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Russia tries to use Iranian geopolitical ambitions to undermine U.S. in the Gulf region

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Strengthening of Russia-Iran alliance in Syria can lead to strengthening positions of Tehran in the Middle East and disruption of situation in several Gulf States.

There are strong evidences of political and military cooperation and actions coordination between Iran and Russia in Syria that show probability of enhancing Tehran’s position in the region and using it by Moscow to undermine the Saudi Arabia leadership as far as stability in the Gulf.

Russia – US relations exacerbation ‘caused by Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, aggression in Ukraine and attempts to expand influence in Eastern Europe and Baltic region induce Moscow to return to confrontation with the West using methods of the Cold War. Russia leadership supposes that the intensification of intervention in conflicts abroad can be an effective way to renew cooperation with the West, lift sanctions and come to a compromise on geopolitical spheres of influence.

Groups of Iranian troops have been arriving in Syria via Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia province as the Syrian army launches a major offensive north of the strategic city of Homs backed by Russian military aircrafts. The airport has become a joint hub for Iranian and Russian forces. Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq signed intelligence-sharing agreement. Some intelligence data Moscow receives via Tehran from Hezbollah forces. October 13th Iraq has begun bombing Islamic State fighters with the help of a new intelligence center operated by Russia, Iran and Syria. If Russia can provide only satellite and technical intelligence support all ground intelligence collection with field sources and agent network is provided by Iranian and less by Syrian opportunities.

The deeper convergence between Moscow and Tehran on Damask became clear since April this year after the visit of the Chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran Alaeddin Boroujerdi to Moscow. Also the Iranian military support in Syria began after he met the Syrian parliament speaker in Damascus. The discussion issue was the joint operation against opposition fighters in northwest Syria.

Russia could try to stimulate Iran for increased ground activity in Syria and support Bashar Assad’s regime to break down the negotiation process between Tehran and Washington. The lifting of sanctions against Iran is the main threat for Moscow because of fall in oil prices prospects. The World Bank forecast is $10 per barrel fall in case of this scenario. At the same time the IMF expects that Russian economy will lose 3.4% this year because of sanctions and low oil prices in 2015. But this estimation is based on current prices and not includes the scenario of Iran’s output on the market after lifting sanctions against Tehran that doubtless will lead to the deepen crisis in Russian economy. So sanctions retention against Iran is one of the current main intentions of Kremlin in the region. Moscow is achieving this aim by playing on the Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions, i.e. its desire to strengthen regional positions.

Moscow can support Iran in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia and use pro-Iranian Shia communities to destabilize several Gulf States. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have not been this high since the end of the Iran–Iraq War in 1988. The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubair said in July this year that the kingdom is against any Iranian interference in the Arab world. Meanwhile Iran has expanded to the extent where it now has a military presence in Saudi Arabia’s immediate environs: to the north in Iraq, and in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor Yemen, while its affiliates are active as opposition groups in Bahrain to the east. Iran is investing plenty of its manpower and funds in a project which seemingly aims to lay siege to the Gulf countries. There is an indirect confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria as forces from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are directly leading militias from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan to fight in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Russia can encourage Tehran to use the potential of pro-Iranian Shia political groupings like Islahiyyah and Hezbollah Al-Hejaz and battle groups in Al-Ahsa and Qatif regions (Eastern province) to shake the integrity of the Kingdom. The same actions could be launched in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (Sharjah and Dubai emirates) and possibly Kuwait. Such scenario will trigger the oil prices sharp growth and eliminating the chance of some EU states like Poland to diversify their oil supply (saving Russian dominance on European market) by oil production disruption and maintaining instability in oilfields zones. Creation of the Shia Pro-Iranian governments or autonomous exclaves in Gulf States will destroy existing interstate geopolitical system in the Middle East. The correspondence of this with Russian tactic of unrecognized states creation in Black Sea region gives a chance to claim the Russian coordination of such policy using the resources and influence of Iran. It is likely that Iranian uncovered activity in Syria was suggested by Kremlin and not vice versa as affirmed by former Russian president adviser Illarionov at October, 17.

Russia can be interested in enhancing positions of Iran in Tajikistan as the border state with instable Afghanistan staying the significant threat for Russia from the South which also is the gate for radical groups backed by some Gulf circles. Russia is vulnerable rom the South direction facing risks of IS forces deployment in Central Asia states close to Russia borders. In recent years Tajikistan becomes the center of competition between Iran and KSA in Central Asia for the influence. Tajik foreign minister in 2012 called Iran as the best strategic partner. So in the fighting for influence on Dushanbe between Muslim Iran, KSA, Pakistan and Afghanistan Kremlin choose Tehran as the most loyal and less dangerous power to support.

Strengthening of Russia-Iran alliance can increase vulnerability of the US and its Western Allies because of the Middle East states integrity risks and local conflicts development that will negatively affect the world economy.

At the same time Russia tries to use Iranian ambitions to undermine the US positions in the Gulf region, increase Kremlin’s value on the world energy market and finally to include Shia axis states to Russian geopolitical projects confronting US and its allies.

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Putin’s “January Sermon”: Is it a path to democratization of Russia or a hoax?

Punsara Amarasinghe

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The volatile political trajectory and its subtle actions in Russia have always created awe among the political pundits in the West who are immensely obsessed with the geopolitical space in Ruski Mir. However, history has always aggrandized Russia as a state that cannot be easily fathomed. Just like how a dull and calm plot reaches its most unexpected culmination in a Dostoyevsky’s novel, the political trajectory in Russia has always been thrilling. The most recent political events followed by president Vladimir Putin’s annual speech in the state Duma on 15th of January is an epitome for the uncanny political nature of the world largest state.

The speech delivered by president Putin on 15th of January in the Duma was entirely an unexpected political explosion. In his speech, he proposed a serious of constitutional changes that would escalate the powers of the parliament eventually leading to an increase of prime minister’s power. Article 83 and 84 of the Current constitution in Russian federation have vested considerable power in the hands of the president over the state duma and the proposed changes would inevitably revoke them. A legitimate question appears before any inquisitive person on Russian politics is “Why Putin would allow Duma to curtail his power “. Political history of president Putin has aptly proven his sharp political acumen as a politician who properly kept his grip.  However, this time he opted for rather a completely a different strategy by empowering the state Duma, which is the lower house of Russian parliament to appoint the prime minister who is currently being appointed by the president with Duma’s consent.

The increasing the power of a national council happens to be the most notable proposition of these recommendations and Putin indicated the need to strengthen the constitutional role as a crucial factor. The state council was a creation of Putin during his first term in Kremlin. Thus far it has served as an advisory body and it is consisted of regional governors, speakers of the both houses in the parliament and the party leaders. The proposed constitutional recommendations will boost its power and it is still unclear the way it would safeguard Putin from a political ebb. It not clear what role president Putin fancies in empowering the national council from nonentity to a powerful tool in Russian state apparatus. The evasive step taken by the former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 seems like a potential strategy Putin determines to implement. The last holdover from the Soviet era Kazakhstan resigned from the presidency and retained the influential job of leading country’s security council as the leader of the nation. Perhaps, Putin will embrace the same strategy of symbolizing an honorable step down while keeping his grip in a different way such a making himself as the head of the national council. Yet, making such an arm chair prediction about his possible strategy to remain in power beyond 2024 may be rather futile as Vladimir Putin has always shown a political unpredictability in his actions.

The appointment of Mikhail Mishustin to the prime minister post after Dmitry Medvedev stepped down along with his cabinet is the next notable incident emerged after 15th of January. Unlike Putin’s protégée Medvedev the newly appointed president holds no significant political activism as an ally or at least as a panegyric. He is being described as a technocrat and apolitical figure who was responsible for transforming the aged old Russian tax service into an era of digitalization.  From a vantage point, the choice of Putin appears to be a wise move with the meritocratic capability of Mishustin regardless of his lack of affinity with the politics. Since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the economy of Russia has been in the doldrums and some economists have described the last decade as a stagnant decade for Russia’s economy. Given his solid background in economics and practical experience with taxation may prove his competence to become the premier in midst of an economic stagnation. Mishustin’s appointment reminds of the count Sergei Witte’s appointment by Tsar Nicolas II in 1905 whose capacity as an econometrician boosted Russia’s industrial growth for a shorter period. 

The democratic reforms have always been sort of tough moves throughout Russian history. Especially the centralization of political power has always impeded Russia from reaching democratization. The confrontation between president Yeltsin and the parliament in the fall of 1993 eventually ended up in Yeltsin’s outrageous move of sending armed tanks to the parliament building. The current Russian constitution which has placed enormous power under in the hands of the president is an offshoot of the constitution adopted in Yeltsin era. Putin’s abrupt decision to reduce that will at least theoretically undo the damage wrought by 1993 constitution. In principle, the transition of power from the president to the parliament will pave the way to increase the high chances of check and balance in power crating a greater change in Russian political culture.

All in all, the ostensible motive of the constitutional reforms will assist Russia to get into better strides as a normal democracy without enabling the centralization of power around one man. But can we believe that country that has never undergone a proper western democracy will be adamant for such a mammoth change? The real politic in Russian history has always shown the rise of lesser known political characters to the zenith of power by taking the advantage of chaos. When Russian state was in a verge of extension Mikhail Romanova came out of nowhere and created the house of Romanovs that lasted for three hundred years. When Lenin died creating chaotic power vacuum in 1924, lesser known Stalin exterminated all his foes and tightened the power of newly born USSR and finally made it a super power. The sudden power shift Putin proposed on 15th of January is simply a tranquil sign before a great political storm in Russia and ironically Russians are no strangers for such political storms.

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Putin and the “Xi Jinping” Model in Russia

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The first month of this new decade would be remembered in future for one of the very significant events which could mark a drastic shift in the world order. Putin has tried to outplay the very constitutional values of the country and it could prove very dangerous to Russia and its citizens.

Putin tries to get the “Power” For-ever

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on 15th January 2020, announced few drastic changes which he was planning in the country. He announced his plans to hold a referendum to make major constitutional changes which would change picture of Russian politics and internal governmental system completely. Firstly, as per the Russian Constitution the limit to Presidential term for a candidate is two-consecutive terms which clearly means that Putin, who had acquired power by swapping his office with the then President in 2012, has a constitutional mandate to leave his office in 2024 without being any chance to be re-appointed. Also given the fact that 2012 swapping was also followed by the massive protests in the country, he could not plan the same strategy for yet another time as there are chances that if he does so then even more protests are bound to take place. Furthermore, he has tried to reduce the Presidential powers and has decided to resist the political powers of one his closest political ally – the Prime Minister who quit – Mr Dmitri Medvedev and has succeeded in making Mr Mikhail Mishustin the next PM of the country. This move is very clever one as Mishustin was more of a bureaucrat without any strong political image. This further means that there would be no one in the government who could politically compete with Putin in near future. The constitutional changes also include vesting more powers with regards to judiciary in the parliament which indicates that it would serve as a resistance, to some extent, for a free and fair judicial system of the country which might be a good sign for politicians but is surely worrisome for the common citizens. Putin thus has tried to make a way for himself as a politician and has seek his self-interest keeping Russia’s political system at stake. The already “not so democratic” Russia will further find itself in a worsened situation.

All may not go well within Kremlin

The attempt by Vladimir Putin to get a permanent solution for his political career by outplaying the constitutional norms may not be welcomed by the Russians. Firstly, the move might be facing a great backlash in form of the protests which were also used to greet Putin in 2012 after he swap his constitutional position with the then President in order to get his term as President. Those protests were shut down anyhow but these might not. These may further create an additional chaos in the upcoming years, given the fact that Putin’s Presidential term still has 4 more years left. Furthermore, vesting more constitutional powers for him clearly means that further suppression of the rights of Russians which have taken place in recent years.

The recent laws and legislations which are effective taken up to censor the media from reporting against state, to curb internet rights by not allowing “Foreign” media, to not respect the voices of people that are against the regime, suggests that if Putin gets an eternal political power in Russia then further depletion of democratic norms are probably inevitable in the country. Moreover, another impact of this step would be a complete rupture of the “opposition” in the country. Leaders and political opponents would no longer be able to counter Putin or even prominently challenge any of his decisions in the future as judiciary itself would be under eyes of the parliament.

This further means that “One-man rule” is a future scenario in Russia, if these steps which Putin has planned and is planning gets implemented successfully. The proposal of setting upper limit for total number of terms of President as two in number and not allowing any candidate to hold the post who either hasn’t been a resident in the country for past 25 years or else has held any foreign passport or residential permit in past is also to curb the opposition. This proposal is clearly targeting the candidates who might have a liberal western influence in their ideology and work, thereby depleting the citizens from even having proper opposition leaders.

Although he has still sought the referendum on the proposals, given the present circumstances and past records, the decision by Putin is expected to face protests throughout the country. Earlier, in 2012, Putin had ruptured down the protestors and thereby Putin has cleverly tried to make this decision seem a Public opinion through referendum but it would be interesting to watch how transparent the referendum is actually going to be.

A future trajectory for Policies getting Influenced

Putin having a “life-long” political power being in the governmental system might set up few new trajectories in the Russian policies and for the long term in the global order as well. Putin remaining permanently means further improvement in Russia’s bonding with Beijing and thereby broadening of the scope for Chinese influence in Central Asia affecting many countries which were part of the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, these countries would see themselves sandwiched between two major communist countries having “One-man Rule”. This would further mean diminishing the chances of Russian pull-off from Syria which further implies a non-stable Middle East indulged in a tug of war between various non-regional powers. Moreover, if Putin gets extraordinary power without any scrutiny from any organ of the government inside the country, he would further continue giving its support to the oppressive Asaad regime in Syria clearly stopping any further attempts of de-escalation in the region.

It should come as no surprise if US finds itself more uncomfortable in various regions and policies as China – which has a “Permanent Xi-Jinping” term and Russia – which is expected to have a “Permanent Putin” term will always keep Washington annoying in various aspects of foreign policy. Thus, it would be notable to see how Americans vote in 2020 for their presidential elections and if Republicans are able to retain power or not.

However, main concern for Kremlin is going to be its economy in the future. After disintegration of former USSR, Russia has always found difficulty in competing in the global markets and has relied mainly on the weapons for gaining a boost in their economy, however Putin has shifted from this trend and has started exploring African subcontinent for Russian advantage. Thus, Putin gaining a permanent power means a reinforce of this strategy and a more prominent use of regional partnership including BRICS and SCO.

Thus, Putin getting a permanent leadership role of Moscow has its own implications for country’s internal politics as well as its various foreign policy aspects. If the referendum is held just for the name’s sake then Russians would the most vulnerable among all the players involved in this constitutional change as the change certainly makes their future most uncertain. It is a high time that Russians understand their basic rights and Putin understands the past of the Revolutions.

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Meet Mikhail Mishustin, Russia’s new Prime Minister

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Plucked from obscurity and little known in wide national political scene, the Head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, to become the new Prime Minister was a complete surprise, but not the first time in Russia’s politics. President Vladimir Putin was pulled upto the top political field, in a similar way, by Boris Yeltsin. In August 1999, Putin was appointed one of three First Deputy Prime Ministers, and later on, was appointed acting Prime Minister of the Government of the Russian Federation by Yeltsin.

Yeltsin announced that he wanted to see Putin as his successor. Readily, Putin agreed to run for the presidency and later approved by State Duma with 233 votes in favor (vs. 84 against, 17 abstained), while a simple majority of 226 was required, making him Russia’s fifth PM in fewer than eighteen months.

On his appointment, few expected Putin, virtually unknown to the general public, to last any longer than his predecessors. He was initially regarded as a Yeltsin loyalist, like other prime ministers of Boris Yeltsin, Putin did not choose ministers himself, his cabinet was determined by the presidential administration.

Now, with a new chapter opening, Mikhail Mishustin eventually replaces Dmitry Medvedev who served as Prime Minister until mid-January 2020. Putin and Medvedev worked together and even switched positions between President and Prime Minister. This switch was termed by many in the media as “Rokirovka”, the Russian term for the chess move “casting” and later Medvedev said he himself would be ready to perform “practical work in the government” with under Putin.

On January 15, in his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin explicitly explained: “Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation. The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.”

Meeting with the Cabinet thereafter, Putin said: “For my part, I also want to thank you for everything that has been done so far in our joint work. I am satisfied with the results of your work. Of course, not everything was accomplished, but things never work out in full.” He thanked the government and added that Medvedev served as President and for almost eight years now he has been the Prime Minister, which is probably the longest stint in this post in Russia’s recent history.

Further, Putin held a separate working meeting with Head of the Federal Taxation Service Mikhail Mishustin and proposed him to take the post of Prime Minister. Having received his consent, the President submitted the candidacy of Mikhail Mishustin for consideration to the State Duma.

On January 16, the State Duma (lower house) endorsed Mishustin, as the new Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. As many as 383 lawmakers supported Putin’s choice, none were against, and 41 parliamentarians abstained. “Colleagues, the decision has been taken. We have given consent to the appointment of Mishustin Mikhail Vladimirovich as Prime Minister by the president of the Russian Federation,” Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said, summing up the results of the vote.

President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree appointing Mikhail Mishustin as the country’s Prime Minister. “In accordance with Article 83(a) of the Russian Constitution, Mikhail Vladimirovich Mishustin is appointed as Russia’s Prime Minister,” says the decree published on the Kremlin’s website. The decree comes into force on the day of its signing.

Mikhail Mishustin was born on March 3, 1966 in Moscow to a father of Russian-Jewish origin and a mother of Russian origin. He completed postgraduate studies in 1992. He is married and has three sons. His interest is in sport, playing ice hockey. He is a member of the supervisory board of HC CSKA Moscow.

In 2003, he defended a thesis, headlined “Mechanism of state fiscal management in Russia” and received a PhD in economics. In 2010, he received a doctoral degree in economics at the Academy of National Economy under the Government of the Russian Federation (currently Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration).

Since graduation, he has worked in several enterprises. In February 2009, he joined the personnel reserve of the President of Russia. In 2010, Mikhail Mishustin was appointed as the Head of the Federal Tax Service (FTS). From 2011-2018, he was a member of the Presidential Council for Financial Market Development.

During this period, the tax service was criticized for its overly strict approach to business, and Mishustin rejected this accusation, citing a significant reduction in the number of inspections. So, with the arrival of Mishustin in 2010, the Federal tax service changed its approach to the organization of control events, focusing on analytical work.

As a result, the number of on-site tax audits has sharply decreased, while their efficiency has increased. If earlier every tenth taxpayer was checked, in 2018, the tax authorities checked only one small business company out of 4,000. The number of inspections of large and medium-sized businesses has also decreased significantly.

“This candidacy comes absolutely unexpectedly, but that does not mean he is a figure who brings about repulsion. Perhaps even the contrary. Not all fiscal heads are likeable and agreeable. In my view, Mishustin is largely seen by the public as agreeable,” Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov told Interfax News Agency.

“This is yet more proof that our president relies on professionals at this difficult, critical moment when the country needs a qualitative leap, primarily in the economic sphere. This is down to new technology, digitalization; this is precisely where Mishustin made a mark as the Russian tax chief. He has huge experience under his belt, which has been embedded into the system,” added Umakhanov.

First Deputy Head of the Federation Council Committee for the Budget and Financial Markets Sergei Ryabukhin, for his part, described Mishustin as a very successful public administrator. “A top professional, a very big statesman and individual who has achieved great successes within the system of public administration in the tax and financial sphere. I think his is a good candidacy,” according to Ryabukhin.

According to experts, the surprise shake-up could have been triggered by launching a reset of the Russian political system and the upcoming power shift. Political Analyst Konstantin Kalachev believes that Putin’s decision to pick Mishustin as the new premier is related to his political neutrality, and he is also known in the business and corporate community. However, the new head of the government is unlikely to become Putin’s successor.

All officials interviewed by Vedomosti have described the choice as a surprise but a good one. Taxation is the only sector that has demonstrated a breakthrough in Russia’s state administration. The Russian Tax Service is one of the best in the world in terms of collecting taxes and developing technologies, an official linked to the financial system said. Mishustin is well-known in the government as a good administrator and his service was a lifesaver during the crisis, according to several media reports.

Mishustin is tasked with fulfilling Putin’s economic program, namely the National Projects to the tune of 26 trillion rubles ($424 billion) up to 2024. The program’s slow implementation and weak economic growth were among the reasons Medvedev’s government came under fire, the paper says. Mishustin’s major achievement is turning the tax-collecting agency into a service tool, said Partner at Taxology Alexei Artyukh.

He reformed the administration of major taxpayers and businesses can coordinate deals in advance in exchange for the Federal Tax Service’s access to companies’ accounting systems. If these approaches are extended to other services, this would result in huge progress, Alexei Artyukh said.

Kommersant, a local Russian newspaper, reported that Russia would remain as a strong presidential republic, and all the upcoming changes are linked to the the upcoming presidential election in 2024. Unreservedly, Mishustin stated during a plenary session of the State Duma that Russia has sufficient funds to achieve all goals set by President Vladimir Putin. Implementation of all the social obligations the president enumerated in his State of the Nation Address would require $64.8 billion.

Russia, with the largest territory in the world, has a wide natural resource base, including major deposits of timber, petroleum, natural gas, coal, ores and other mineral resources that can be used to support the expected economic development and raise the overall living standards of the population.

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