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Troubled Partners: What Russia and Turkey are Dividing Up in Syria

Ruslan Mamedov

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“Turkey is our close partner, our ally,” said Presidential Spokesperson and Turkologist Dmitry Peskov on the eve of the meeting in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. On August 27, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, where they held a working meeting on the bilateral agenda. Regardless of all their differences, the two countries still need each other greatly.

Although relations between Moscow and Ankara are developing in many areas, the focus was naturally on the further actions of the parties in the crisis-affected Syria. Will Turkey conduct another operation in Syria? And what is Moscow’s opinion?

Several events of importance for Russia–Turkey relations took place a week before the presidents met. On August 21, the first creditor was selected for the company building the Akkuyu NPP strategic facility. On August 27, deliveries started on the second S-400 battalion to Mürted Air Base in Ankara. As the United States removed Turkey from the F35 project following the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, analysts believe that Turkey might look at Russia’s Su-35 or Su-57. These are the aircraft the Turkish President saw at the MAKS Salon.

But the meeting took place against the backdrop of the escalation of the situation in the Syrian Idlib province and the announcement of the establishment of a Joint U.S.–Turkey Operation Centre.

And it was the desire to overcome contradictions over Syria and prevent a crisis in the bilateral relations that led the presidents to hold an unplanned meeting in Zhukovsky following an urgent telephone conversation on August 23.

At the press conference held after the meeting, Vladimir Putin noted two key elements in Russia’s approach to the Syrian settlement: the priority of working within the Astana format and the launch of the the Syrian Constitutional Committee “that, as we hope, will be able to start its activities in Geneva in the very near future.”

Ankara had previously expressed its discontent with the Syrian government forces taking control of towns in the north of Hama Governorate and in the south of Idlib Governorate, including the town of Khan Shaykhun. Approximately 200 Turkish soldiers are still surrounded in the town of Murak, which makes the situation extremely uncomfortable for Ankara. This Turkish contingent served as an observation post established under the Turkey–Russia Memorandum on Idlib signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018 as part of de-escalation in the Idlib zone.

The situation deteriorated following reports that the Syrian Air Force had carried out an aerial strike on a Turkish convoy. After a telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan, reports started to surface that a Russian military police force had inserted itself between the Syrian military and the Turkish observation post. Turkey might find a way out of the situation by withdrawing its observation post from Murak and launching a new operation in the north of Syria against the U.S.-supported Kurds. Given the situation, it is desirable for Russia to find a way of advancing the dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds.

While Ankara supported the Syrian opposition, it undertook under the Sochi agreements to fight terrorism in Idlib and facilitate the opening of the М5 and М4 highways leading from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus via Idlib, and from Aleppo to Latakia via Idlib. Most likely, implementing this provision is the key objective for Moscow. Once М5 and М4 are secured, the logistics infrastructure might have been put into operation once again and pathways opened for restoring economic ties between Syria’s regions. This never happened.

With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian military continued intermittent hostilities in the Idlib Governorate for approximately six months. Following another round of talks in Nur-Sultan on August 1–2, Damascus announced an armistice. The ceasefire failed, however, due to attacks perpetrated by the militants in Idlib. Subsequently, the government forces and their Russian allies significantly intensified their activity. Offensives were mostly undertaken at night. By mid-August, the Tiger Forces equipped with Russian-made night-vision devices and Т90А tanks with thermal imagers succeeded in breaching the defence of the terrorists and groups that oppose Damascus in the north of the Hama Governorate.

The Idlib Governorate and its eponymous capital are largely controlled by the forces of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (outlawed in Russia), which has managed since January to expand its power by subsuming other groups, largely labelled pro-Turkish.

Back then, Turkey succeeded in stabilizing the situation, yet failed to radically change it in favour of Turkey-friendly forces such as al-Jabha al-Wataniya Li-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front), which is in opposition to the government. Russian and Turkish analysts already appeal to the Sochi agreements, yet each party accuses the other of undermining their implementation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov openly stated that the actions of the Syrian government forces in Idlib are legitimate and do not violate the Turkey–Russia Memorandum. The terrorists in the area now controlled by the Syrian military had posited a threat to Syrian territory and the Russian military base in Khmeimim. Turkey faces a difficult predicament with regard to its domestic audience, and the processes in Syria could result in escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara.

However, the ties developed over the recent years, as well as the strategically important joint projects and Erdogan’s commitment to increasing mutual trade turnover from USD 25–30 billion today to USD 100 billion (which he again confirmed at the MAKS opening ceremony) demonstrate both desire of both parties to avoid a crisis similar to the freeze put on the relations in 2016.

Erdogan informed Putin about the plans to launch an operation against the Kurds in the northeast of Syria. One might surmise that Turkey sees the solution in shifting the emphases in its “Syrian” policies and in concentrating on the Kurdish threat, since Turkey’s current policy in Syria is conducted in two areas: Idlib and the Trans-Euphrates region. Unwilling to be tied solely to the Astana format, Turkey is also building an appearance of collaboration with the United States. The operation in the Trans-Euphrates region today is the key point for Ankara. This operation will be the result of the pressure Turkey puts on the United States, an ally of the Kurds.

Ankara’s main goal is ostensibly to create a buffer zone in the north of Syria to prevent the Kurds from implementing a project there.

This will allow Ankara to cut ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey and bring Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs, back to settle in the new “safe zone.” The United States has even convinced even the Kurds that the “safe zone” is necessary. The question, however, is how deep the Turkish military will go into the territory. They want to go more than 30 kilometres into the territory currently controlled by the allies of the United States from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Judging by the leaked reports, the United States has proposed only five kilometres. That certainly will not be enough for Turkey.

Answering a question about the Trans-Euphrates region at the press conference after the meeting of August 27, Vladimir Putin said, “We understand Turkey’s concern related to ensuring the safety and security of its southern border, and we believe these are legitimate interests of the Republic of Turkey… We proceed from the premise that establishing a safe zone for the Republic of Turkey at its southern borders will be a good condition for ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria itself.”

Turkey believes that the threat to its security comes from the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlling the northeast of Syria. Ankara identifies them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It should be noted here that Moscow occasionally reminds Turkey of the 1998 Adana Agreement concluded between Ankara and Damascus to resolve the “Kurdish question.” Back then, Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. This agreement regulates the provision of security in border areas.

In recent months, the President of Turkey has repeatedly stated that Turkey had made an earnest decision to launch a new offensive, the third operation in Syria following Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Turkey has been transmitting these sentiments for some time now to both the U.S. and the Russian militaries. However, in order to conduct an operation in the north of Syria, Ankara needs to ensure that certain conditions are in place. Each element, particularly air support for the offensive and the involvement of the Syrian opposition forces, is linked to Ankara reaching a consensus, even if a silent consensus, with Washington and Moscow.

An agreement with Moscow is important for Ankara in order to at least temporarily suspend hostilities in Idlib, as it would allow at least some Syrian opposition forces to be moved to the area of Turkey’s new operation in the northeast of Syria.

As regards Idlib, Moscow and Ankara could agree on Damascus taking control of the М4 and М5 highways, while Turkey’s safe area in the northeast would be greenlit. The question hinges solely on consent to the launch of the operation. How the parties will conduct their operations and whether they would succeed will be up to them.

Currently, the question remains open as to how much the United States is willing to concede to Turkey. However, as Turkey launches its operation, Russia has an opening to interact with Kurds. If the United States allows Turkey to go too far, Kurds will realize the former cannot ensure their safety.

For the Kurds, this setup is fraught with the risk of possible loss of all their achievements (and territories). Moscow could work through the question of resuming serious talks between the Kurds and Damascus, thereby allowing the Kurds to avoid clashes with Turkey.

… A summit of the Astana process guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be held in mid-September. The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is expected to be announced at the summit. Recent developments in the war bolster Damascus’ bargaining positions, yet at the same time they endanger the continuation of the political dialogue. The Russia–Turkey context is important as well, as the two countries strive to move beyond cooperation in Syria, understanding how complicated it is to achieve agreements.

Should Turkey launch an operation against Syrian Kurds, it will allow Ankara to “save face” concerning its Idlib losses. It will also allow Moscow to act as an intermediary and lead the Kurds and Damascus to an agreement. Much, however, will depend on the capacity in which the United States will continue its presence in Syria in and on whether the Kurds and Damascus will be able to move away from their maximalist counter-claims.

Moscow and Ankara understand that their partnership is difficult, but mutually necessary. Such partners can create quite a lot of trouble, but they are valuable because they steer an independent course and understand and recognize each other’s national interests, as well as the need for coordinating their stances.

From our partner RIAC

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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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INCORVUZ-XXI: Past, Present and Future

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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In the Soviet days, many foreign countries especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America trained their professional and specialists in the Soviet Union. It contributed to human resource development for these countries. According to information made available, the higher educational institutions of Russia and the former USSR trained over 700,000 foreign specialists (excluding graduates of military educational institutions).

The creation of associations of foreign graduates began in the second half of the 1960s, when the first national associations were formed in Sri Lanka (1966) and Nepal (1967). In the 70s, this process accelerated, associations were established in Lebanon, Mongolia, Ghana, Morocco, Finland and other countries.

Currently, national associations of graduates exist in nearly 70 countries, including the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), for example in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan), so also in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The need to coordinate the activities of graduate associations, therefore started in the late 1980s and was realized as a result of the creation in 1989 of the International Corporation of Graduates of Soviet Educational Institutions, simply referred to as Incorvuz. Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR No. 483 of May 17, 1990. The regulation on the Corporation’s activities in the USSR was approved and its status as an international non-governmental organization was consolidated.

Incorvuz Corporation laid the foundations for interaction with national associations of graduates and developed the main forms of work. In February 2001, in accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation “On Non-Profit Organizations”, the non-profit partnership “International Coordinating Council of Graduates of Educational Institutions (INCORVUZ-XXI)” was established instead of Incorvuz Corporation.

Currently, the partnership includes national associations of graduates from 38 countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. Chairman – Academician Kostomarov V.G., Deputy Chairman – Ex-Deputy Minister of Education of the PRC Liu Limin. The leadership of the Council since 2015 includes the Alumni Associations of Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt, Jordan, China, Lebanon, Poland and Ethiopia.

INCORVUZ-XXI, in official consultative relations with UNESCO, has special consultative status of the UN Economic and Social Council, it cooperates and has contractual relations with international, foreign and Russian state and public bodies.

Over the years, the key focus has been the examination of documents on education, academic degrees and advanced training courses received by foreign citizens in universities of the Russian Federation and the issuance on their basis of relevant certificates of international recognition in accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO Conventions.

INCORVUZ-XXI regularly organizes and holds cross exhibitions of higher education in Hubei Province (China), in Moscow (2014) and exhibitions of Russian universities in Wuhan (China) in 2015. It participated in the unveiling of a monument to A.S. Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, in the city of Agadir (Morocco) in 2015, participated in organizing and conducting regional meetings of graduates in Ulan Bator and Amman (2016), the Forum of People’s Diplomacy in Belgorod (2016).

The global movement of foreign graduates of Russian universities is expanding due to new participants. In recent years, members of the organization have become national associations of graduates of Algeria, Israel, Uganda, Belgorod State University Alumni Club. The number of individual partners participating in the INCORVUZ-XXI Alumni World League Program is growing. Events dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Nepal Alumni Association (Mitra Kunj) were held in a festive atmosphere.

Despite its achievements, there are challenges that face the organization. As always, the planning and implementation of new projects are strictly limited by the financial capabilities of an organization that exists on the basis of self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, national associations of graduates in all regions of the world are experiencing an increasing shortage of personnel, because a new generation of graduates prefers virtual communication, which in turn leads to a loss of continuity in work and damages the activities of public organizations.

The strategic vision for organization’s further development, among others, is the Partnership Board hopes for success in the ambitious task of creating an African Regional Union of National Alumni Associations. The problem has remained very relevant for many years, because previous attempts to organize and hold such a forum, first in the Congo and then in Ethiopia, have remained unrealized. INCORVUZ-XXI would very much like to see as many representatives of the African region, as possible, among the participants in various on-going projects, so also Soviet and Russian graduates in regions of Asia and Latin America.

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Will Russia become the brother in arms with Iran?

Punsara Amarasinghe

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The killing of Iranian leader of famous Quds force Gen.Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad seems to have made an apocalyptic move in the beginning of this new decade as some critics have already viewed this incident similar to the the assassination of Austrian crown prince Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which paved the path to the First World War in 1914. Perhaps, the assumption could be an exaggeration with the balance of power in the world in early 20th century and now, but certainly the aftermath consequences of death of Soleimani could escalate severe political turmoil that might lead to a grave crisis. The deteriorating relations between Iran and the US in past months have clearly suggested that the killing of Soleimani was not entirely an abrupt situation, but a culminating act of a serious of disturbing events between the two countries. The statement issued by Iranian supreme leader vowing to revenge indicates the wounded pride of a nation, yet the it is disputable whether Iran would retaliate without concerning the strength of the US war machinery that could bring catastrophic effects to the whole country. However, it is a fact beyond doubt, Iran is a regional power with a strong war machinery which has been trained for any military encounter for years and this military and technological sophistication have made Iran a unique example from any country that the US had gone to war since the end of Second World War. But, it seems to indicate that Iran is likely to choose asymmetrical escalation through using proxies or small group attack on American targets to deter Washington.

On the other hand, the main assumption that has fascinated many armchair critics is that Russia will unconditionally assist Iran in any military campaign against the USA. This argument can be bolstered by examining the political affinity between Teheran and Moscow in the recent past. In particular, when Iran was threatened by Trump in last May, it was Moscow who made an official statement in supporting Teheran and also Russia is clearly aware of the importance of keeping Iranian regime without allowing external forces to cripple it, because Iranian stability is a paramount factor of deterring the US and its involvement in the middle east. More importantly both Moscow and Tehran have strengthened their ties for common cause of protecting Assad’s regime in Syria. Furthermore, Russia’s recent involvement in global politics from its relative passivism during Yeltsin’s era have given a signal to its ultimate ambition becoming a global player. This agenda was brought by president Putin in 2007 in his Munich speech showing his antipathy over a “unipolar” world, in other words his denial of US domination in word politics. The audacious conduct of Iran and its military mechanism as a strong state is Russia’s major knight in the Middle East that Moscow does not want to lose. In fact, it was just several days before the killing of Soleimani Iranian, Russian and Chinese naval forces conducted a joint naval exercise in Gulf of Oman. Also deceased general Soleimani was regarded by Moscow as an astute strategist who played a cardinal role in making Russian military presence when Syrian army was in a decaying stage in 2015. Russia’s air strikes finally changed the game and Soleimani made one more visit to Moscow in 2017, this reportedly was to discuss Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sunni monarchies in Persian Gulf. This background is a good evidence to suggest the dismay of Iranian general to a major blow to Moscow as a loss of a shrewd strategic thinker who could have been further used as a proxy for Russian involvement in the middle east.

However, still it is bit of a hyperbolic assumption to think that Moscow would directly lead her armies to support Iran or encouraging such a military confrontation between the US and Iran. Regardless Moscow has been vociferous in criticising the macho gesture of Trump administration for killing Soleimani, so far it has maintained its silence of what Russia will really do about it. Unconditional military pact with Tehran seems to be a fancy idea to revive old Soviet super power status as how it protected Cuba, yet the political reality piercing Moscow is something bitter. It convinces that any military confrontation Teheran world launch against the US will be devastating blow that would simply weaken the Iranian regime and this will lead to undermine Iran’s role in supporting Assad’s regime. Furthermore, the rapport built by Moscow in the Middle East with Iranian rivals such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and even Israel can become adversaries again leading to an unmitigated disaster of Putin’s grand strategy of keeping ties with American allies in the middle east. These circumstances will create twilight scenario to assess any possible moves by Moscow. Another notable factor emerged after the death of Soleimani is the rapid increase of the oil price as the price of a barrel jumped from 2 US dollars to 69 US dollars and being one of prime oil producers this situation has created a sudden financial benefit for Russia. All in all, Russia’s next move would not definitely be a blatant military assistance to Teheran as a brother in arms. But, Russia is likely to play a key role through its diplomatic means to impede any crisis that would be detrimental to its ally Iran.

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