20 years under Putin: a timeline

The January 3 drone strike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad triggered a sharp escalation between Iran and the U.S., causing an array of serious repercussions across the region, including the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet. While a slim majority of Americans support the strike, many are concerned with the increased risk of another U.S. war in the Middle East. Should it come to war, it would play directly into the hands of the Russian government.

 

Soleimani’s assassination left the Kremlin concerned that this could further destabilize Syria and beyond, which made Putin pay a surprise visit to Syria on January 7 to discuss the situation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

 

From Eurasianism to Pragmatic Nationalism

The recent history of Russia’s relationship with Iran is instructive when it comes to understanding Moscow’s approach to the current tensions with the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia isolated and powerless, despite its cache of nuclear weapons. Ideological paradigms perished as well—many of them with a centuries-long legacy. One of them, Slavophilism, was well-incorporated into the late Soviet era’s geopolitical construction that included Eastern Europe, mostly populated by Slavic people, who were considered, according to 19th-century Slavophilic thinkers, Russia’s geopolitical friends. Following the dissolution of the USSR, many of these Slavic nations turned against Russia. Westernism, another 19th-century paradigm, did not fit well into a post-Soviet Russia either. While Moscow did its best to demonstrate friendliness, the West rejected Russia as an equal partner.

Eventually, a new geopolitical paradigm—Eurasianism—found the spotlight. Its origins go back to Russian émigrés who had fled the Soviet regime after the Civil War (1917-1920). Eurasianists claimed that Russia belongs neither to the Slavic World, nor to the West; that it is a civilization in its own right, evolving from the “symbiosis” between Slavic (mostly Orthodox) and Turkic (mostly Muslim) ethnic groups. Eurasianism was barely known in the Soviet period (prominent historian and ethnographer Lev Gumilev, known as the “last Eurasianist,” developed his version of the doctrine largely independent of the émigré community). Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did the Eurasianism paradigm gain popularity, which was, in a way, a response to the post-Soviet Russia’s geopolitical needs.

Indeed, while Eurasianists discarded the notion that Russia is an Asian country, they stressed that Russia’s allies are not in Europe, but mostly in Asia. And it was Iran, an international pariah at the time, a country largely ignored by the early 19th-century Eurasianists, that emerged as a useful partner. In 1994, Moscow engaged in building the Bushehr nuclear plant, Iran’s first commercial nuclear reactor, and started selling Iran sophisticated weapons. Tehran welcomed Russia’s interest in close cooperation. Alexander Dugin, one of Russia’s influential intellectuals, saw the Moscow-Tehran axis as a “Eurasian” counterbalance to what he perceived as a “hostile” America.

However, it turned out that the Russian elites were not ready to break up with the West. As much as they resented the West’s condescension of Russia, they still wanted to trade with Europe, keep their money in European banks, and send their children to European universities. Another problem that marred Iran-Russia cooperation was Moscow’s warm relationship with Israel.

To Moscow, Soleimani’s death and the possibility of direct confrontation between Iran and the U.S. (as well as increased sanctions) could make Tehran more accommodating in Syria and force it to adopt the Russian model to resolve the conflict.

The Russian elites continue to compete for a piece of the global economic pie, supporting the Kremlin’s pursuits to assert its sphere of influence. They are not seeking a permanent conflict with the West, despite the claims made by numerous European and U.S. pundits in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukraine crisis that Russians are imperialists bent on global expansion, no matter the cost. The Russian elites’ attitudes stand in stark contrast to those of the Iranian leaders, who are in clear conflict with the West, especially with the United States, with no endgame in sight. These differences undermined the early “Eurasianist” model, which implied a close alliance between Iran and Russia.

As a result, the Kremlin’s approach to Iran has become situational and pragmatic. In its dealings with Tehran, Moscow has tried not to antagonize the West and Israel too much—a pattern that crystallized by the end of Putin’s second term (2008). Russia procrastinated over the construction of the Bushehr plant. In 2010, Moscow also announced that it would not deliver S-300 antiaircraft missiles, despite contract obligations and the fact that Iran had already paid for them. Tehran was outraged, but Moscow was unfazed.

 

New Love, New Problems

Despite their differences, neither Russia, nor Iran wanted to break off ties entirely. The old “love” was rekindled in 2014, following the sharp deterioration of Russia’s relationship with the West over Ukraine. The S-300s were finally delivered, and in 2015 Russia engaged in the civil war in Syria supporting its leader Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s proxy.

But several years after Russia’s involvement in Syria, the interests of Moscow and Tehran diverged again. Russia went into Syria to protect its naval bases in the country. At that time, Moscow did not want to dominate in Syria or, in fact, the Middle East, and was ready to accept provisions that Syria would be divided de facto, if not de jure, between the different players, which included not only Iran and Russia, but also Turkey and the United States. Moscow did not support Syria’s turning into a launchpad for Iranian attacks against Israel. Essentially, Moscow wanted peace and stability in the region on condition that Russia’s interests as a great power be respected.

Tehran had different objectives—to push the U.S., and possibly Turkey, out of the region and to use Russia as a tool in its endless confrontations with Washington and Tel-Aviv. This led to serious frictions and even some fighting between pro-Iranian and pro-Russian forces in Syria in January 2019. Soleimani’s assassination on January 3 left the Kremlin concerned that this could further destabilize Syria and beyond, which made Putin pay a surprise visit to Syria on January 7 to discuss the situation.

Some observers believe that Soleimani was a pro-Russian politician. It is true that Soleimani, a man of unusual military and geopolitical skills, was well aware that Russia’s help was essential for Iran’s confrontation with the U.S. However, his closeness to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, signaled that he likely supported a permanent war in Syria, which would eradicate any American, Turkish, and, in the long term, even Russian influence. This was hardly in Russia’s interests. Therefore, to Moscow, Soleimani’s death and the possibility of direct confrontation between Iran and the U.S. (as well as increased sanctions) could make Tehran more accommodating in Syria and force it to adopt the Russian model to resolve the conflict, which would also suit U.S., Turkish, and Israeli interests. Moreover, an open conflict with the United States would exhaust Iran even more and clearly preclude its expansion in the region.

The Russian elites see their American counterparts as reckless imperialists who fail to grasp the real reasons behind the Soviet collapse, ignore the U.S. economic and geopolitical decline, and pursue aggressive and costly foreign policies. But the Kremlin likely understands that a U.S. war with Iran is in its interests for at least one reason. It will cost the U.S. several trillion dollars—possibly even more, since such a war lacks a clear endpoint and risks turning into a quagmire. A new war would drain American resources to an unacceptable extent, potentially causing social unrest inside the country. All of these problems would focus Washington’s attention on domestic issues, leaving Russia with its aggressive policies to its own devices.

 

* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend.

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