the support of the world’s liberal democracies and, crucially, the unwavering commitment of both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States." ---- "That all changed with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, a sovereign country, in the face of fierce international opposition and without the UN Security Council’s approval. In doing so, the US severely damaged its own credibility and undermined the global rules-based system,... "Many of America’s current domestic political divisions grew out of the Iraq War. Whereas presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated that effective leaders can make the world a safer and better place, even in the face of great adversity, Bush’s presidency showed that the opposite is equally true."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACTS: "a period of parliamentary history between 1719 and 1772 called 'the age of liberty'. This marked the end of autocratic monarchy and the beginning of an era of parliamentary power " ---- "This was a period of large-scale legislative projects and freedom of speech became central to the idea of freedom from tyranny. The most important piece of legislation was the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766, a law that aimed to protect freedom of information as a means of promoting democracy. It has been amended since but its tenets remain the same. " ---- "Describing Muslims, to allude to the situation of the Qur’an burnings, as criminals would be criminal. But to burn the Qur’an is in itself not, according to the current formulation of the law, an attack on Muslims. It is rather seen as an attack on the religion of Islam. Such attacks are not illegal because the aim of the attack is not directed against a protected group of people but against a belief – an idea. That is not illegal."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACTS: "But if the dollar should lose its privileged place, what could replace it? At present, the euro, which accounts for 20% of global central-bank reserves, is the only currency that could realistically serve as a substitute. Its appeal, however, is undermined by the fragmentation of Europe’s national sovereign-debt markets, as well as lingering doubts about the European Union’s long-term viability in the wake of the UK’s departure.'" ---- "The Chinese renminbi, which accounts for less than 3% of global reserves, is not a serious threat to dollar hegemony. "