Moscow wants to be seen as a swing state, capable of siding with one party or the other as Russian interests evolve.
Moscow has played a weak hand remarkably well. In the case of Syria, Korea, and Iran, Russia has managed to leverage ties with a cacophony of troublesome regimes to achieve diplomatic gains at little cost. Although Russian policies have varied among the three cases, Moscow generally adheres to several consistent principles—avoiding foreign military intervention, minimizing sanctions, limiting Western influence, and advancing Russian economic interests. This strategy has proven most successful in the case of Syria, less so in North Korea, and is facing challenges as well as opportunities with the changing Iranian situation. The West needs to understand Moscow’s strategies and tactics better in order to manage them more effectively.
Despite the tensions its support for the Syrian government has caused Moscow with Turkey, some Arab states, and the West, Moscow has not turned its back on one of its last genuine allies in the Middle East. During the 1970s and 1980s, Syria was a close ally of the Soviet Union. After falling into abeyance in the 1990s, bilateral ties have improved significantly since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow in January 2005. Since then, Russian arms sales have increased and Russian companies have been engaged in a number of projects in Syria aimed at improving Syria’s physical infrastructure and exploring and extracting oil and gas reserves.
The onset of the Syrian civil war has presented two challenges to Moscow. First, they recognize that the collapse of the Assad regime could mean the end of Russian influence in Damascus. Syrian opposition leaders have warned that, if they come to power, they will punish Russia and other foreign governments that stood by Assad. Even a UN resolution that banned major weapons transfers to Syria would impose real costs on the Russian economy. Russia’s arms industry also does not want to lose yet another lucrative Middle Eastern client following the loss of arms sales to Libya and the limits on weapons transfers to Iran. Syria typically purchases several hundred million dollars’ worth of Russian weapons each year and regularly ranks as one of Russia’s five highest arms buyers. The value of the existing contracts could amount to billions of dollars. Although a resolution might only impose a temporary ban on foreign arms sales to Syria, if foreign intervention contributed to the collapse of the current regime, Syria’s new leaders, would likely curtail their purchases of Russian arms as well as other economic and security ties with Moscow. These include the billions of dollars of Russian commercial and energy investment in Syria.
Second, Russian analysts are worried that a Western-backed Islamist victory in Syria, even more so than in distant Libya, could set off further sectarian violence in the heart of the Middle East that could easily spur Islamist extremism in the North Caucasus and Central Asia. Given their Muslim minority problems in the South Caucasus, Moscow also wanted to avoid associated with yet another Western military intervention in a Muslim-majority country. They further likely believe that the Syrian rebels are receiving military and other assistance from Western governments and their Arab allies in an effort to dislodge a government that they oppose. Furthermore, some Russian leaders probably fear that these Western–backed revolts against the authoritarian governments of the Middle East might encourage similar resistance among their own people or establish precedents for foreign intervention in their own internal affairs.
In the UN Security Council (UNSC), Russian diplomats have repeatedly vetoed, or block through threat of veto, resolutions that either would force Assad to yield power or that would impose sanctions on the Syrian government. They argue that it is improper for the international community to make such demands since the issue of who should lead Syria should be determined by the Syrian people themselves without external interference. Russian diplomacy has traditionally sought to make UN resolutions precisely worded to tightly constrain how the Western powers use them. Furthermore, they strongly support traditional interpretations of national sovereignty that severely restrict the right of foreign powers or international organizations to intervene in a country’s internal affairs.
Two additional factors also seem to be motivated Moscow’s approach. First, Russian leaders are aware that Assad will not voluntarily step down so they have considered it futile to press for such a resignation. Second, they do not think that Assad’s resignation would end the fighting. Instead of pacifying Assad’s opponents, Russian officials fear that that his forced departure would only encourage the regime’s opponents to escalate their demands. They fear that international demands for such an outcome have already having such a deleterious effect. In blocking such actions, Russia hoped to convince the Syrian opposition and its foreign backers that they cannot achieve a military victory and that they therefore must negotiate a political settlement.
Russian officials profess to see the events in Syria as a civil war between armed factions, including al-Qaeda, rather than a popular revolution by an oppressed people against a brutal authoritarian dictator. This interpretation makes efforts at negotiating a compromise settlement much more plausible and legitimate. It also allows Moscow to denounce UN resolutions that attack only the government for being unbalanced, one-sided, and encouraging the regime’s opponents to keep fighting. And from this perspective, if the current regime collapses, the result is less likely to be a gentle transition to a liberal democracy than fighting among the elements of the winning coalition over their division of the spoils, with the most ruthless factions, which Russians claim are Islamist extremists led by al-Qaeda, have the best shot at victory. Furthermore, foreign military intervention in Syria would likely draw in other outside powers seeking to protect their local allies and interests. (Turkey to counter the Kurds, Iran to defend the Shiites, perhaps France to protect the Christians, and so forth). The flood of refugees into neighboring countries could serve as transmission mechanisms to amplify the disorders in those countries.
Russian officials perceive that Western governments were confronting the Syrian regime not for repressing its domestic opponents but because of its ties with Iran. They claim to have learned from the Libyan experience that they cannot offer the Western powers anything that could justify armed intervention. At the time, Beijing and Moscow abstained on the crucial vote authorizing the use of force, except for foreign ground operations, to protect civilians from the Libyan government. NATO then gradually expanded its air campaign and eventually helped organize a rebel ground force that seized power. When the West initiated wide-ranging military operations against Qaddafi’s forces, Russian officials complained without effect that they exceeded permissible levels of force. Back in August 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that, “Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria.” Russia has stuck to that position ever since.
In the case of Syria, Russian diplomats have sought to establish a clear firebreak that excluded any interpretation that the Security Council had authorized such action. The Russian delegation has forced the rewording of resolutions so that they do not call for Assad’s removal, apply any measures equally to the government and its opponents (such as demands for a ceasefire), require the opposition and its foreign backers to distance themselves from the armed opposition and foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, provide greater opportunities for Arab and other third-party mediation, and explicitly endorse efforts at further negotiations. When the other delegations on the Security Council rejected Moscow’s proposed amended wording, Russia has vetoed the drafts.
Russian policy makers would have preferred not to break with most Arab governments and support the Syrian regime, though they might suspect such steadfastness does win them quiet kudos from Arab leaders unhinged by how easily Western governments had abandoned Libya’s Qaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab leaders that they had cultivated so assiduously over the years. In addition, many Arab publics are divided about how much foreign intervention they want to see in Syria. There is much suspicion in the region about Western motives, with many Arabs sharing Russian perceptions that Western governments often use human rights abuses as a pretext for deposing regimes whose policies they oppose for other reasons.
Ironically, the fact that Western governments have ruled out military intervention, except for a brief week this summer, against Syria might have emboldened Russian resistance since Beijing and Moscow could plausibly interpret Syria as being of less importance to the West than Libya or Iran, which Russia have also consented to being sanctioned and regarding which Western governments have refused to exclude the use of force. A credible Western threat to intervene could have induced Beijing and Moscow to agree to sanctions or other measures to avert it.
Throughout the past decade, under both presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russia’s government policies towards North and South Korea have remained remarkably consistent, pursuing several key goals, strategies, and tactics in both the security and economic realms. Russian policy makers are eager to normalize the security situation on the Korean Peninsula both for its own sake and to realize their economic ambitions there. In the security realm, Russia’s objectives include averting another major war on the Korean Peninsula; preventing DPRK actions from prompting additional countries from obtaining nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles; keeping Moscow a major security actor in the region; and eventually eliminating the DPRK’s nuclear program by peaceful means. Russians are clearly opposed to having another nuclear-armed state on their border, especially one armed with missiles and run by an unpredictable dynastic dictatorship. In addition, Russians fear that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear arms could spark further nuclear proliferation in East Asia and beyond in response. Furthermore, Russian policy makers and entrepreneurs have visions of transforming North Korea into a pivotal player in their vision of reviving the Russian Far East and integrating Russia more deeply into the prosperous Asia Pacific region
Yet, Russian officials oppose strong sanctions that could precipitate the DPRK regime’s collapse into a failed state. They seek to change Pyongyang’s behavior, but not its regime. Russia remains more concerned about the DPRK’s collapse than Pyongyang’s intransigence regarding its nuclear and missile development programs. Disintegration of the North Korean regime could induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia, generate large refugee flows across Russia’s borders, weaken Russian influence in the Koreas by ending their unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang, and potentially remove a buffer zone separating Russia from American ground forces based in South Korea. At worst, North Korea’s demise could precipitate a military conflict on the peninsula—which could spill across into Russian territory. In addition, the substantial South Korean investment flowing into Russia would be redirected toward North Korea’s rehabilitation in advance of the peninsula’s possible reunification. Hoped-for Chinese investment capital would be less likely to materialize in this case as well. Almost any conceivable armed clash on the Korean Peninsula would worsen Russia’s relations with the parties to the conflict.
Like China, Russia favors a “soft landing” for the North Korean regime—a gradual mellowing of its domestic and foreign policies and the eventual renunciation of nuclear weapons. Russians believe such a benign approach and outcome would obviate the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races, and military conflicts. This position is at odds with that of Washington and Tokyo, who would welcome a popular revolution in Pyongyang despite the elevated security and economic problems that it would create during the transition. Another difference is that Moscow would not welcome Korean reunification because it could result in the deployment of U.S. military forces to the northern half of the newly unified Korean state (and thus close to Russia’s border), as many Koreans could want American forces to remain in their new country to counter-balance their more powerful neighbors, China, Japan — and Russia. U.S. policy-makers might agree to such an arrangement if the alternative was a Korean decision to retain the North’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Russia has a clear interest in avoiding this scenario.
Russian diplomats generally oppose using sanctions to punish countries whose governments misbehave. In the case of the DPRK, as with Iran, Russian policy makers argue that a non-coercive, incentive-based strategy offers the best means for persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize. But Russian officials will sometimes agree to impose limited sanctions on the DPRK as a “lesser evil” than doing nothing, applying much more severe sanctions, or using force. In addition, Russia has supported some UN punishment measures to ensure that the UN remains a relevant actor in the international community’s response to the Korea issue. Russian diplomats fear a repeat of Kosovo (1998) and Iraq (2003), examples when Western governments decided to bypass the UN and employ force on their own initiative through coalitions of the willing after they could not work through the UNSC due to Moscow’s veto. Russian diplomats must balance blocking harsh UN sanctions while sustaining Western interests in working through the UN. The experience of Iraq, Kosovo, and Syria shows how, if Moscow sanctioned all Western-backed measures against the DPRK in the UN, the Western powers would simply pursue collective measures outside the United Nations.
Russian officials have had to balance a complex set of objectives in their relations with Tehran: supporting nonproliferation, averting war or regime change, maintaining regional security, minimizing sanctions, enhancing Moscow’s diplomatic leverage, limiting U.S. influence in Eurasia, and advancing energy and economic cooperation. The hierarchy of these objectives varies depending on changing circumstances. Furthermore, some of these goals conflict, at least in the short run, requiring Russian policy makers to choose among them or behave schizophrenically.
In general, the present stalemate, with Iran and the West in a state of nonviolent conflict, seems best suited for promoting Russian security interests since it elevates Moscow’s influence in Tehran. The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president has not fundamentally changed Russia’s relationship toward Iran. Since entering office, Rouhani has continued his predecessor’s praising of Moscow for its supportive role in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and continued Iranian calls for enhanced bilateral economic ties. But Rouhani has focused his diplomatic outreach on reconciling with the West, trying to demonstrate that his government is not pursuing nuclear weapons. A relaxation of Iranian-Western tensions could provide some benefits to Moscow, but a genuine reconciliation could prove economically, diplomatically, and strategically costly for Moscow.
Russian policy makers do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. They worry about the health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a time when many potential nuclear weapons states might arise near Russia. Even more, they fear that Israel and the United States might respond to an Iranian nuclear weapons program with a military strike, resulting in unpredictable consequences in one of Russia’s neighbors. If tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program spark a war, Russia might derive immediate benefits from surging world oil prices, but mass conflict could result in Iran’s unpredictable regime change in Tehran, with a more radical government more directly challenging Russian policies toward Chechnya or the Caspian Sea Basin, or other threats to Russian interests. Even in the absence of war, Iran’s nuclear and missile activities are helping NATO countries justify their missile defense programs that Russians profess to fear could eventually degrade their own nuclear deterrent.
To counter such malign outcomes, Russian officials regularly downplay indications that Tehran is seeking a nuclear arsenal (as opposed to a capacity to make nuclear weapons) or is developing a fleet of long-range missiles that could present a near-term threat to Europe or the United States. In addition, they defend Iran’s right to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, such as civilian energy production and medical research, provided these activities proceed under appropriate safeguards. They also try to pressure Iran through sanctions and arms sales.
Yet, while Russian officials have accepted sanctions as a means to pressure Iran toward negotiations, they oppose the “crippling” sanctions advocated by Israel and some Western governments. Russians object in principle, if not always in practice, to using sanctions or other coercive measures to alter Iran’s behavior, let alone as an instrument of regime change, claiming that such measures would be counterproductive and harden the Iranian regime against making further concessions regarding its nuclear weapons program. Since voting for a fourth UNSC sanctions resolution in 2010, Russian officials have strongly resisted imposing new sanctions on Iran, arguing that the existing measures were sufficient to induce Iran to negotiate with the international community without inflicting excessive harm on the Iranian people. In line with this “no new sanctions” policy, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has proposed a “step-by-step” plan whereby Iran would make moves to address IAEA concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program and the Security Council would respond by easing sanctions. Ideally, the process could become reinforcing, with sanctions relief inducing greater Iranian cooperation and vice-versa. In general, Russians officials argue that the best way to moderate any Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions is to make Tehran’s external environment less threatening. Russian officials have often faulted Wetsenr governments for driving Iran into a corner.
Conversely, Russian officials have always opposed the use of military force, by Israel or the West, against Iran. A major war could encourage Islamist extremism or unpredictable regime change in Tehran, which could produce a more radical or a more pro-Western Iranian government, both of which would harm Moscow’s interests. One reason Russian officials want to slow down Iran’s nuclear program is that they fear that its progress could invite an unwanted military strike. It is true that a major Persian Gulf conflict could lead to a further spike in world prices for Russian oil and gas, generating windfall profits for Moscow, but Russian territory lies uncomfortably close to the site of a possible war. Russians might also fear that some radical Iranians might transfer nuclear material to terrorists, who could then attack Russian targets.
The Russian position differs from that of many Western governments. Whereas many U.S., Israeli, and European officials seek comprehensive if nonviolent regime change in Tehran, Russian leaders want Iranians to change their policies but not their regime. Russia benefits in several ways from the Tehran’s confrontational policies towards the West, providing it does not escalate into war or lead to Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The frictions between Iran and Western countries leave Russia (and China) as Iran’s major economic partners, excludes Iran from contributing its territory or oil and natural gas to Western-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipelines that would reduce European dependence on Russian supplies, helps prop up world energy prices by keeping Iranian oil and especially natural gas sales on international markets low. A new regime in Iran could easily challenge Russian interests. While more radical leaders could provide greater support for the Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus seeking independence from Moscow under a new jihadist state, a government led by Iran’s Green Movement could punish Russia for its past support for Iran’s clerical dictatorship, which has used Russian-provided weapons to suppress the opposition, by redirecting Iran’s diplomatic and economic ties towards the West—who for geopolitical and economic reasons should be Iran’s natural partners.
With Iran and the other rogues, Moscow wants to be seen as a swing state, capable of siding with one party or the other as Russian interests evolve. Under Putin’s steady pragmatic realism, Russian diplomacy will likely continue this “leverage maximization” approach for the indefinite future, giving the West opportunities to secure Moscow’s tactical support in some cases but never enough to radically change the situation. Without the rogues, Russia’s global influence would radically decline—something Putin would always resist.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.