On the face of it, Russia’s reaction to the United States killing of Qasem Soleimani, Commander of the special-task Quds force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on 3 January 2020 differed little from that of US President Donald Trump’s detractors in the US and Europe. But there are telling nuances that point to the more immediate stakes for Moscow as well as ambivalences that it has no wish to broadcast to the world.
Only the distinctive gravity of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s rebuke sets it apart from mainstream Western criticism. ‘Targeted actions by a UN member state to eliminate officials of another UN member state, and on the territory of a third sovereign country without its knowledge grossly violate the principles of international law and deserve condemnation’. Other MFA figures added that it was a ‘foolhardy move …. fraught with very negative consequences for the region’.
But Russia’s MOD provided a different point of departure: ‘General Qasem Soleimani was a competent military leader, and commanded well-deserved authority and significant influence on the entire Middle Eastern region’.
Others not far from the MFA and MOD have elaborated: Soleimani was in charge of Iranian military and clandestine operations across the Middle East. But one of his prime tasks was to coordinate and manage rather loose and diverse groups of Iranian militias fighting in Syria on the side of President Assad. Soleimani made a name for himself as an effective and a reliable leader with whom the Russian military could solve practical issues on the ground.
Moreover: For the Iranians, Soleimani was a unifying figure as opposed to many politicians and clerics. The general’s death destroys the balance of forces within the Iranian elite. Given the background of discontent in the country, a rebalancing of the elite may lead to unforeseen consequences for the Islamic regime.
If the Trump administration wishes to articulate a strategic rationale for its actions, it might consider citing these assessments instead of its own.
But the dilemmas faced by the Kremlin are very different from those faced by the White House. A war between the United States and Iran would not only have ‘unforeseen consequences for the Islamic regime’. It would endanger a country that has become a fulcrum of Russia’s interests and prestige across the region. It also would threaten to undo an elaborately balanced structure of influence assiduously put in place since the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt. Today, that influence (and the grudging respect Russia commands from its foes) straddles political and sectarian dividing lines from North Africa to the Caspian. It has been secured not only by boldness but judiciousness. Thus, NATO Ally Turkey is offered S-400s, but Iran is not. More than once, Israel has struck Iranian proxies in Syria with impunity and without Russia’s apparent objection. Moscow needs no reminding that a notable enhancement of Iran’s offensive potential would do it no favours in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, let alone Israel, whose policy towards Russia is far more important.
Of all major actors, Russia has the least to gain from war itself. Its use of force – both state and ‘private’, shocking and subtle – has benefited from a permissive environment, enabled by a marked diminution of US military power over the past decade. But diminution is a relative term. The devastating losses inflicted by US special operations forces and their Kurdish allies in February 2018 on a substantial force of Syrian and Russian Private Military Company (ChVK Vagner) troops in the eastern Syrian district of Deir ez-Zor attracted no small amount of attention. The larger point is that, excluding 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, the number of US forces deployed in the Middle East/Gulf region at the time of Soleimani’s assassination stood at some 50,000 according to US Central Command. The deployment of an additional 3,000 from the 82nd Airborne Division gives Russia yet a further reason to restrain Iran, if further restraint is needed.
Fear of being drawn into a US-Iran conflict is not Russia’s only apprehension. A sudden collapse of Iranian power in Syria would create a degree of chaos dangerous in its own right – as well as a vacuum that Russia would not be able to fill on its own. The American expert Mark Katz is surely right to conclude that ‘despite its condemnation of the US killing of Soleimani, Moscow can mainly be expected to urge both Washington and Tehran to act with restraint, and to do so itself’.
The reverse side of the coin is that Russia has the most to gain from the absence of war. It long has sought to be the regional mediator of necessity, if not of choice. Not only the dwindling of US power, but Washington’s erratic policy has strengthened Moscow’s hand. More than once, Trump has threatened to withdraw forces and then withdrawn them without warning or consultation, inviting charges of betrayal from its long-standing Kurdish allies. Moreover, the future of US and other NATO forces in Iraq is now in the balance. What is more, as Jeffrey Mankoff has noted, US targeting of a foreign official provides Moscow with a disturbing precedent should it decide to ratchet up its malevolent activity elsewhere, not least in Ukraine. Today, that possibility might be far-fetched. Tomorrow, it might not be.
Finally, the damage inflicted on Iran’s confidence and equilibrium by the US strike presents Moscow with an opportunity that it will never acknowledge but has every reason to exploit. As Russian experts have long noted, Iran’s vision of Syria’s future, as well as its current strategy, is notably different from its own. As Anton Mardasov of the Russian International Affairs Council has noted: While Moscow has been committed to strengthening Syria’s formal security and military institutions, Tehran has been trying to build alternative ones….On the ground, there has been persistent tension between Iranian and Russian-backed forces …. Meanwhile, Iran has sought to strengthen its grip on the capital, Damascus, by buying land to effectively create a security zone around it. The IRGC has also managed to strengthen its position in Homs province, where the Russian company Stroytransgaz mines phosphates for export.
Russia has no reason to welcome the collapse of Iranian power in Syria, but it would be happy to see its potency diminished. It has every reason to dread war but every incentive to profit from the perceived risk of it. Contradiction has long been the staple of Russian policy. The Middle East is a nest of contradictions, and Russia’s ability to turn them to its advantage should not be underestimated.