In an unforseen decision last August, Iran allowed Russian warplanes to conduct several missions over Syria from the Shahid Nojah Air base in Iran. Russian tactical bombers took off from the airbase and targetted several spots related to ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra. As surprising as it seems, observers and policy makers did not expect such move given the long unstable relationship between Russia and Iran, often associated with tension and uncertainty.
If we carefully examine the history, Iran and Russia have often come up against strained relations, from the then leader Ayatollah persistent criticism of the Marxsist ideology during the cold war, to the unjustified Soviet invasion of Afghanistan right after the Iranian revolution and the ouster of the Shah. If bad history generates unreliable relations, then questioning the nature of today Iran-Russia relations becomes legitimate. Internationally, Washington was even more surprised , but avoided any direct criticism nevertheless. Instead, the Department of State proclaimed that it would ponder over whether Russia has violated a UN Security Council resolution 2231 on military dealings with Tahran.
The aforementioned resolution manages international military interactions between Iran and other international actors. Such interaction includes training, financial assistance and the acquistion of new technologies. While the US administration is turning a blind eye on other forms of violations of the UN resolution, the latter seems over concerned about the Russian-Iranian possible alliance. For instance, Obama administration did not directly criticize Iranian presence in Syria best expressed through sending Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Syrian grounds.
Understanding the nature of Iranian-Russian alliance becomes inevitable. Alliances are ususally formed according to two major patterns. First, balancing behaviour is the most classical form of alliances, in which states ally with other individual states to protect themselves from stronger and more powerful sides. The argument that Iran-Russia alliance is the result of balancing behaviour endeavours may be true to some extent. Russia is a key player in the MENA region and it is already forming a significant balance of power against the United States. Russia is a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council and a founding member of the BRICS. Russia is also a significant military power, given its ability to intervene in Ukraine and Syria. Russia is also considered as an economic power . Albeit sanctioned by the West for annexing Crimea, Russia succeeded in implementing effective financial and banking reforms and thus increasing its economic growth from 0.5% to 0.8%. Accordingly, Russia is solely imposing a balance of power and the alliance with Iran would not make sense to reach this end.
Second, alliances may be shaped according to bandwagoning behaviour, by which states join stronger sides in order to avoid potential threat either to protect themselves or to maximize their power. These states usually join newly rising powers out of fear or out of greed. This is applicable to the Iranian-Russian case. Given that economic sanctions on Iran have been lifetd thanks to US-Iran nuclear deal, Iran rejoiced a palpable economic growth from 4.2% to 4.6% in 2016, according to the latest MENA Economic Monitor Report. Politically, Iran is undoubtedly hyper-active in the middle east with a plain military and financial engagement in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In Syria, the Qods Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are currently providing siginificant military assistance to Bashar’s regime. King Abdullah of Jordan expressed his deepest concern about Iranian suspicious presence in the region and stated in an interview published in April 2015 that” We are seeing Iranian boots on the ground, just over the Jordanian-Syrin border”. Iran involvement moved beyong Syria and reached Iraq, with severall Iranian troops fighting Sunni minorities such as the Islamic State. Yemen is another excellent illustration of Iranian involvement in the region. There is no theory that might explain adequately, let alone justifiably, what is happening in Yemen. However, the Iranian ship , which was intercepted in the Arabian Sea and equipped with missiles and weapons to supply the Houthis, may illustrate the extent to which Iran attempts to impose itself in a neverending dynamic middle eastern context. Far from the conflict zone, Iran is also exercising another form of hegemony in North Africa transled through cultural exchanges. For instance, a major forum on “Civilization of Iran and Islam” took place in Tunisia on the 24th August, in an attempt to introduce Iranian ideology and its shite morals and beliefs. Economically, around 15 major agreements were signed between Iran and Algeria addressing different economic sectors, paving the way for a new Iranian power to rise in the Greater Maghreb.
Given such Iranian dominance in the region, Russia alliance with Iran will be undoubtedly fruitful for the Kremlin. Russia will profit from such close relationship with Iran, politically, militarily and economically. The alliance with Iran seems out of greed rather than fear, and the alliance would be illogical if presented as an attempt to reduce US dominance rather Russia realist school best expressed in its endeavour to maximize its power and interests.
Russia’s demise in the Age of Information
We live in the time, where different pieces of information swarm around us, making it almost impossible to escape it.
Over the course of mass media’s existence, its role in opinion and attitude shaping has increased dramatically, particularly because of how much more accessible it has become.
With an average person finding themselves listening to evening news after coming back from work, or even those, who bravely say “I do not watch TV”, but feed their need for information on the internet, we are surrounded by data flow.
And it is hard to stay neutral, as we involuntarily choose sides, depending on what agenda we are most exposed to.
A study conducted by the University of Southern California, used the analogy of an 85 page long newspaper and showed that in 1986, around the time of the Soviet Union’s downfall, people were receiving about 40 newspapers full of information, while in 2007 the number rose to 174.
There is nothing new about the fact that mass and social media provide valuable tools for politicians, who seek to push their own rhetoric into the crowd’s minds. Those, who manage to master the art of using these tools, are arguably capable of creating their own reality.
The classic example which is known by the majority, is 1997 movie, Wag the Dog, where such use of media is being shown in all its glory, even if it is exaggerated.
The West has been the dominant power on the global arena ever since the end of the Cold War, where after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia started to integrate into the world politics as a renewed player, with a new ideology and new political appearance.
The modern post-Soviet era world dictates certain requirements for contemporary participants, among them are free trade, technology exchange, advancement towards green energy solutions and a strong emphasis on free mass media. These are a part of the modern political courtesy, post League of Nations table manners, if you will.
Practice shows that those who choose to turn their countries into resources-only based economies, and to completely or partially ignore these requirements, will forever be on a passenger seat in this car called “global politics”. This is not what Russia is ready to settle for though.
While Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, managed to incorporate the country’s mighty natural resources industries into global economics, giving him a strong political leverage, he chose to be very selective when it comes to anything else.
Power and straightforwardness are seen as few of the main things that Russia respects, and its politicians are proud of the fact that they refuse to participate in this so-called free media theater. But is this sense of pride justifiable?
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, mentioned that he was amazed to see mass and social media being used as the main sources that shed light on chemical weapons being used in Douma, Syria.
“Apart from social media accounts and the video that was shared there, there are no other pieces of evidence, which can be seen as ridiculous by some specialists” – he stated during Russia’s XXVI Assembly of Foreign and Defense Policy Council.
Mr. Lavrov’s speech was brought to the international audiences by pro-Kremlin news channel, Russia Today and failed to make any ripples on the surface of people’s opinion, which was already heavily bombarded by horrible images of the chemical attack, the whole rhetoric of people’s suffering and the West’s responsibility to protect.
Social media or not, nowadays, people like to believe in the power of freedom of speech and share the awareness. After all, it was Twitter that brought us the Arab Spring.
Another prime example of storm clouds gathering around Russia’s reputation is the latest poisoning of Russia’s former military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal. The incident took place in the middle of UK’s very peaceful city of Salisbury and has awoken the memories of a similar poisoning from several years ago of Alexander Litvinenko, who used to be a part of Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Mr. Skripal’s poisoning happened exactly two weeks before Russia’s presidential elections, which is hardly the best international PR campaign for President Putin.
The event was quickly used by the Western media to even further demonize the people’s vision of Russia’s politicians, portraying them as very conniving and not trustworthy.
Yet, OPCW-designated laboratory, based in Spiez, Switzerland has officially confirmed, that the poison, used on Mr. Skripal, shows traces of certain elements, which can be found only among NATO’s arsenal.
The news were delivered through Russia’s highest possible diplomatic level – the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. One would assume that this scandalous piece of information would get an intense coverage by the mass media. But the reality shows the absolute opposite.
It is not enough to simply “share the truth” with the world, this truth has to be imbedded into people’s minds through constant exposure and endless repetition, just like certain Western media repeats time and time again that Russia is a criminal state.
If you run a quick internet search of Mr. Skripal’s poisoning, the vast majority of non-Russian speaking newspapers and media channels would give you same old information about the attack itself and the following clean-up, while Russian sources would be screaming about Western conspiracy and the revelations from the Swiss lab.
If this information is indeed that vital (and it is), why don’t we see it on every TV channel here in the West? Where are the Russian foreign public relations specialists, pressing BBC, CNN and the others to get a minute of their time to spread this information, even though it is against those news outlets’ agendas?
Russia’s politicians, who are mainly Soviet-era raised, seem to be stuck in the late 80’s mindset, where people were not that exposed to the power of media and where the country had very little ability to influence anything that the average person “consumes” outside the Soviet Union.
It is not any longer enough to win only your citizens’ hearts, but as an international political player, Russia has to realize the importance of the global public’s believes and opinions.
The country’s Foreign Ministry actively chooses to be passive about this information war. This war is conducted not only behind the curtains, not only on the floor of the UN’s Security Council, it is also in people’s minds.
Vladimir Putin welcomes new ambassadors in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin has assertively reminded 17 newly arrived foreign envoys to make efforts to facilitate the development of multifaceted relations with Russia in every possible way, strengthen political dialogue, boost trade and economic relations, deepen humanitarian and cultural ties.
“The role of diplomacy and diplomats are particularly important,” he explained and gave the assurance that Moscow was committed to constructive dialogue with its foreign partners and would unreservedly promote a positive agenda.
“For our part, we are ready to welcome your constructive initiatives, you can count on the support of Russian authorities, state institutions, business circles and the public,” Putin said, addressing the foreign ambassadors in a special ceremony held in the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace.
The 17 newly appointed ambassadors are from Austria, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Italy, Jordan, Nigeria, Montenegro, Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, The Gambia, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
During the speech, Putin strongly reminded them about the growing challenges and threats confronting the global community and urged them to play a pivotal role in ensuring sustainable development, global peace and stability.
“As for Russia, it will continue to consistently be committed to strengthening global and regional security and stability and fully comply with its international obligations, build constructive cooperation with partners based on respect relying on international legal norms and the United Nations Charter,” the Russian leader said.
According to Putin, “diplomats are called upon to facilitate the joint search for answers to large-scale challenges and threats, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and climate change.”
In addition to supporting greater security, stability and delivering promptly on its international obligations, Putin also emphasized the readiness of Russia to continue boosting overall ties both at bilateral level and on the world stage with African countries. According to the longstanding tradition, the Russian leader said a few words about the interaction with the individual countries in the welcome speech.
Of particular importance, Putin noted that Russia was interested in broadening ties with the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“We very much appreciate our relations with Nigeria, an important partner for us on the African continent. We support the further expansion of mutually beneficial Russian-Nigerian ties, including cooperation on hydrocarbon extraction and aluminum production, as well as in the military-technical field,” he told the new Nigerian ambassador, Professor Steve Davies Ugba, who had arrived with an accumulated experience in corporate affairs and several years of academic teaching in the United States.
He went on to inform the gathering that the foundation for the cooperation between Russia and Ghana was laid over 60 years ago. “We have accumulated a great deal of experience in working together in both the trade and economic sphere and in politics. Currently, we are developing promising projects in the nuclear and oil industries, and we are discussing the prospects of supplying Ghana with Russian airplanes, helicopters and automobiles,” Putin said.
Oheneba Dr. Akyaa Opoku Ware, Ghana’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, was one of those who presented credentials to Putin. By profession, she is a qualified medical doctor from The Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and was appointed as an ambassador to the Russian Federation and former Soviet republics by President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on September 13, 2017.
With regards to the Arab Republic of Egypt, Putin offered a bit more saying that the strategic partnership with Egypt is being strengthened. In August, Russia and Egypt will mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Cooperation between Russia and Egypt is very active and includes the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Egypt, the establishment of a Russian industrial zone in the Port Said region, and the deepening of military and defense industry cooperation.
“I would also like to point out that regular flights between the capitals of the two countries have been resumed. We continue to work on resuming the rest of the flights,” he pointed out.
Last December, fruitful talks with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were held in Cairo, he noted, and added that they both maintained regular dialogue on a range of topics, including relevant international and regional issues because both countries have had close or similar positions. Quite recently, Putin heartily congratulated the President of Egypt on his resounding victory at the recent elections.
According to diplomatic sources, Mr. Ihab Talaat Nasr, the new Egyptian ambassador to Russia, has replaced Mr. Mohammed al-Badri who completed his mission late October 2017. Previously, Ihab Nasr was the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt responsible for European affairs.
The Gambia was in the Kremlin for the first time in the country’s history with the official opening of an embassy in Moscow. Madam Jainaba Bah, a Senior Member of the United Democratic Party (UDP), became the first resident ambassador of The Gambia in the Russian Federation.
“Our ties with the Republic of The Gambia are traditionally constructive. The Russian side is interested in expanding economic cooperation, including by increasing the supply of machinery and agricultural products to the republic. We will continue to expand the practice of training Gambian specialists at Russian universities,” the Russian leader explained.
Significantly, Putin underscores the fact that friendly cooperation is maintained with the Republic of the Congo. Bilateral cooperation covers a number of major projects, including the construction of a 1,334 km oil pipeline. In February, Rosatom and the Science Ministry of the Congo signed a memorandum of understanding. Over 7,000 citizens of the Congo have received higher education at Soviet and Russian universities.
Talking about Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, he said that Russia’s relations with the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire would continue to develop in traditionally constructive spirit.
“We mainly interact with the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire in the trade and economic sphere. Russia supplies to this country chemical and food products and imports cocoa and its derivatives. As part of our humanitarian efforts, medicine and medical equipment from Russia are regularly sent to the Republic,” Putin told the new ambassador, Mr. Roger Gnanga, who had served in diplomatic post in Washington.
Currently, Côte d’Ivoire is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia also stands ready to work with the Ivorian side at the UN.
Interestingly, Benin has frequently changed its ambassadors. Mr. Noukpo Clement Kiki, the newly appointed Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to the Russian Federation, is a professional teacher and administrator for over 20 years. Quite recently, he had a short diplomatic stint in Canada and now transferred to Moscow.
Relations with Benin are developing in a constructive spirit. Russia cooperates on energy and transport. Russia exports food and chemical products. Over 2,500 citizens of Benin have graduated from Russian universities, according to Putin.
Whatever the possible shortfalls, Putin optimistically expects that, with active participation of the 17 newly arrived ambassadors, these relations will develop dynamically for the mutual benefit of the peoples of their individual countries and Russia, and in the interests of international stability and security.
“I am confident that your time in Russia will allow you to better know our country and its rich history and culture, and will leave you with new unforgettable impressions,” Putin, elected for another six-year presidential term and to be inaugurated into office on May 7, told the gathering.
In conclusion, Putin congratulated the new foreign envoys with the official beginning of an important and honorable diplomatic mission, and with the hope that their activities in the Russian Federation will be productive and promote the development of relations between the countries they represent and the Russian Federation.
Russia vs the West: A War Scenario and a New Logic of Confrontation
The aggravation of rivalry between Russia and the West in the past few months is raising the urgent question of a possible further escalation of tensions and its forms and consequences. Political relations between Moscow and Western capitals have gone beyond the critical point. The threadbare thesis about the lack of trust can be confidently discarded. Things are much worse. The sides do not want to and cannot listen to each other. Official positions and signals are perceived as provocations and trolling. Any opinion is described from the very start as manipulation, propaganda or diversion. Pragmatic voices are sinking in the growing flow of populism. The small islands of dialogue on common issues are rapidly narrowing or disappearing altogether. Hysteria in the media, hostility and vulgarity of rhetoric far exceed Cold War levels. We have entered a new and much more dangerous stage of the conflict, a stage that did not exist several weeks ago.
The current situation is fundamentally different from what existed since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and up to the Skripals case. The former logic of relations was obviously confrontational. The sides had sharp differences on major issues. But they continued political dialogue that was generally rational and relatively predictable. Any hostile actions against one another had a specific and more or less verifiable pretext. The exchange of sanctions was based on understandable reasons. Various incidents were thoroughly and repeatedly verified and taken with much caution. We might dislike Ukraine-related EU sanctions but Brussels carefully avoided any escalation of sanctions for “promoting propaganda and undermining democracy,” an accusation that is hard to verify but easy to turn into a conflict-prone and provocative form. We might dislike Robert Mueller’s investigation and the very pretext for it but it was at least systematic and relatively transparent. It was hard to suspect the EU and the US of encouraging Russia’s restrictions on their food exports but, albeit unpleasant, Russian counter- sanctions had a transparent and understandable logic. Both sides were concerned over potential incidents at sea or in the air but the military actively cooperated with each other to prevent them, despite deep political differences. Apparently, in the current confrontational conditions “stable deterrence,” a scenario that seemed to be the least harmful, is receding into the past.
At least three events have triggered the new logic of confrontation: the Skripal case, Washington’s new sanctions and the chemical incident in Syria. The Skripal case stands out because the collective West went for a sharp escalation without having authentic and transparent facts indicating Russia’s involvement in the incident. Not a single fact meeting these requirements has been presented to the public at large so far. The theory of Russia’s involvement is based on verbal lace, references to its “bad reputation” and some “secret information” whose value as evidence equals zero unless it is openly presented to the public. At the same time, more and more questions and discrepancies are arising, starting with the nature and origin of the toxic chemical and ending with the methods of its use. Symptomatically, the case of the recovering Skripals has become the subject of a growing number of jokes. However, the grotesque does not reduce the danger of it being a precedent. What if a similar provocation is staged tomorrow? What if several provocations are staged at the same time? What will our Western partners do and how will Russia react to this? Expel the remaining diplomats, including security officers and chefs? Or adopt some tougher measures?
The second event is Washington’s new sanctions against Russian companies, politicians and entrepreneurs. It would seem that everyone has already got used to sanctions. However, politically today they are like a nervous cowboy from a Western comedy, who is firing his two six-shooters, whether he has to or not. Previously, new sanctions were based on a specific pretext, whereas today they are becoming similar in nature to daily carpet bombings. No doubt, they are doing harm to Russia’s economy, business and citizens. But this version of sanction policy can only anger Moscow and perplex observers by the absence of any clear-cut strategy. Sanctions are losing their value as a tool of diplomacy and becoming an implement of war. Such an approach to sanctions is good for the domestic audience. Probably, it would have been rational in its own way were it not applied to a nuclear power that should hardly be overrated but certainly should not be underrated.
The third event is yet another chemical attack in Syria. This event was expected but is no less dangerous for that reason. Any objective investigation is highly unlikely under the circumstances. The sides will consider any version of events as fake, with the threat of force emerging as the only argument. And this is where the main danger lies. Today, Syria is the place where there is the greatest danger of the confrontation between Russia and the West turning into an open armed conflict. Such a scenario is easy to visualize.
Suppose another “chemical” or some other incident takes place in Syria. The “chemical” trigger looks most likely. This theme is well-covered by the media and is a serious pretext. Suppose Washington decides to use force, not just a cosmetic strike with ten or twenty Tomahawks, but a massive attack on the remaining military and civilian infrastructure of the Syrian Government. This is the scenario’s first bifurcation, or the matter of Russia’s involvement. Its bases can remain intact. But if Moscow uses its forces (as its military promised) a strike will be delivered at Khmeimim and Tartus. Technically it is possible to launch such a strike and destroy both bases and their military personnel, especially if US troops die during an attack on Bashar al-Assad.
This course of events could be unintentional but it could also be planned. The Russian group in Syria has done an excellent job fighting terrorists but it would be vulnerable in the event of a clash with the Americans. The TO is remotely located and it is difficult to deliver supplies. The Americans have an advantage as far as the concentration and support of their attack force is concerned. Stakes may be made on an utterly tough, hard-hitting and humiliating defeat of Russia as the result of a lightning strike. This could be like a new 19th-century Crimean war, albeit extremely compressed in time and space.
This scenario may seem extremely risky (if not crazy) but upon closer analysis it has logic of its own. And here comes the next bifurcation. What will Moscow do, if this happens? The first option (that would be the most desirable for Washington): Russia would have to bite the dust and admit defeat. Yes, Russia is a nuclear power but will it mount a nuclear strike because of a clash with the Americans in Syria, knowing that its strike will result in retaliation? In other words, the stakes here are on the hope that Moscow will not press the button because this would mean suicide. In this scenario, victory would be on Washington’s side without reservation. It will show that it is possible and necessary to cut down to size an opponent that has crossed the line. This will be a powerful signal to all the rest while America and Trump personally will gain the reputation of an uncompromising and tough player.
But there is also a second option. It is difficult to analyze it on the basis of the theory of rational choice. It may simply not work within Russia’s strategic culture and tradition. The Russians may press the button. Moscow is not confined to the option of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It can also offer a limited, albeit very painful, response. Technically this is also possible and dangerous in its own way. If, say, an aircraft carrier or a big warship is demonstratively sunk, it is Washington that risks biting the dust. But this is not in the US tradition, either. As a result, tensions will escalate, considerably increasing the risk of MAD.
This scenario may seem excessively alarmist. The consciousness of people, who lived amid the stability of the Cold War and the subsequent 30 peaceful years, naturally rejects it as unrealistic. However, history shows that disasters happen contrary to usual patterns and are merciless to their makers.
It is possible to avoid the disaster in two ways: either by starting negotiations and finding a compromise or by strengthening alliances and maintaining a balance of power. The current realities are making the second option more likely. In all probability, Moscow will continue its course towards a rapprochement with China and other players and a new model of bipolarity will take shape in the world. However, making forecasts in international relations is a thankless task. History will follow its own path, a path it alone can fathom.
First published in Valdai Discussion Club
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