Approximately a year ago, August 2021, Dr Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) wrote an opinion article in which he rhetorically asked What Would Happen to the World Without the United States. That article was and still is an informative, thought provoking and food for thought. It offers an insight into the need for global cooperation, peace and solidarity. It brings into memory the Communist slogans: the world without nuclear, peace and development, friendship and international solidarity.
After the historic fall of the Soviet era, Russia really dreamed of raising its status by joining international organizations. Over the past three decades, it became a member of many global bodies, participating actively at the United Nations. In addition, Russia created the Greater Eurasia Union, BRICS – a group of states comprising Brazil, India, China and South Africa – and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). With the current changes taking place, Russia has exited some of the foreign organizations including, Group of Eight (G-8), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). These have also generated hot debates whether to let it go out of the Group of Twenty (G-20).
Reports have categorically stressed that the course of geopolitical events is becoming irreversible. According to one report: “Russia does not intend to tolerate the subversive actions carried out by the collective West towards setting up a rules-based order to replace international law trampled upon by the United States and its satellites.” But today it seems we are almost close to the beginning of nuclear war. The world’s economy has been shattered, with skyrocketing prices, deficit in supplies of oil and gas to some parts of the world. The world has all the untapped natural resources to make people’ lives sustainable, but now an estimated half of the global population is under unbearable fear and deep strain, majority struggling to make a living.
This article seeks to focus specifically on Russia and the world. We attempt to imagine What Happens to Russia Without the United States and Europe. Unbelievably relations have soared these few years and almost at the verge of collapse completely. Another Cold war indeed, is at the door reminiscent of the previous ideological confrontation between the East and the West. We imagine Russia today without the two global powers; the United States and Europe.
What Would Happen to Russia Without the United States and Europe? In his article published on RIAC website last August 2021, Dr Andrey Kortunov, the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) offered the definition or the descrption of the United States as often referred to as an “indispensable nation.”
The term was first used in January 1997 by President Bill Clinton during his second inaugural address. And thereafter, Madeleine Albright would mention it in her speeches and writings on numerous occasions after that. The underlying idea of “indispensability” here is that it suggests it would simply be impossible to maintain even relative order in the world – let alone resolve fundamental global and regional issues – without the United States. “It is likely no coincidence that the coinage came about and gained traction at a time when we were living in an almost completely unipolar world, when U.S. influence and authority around the globe had risen to never-before-seen heights over an incredibly short period of time,” he wrote in his article.
The situation is now evolving differently and how indispensable are the United States and Europe. Can we do, due to some typical circumstances, without them today? Russia, over the past few months exited out of a number of international organizations, and therefore moving into self-isolation. Russia is globe-trotting to make alliances against the United States and Europe. It leads new alliance first for defeating unipolarism, and second for creating a new world political and economic order. But, what would happen to Russia if the Federation Council and the State Duma (both organs of the Russian Federation) legislate to prohibit the use of Western and European languages, for instance English and French, due to the absolute hatred for these two powers’ hegemony. What if Russia has to prohibit the use of English, especially in its educational institutions, halt English-taught programmes throughout the Russian Federation. What happens if the Skolkovo project, considered as Sillicon Valley, kick out all foreign residents there?
Russia-Europe-United States’ cultural and educational cooperation have ultimately collapsed. It has crippled and ridiculed the work with civil society. Russia has closed the British Council, the American Educational Council with its Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) programme, and Alliance Française and Geothe Institute. These are the largest cultural networks of Britain, the United States, France and Germany. While Russia struggles with its own non-profit NGO Russkiy Mir primarily tasked to popularize Russian language, literature and Russian culture around the world, but on the contrary found it necessary to halt non-political and non-profit educational branches of western ones that operated under their diplomatic missions in the Russian Federation.
The FLEX programme, created as the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and mutual understanding between the U.S. and the countries of Eurasia, enables young people, over 35,000 students who compete annually, to learn about the United States, and to teach Americans about their countries, mostly from the former Soviet republics. These educational and cultural centers have practically helped thousands of Russian students, with government-sponsored grants, to acquire comparative knowledge in various academic fields abroad. While some, after the training programmes, still remain abroad, others returned to contribute their quota in sustainable development in Russia.
What Would Happen to Russia Without the United States and Europe? The United States corporate business engagement is simply not comparable to Russia’s economic footprints in the United States. On April 29, 2021, President Vladimir Putin held videoconference with leaders of several corporate French companies-members of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI France-Russia) to discuss some aspects of Russian-French trade, economic and investment cooperation, including the implementation of large joint projects as well as the prospects for collaborative work in the Russian Federation.
From the historical records, France was described as a key economic partner for Russia, holding the 6th place among the EU countries (European Union is made up of 27 member-countries) in the amount of accumulated investment in the Russian economy and 5th place in the volume of trade. Over 500 companies with French capital are operating in various sectors of the Russian economy. Despite a certain decline in mutual trade in 2020, the ultimate figure quite acceptable at US$13 billion. But French investment in Russia was hovering around US$17 billion, while Russian investment in France is very tiny at US$3 billion.
There are EU countries such as Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain playing significant economic roles in Russia. Their level of business are far higher than that of Russia in the European Union. Undeniably, Russia is only an energy supplier, but its economic involvement is comparatively little. Many Western and EU companies are suspending their business operations. The Kremlin and Russian authorities say the United States and European Union bloc are taking systematic and well-thought-out measures to destabilize the economy of Russia. Several “systematic, very serious measures corresponding to the extraordinary unfriendly conditions that were placed upon us by unfriendly actions (of other countries), well thought out measures,” are being taken, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during one of his media conferences.
‘United Russia’ – the largest political party in Russia, which supports President Putin’s policies – has proposed to nationalization of the enterprises of those Western companies that refused to operate in the Russian Federation. On March 7, Secretary of United Russia’s General Council Andrey Turchak said that the state legislative commission approved the initiative providing for the possibility of nationalizing the property of foreign corporations leaving the Russian market.
On the other hand, Dr Andrey Kortunov proposed to take a thought experiment: imagine if the United States were to completely depart from world politics, break all the international agreements to which Washington is a party, renounce all the obligations the country has undertaken, withdraw from all global and regional organizations, close the borders, shut down the embassies and consulates, freeze immigration and put all communication with the outside world on hold until things are looking better, focusing all its attention on building its biblical shining city upon a hill.
Dr Andrey Kortunov’s question: “What Would Happen to the World if the United States were erased from the map?” To begin with, there would only be one nuclear superpower left in the world, and that would be Russia.
Accordingly, the last foundations of bilateral U.S.-Russia strategic arms control will collapse. It is unlikely that other nuclear powers would be particularly interested in entering into negotiations with Moscow on nuclear weapons, as the gap between Russia and all the other players is simply too great. It is even less likely that Moscow will agree to relinquish its unique nuclear advantage over the rest of the world. However, unconditional nuclear superiority does not automatically mean that Moscow would be able to freely dictate its will in global politics. The nuclear arsenals of other countries would continue to be effective deterrence instruments, and a war between the members of the “nuclear club” would be just as implausible as it is today.
That said, nuclear proliferation is likely to significantly aggravate. In the absence of the “extended deterrence” of the United States, many of its former allies and partners would think about acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. This primarily implies countries in East Asia (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt). The idea of building up a nuclear arsenal may also take hold in Germany. Some five or six new nuclear powers could appear in short order.
While it is unlikely that nuclear proliferation in East Asia would lead to a sharp escalation of military and political risks, the emergence of new nuclear states in the Middle East would be fraught with dire consequences – both for the region and for the international community as a whole. That said, we should acknowledge that the threat of nuclear proliferation exists even today, and this can in large part be put down to the approach of the United States to resolving issues related to the Iranian nuclear programme.
The question is: Would NATO be able to Survive in a World Without the United States? Theoretically, yes, but only if the European great powers – the United Kingdom, Germany and France – put the maximum political, economic and military effort into it. The remaining countries in the bloc will have to increase their defence contributions by more than the two per cent on which Washington insists today to some four or five per cent. Even this, though, would not offset the losses that NATO would incur as a result of the U.S. withdrawal. Without American leadership, NATO would likely turn into a regional military and political instrument of the European Union – while London’s role in the organization would be unclear seeing as it is no longer in the EU – and NATO would have a far more modest role in world affairs than it has today. Without the United States, it is unlikely that NATO would continue to pursue its current global ambitions, and the remaining members may be rather reluctant to endlessly expand the organization’s zone of geographic responsibility.
In a world without the United States, China would almost automatically become the undisputed leader in global technology. Although Europe, Japan, India and Southeast Asian nations would likely have greater incentive to join forces to challenge China’s hegemony in this area. With this in mind, it is hard to say whether it would be possible to create a global technological ecosystem that would be independent of Beijing without the United States. This would largely depend on how rigid or flexible Beijing’s hegemony would actually turn out to be as well as on the extent to which China would manage to avoid monopolizing the new technologies that are fundamental to the global community at large.
Dr Andrey Kortunov wrote that the euro would inevitably become the main reserve currency once the dollar exits the global financial system. The Chinese yuan is not entirely convertible, which means that it would be a long time before China could compete with the European Union in the financial sphere. Other global currencies – such as the British pound, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc – could gain in importance. European and Asian financial centres (London, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Singapore, etc.) would receive additional powerful incentives for development.
International financial institutions (the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund), where the United States has traditionally played a leading role, would undergo sweeping – and likely very painful – reforms. As a sidenote, we shall argue that the United Nations would also suffer a profound institutional crisis, losing both its current headquarters in New York and approximately 22 per cent of its base budget, as well as the U.S. contributions to individual UN departments and programmes. The Arctic Council would suffer less, as the American sector of the Arctic is far smaller than that of Russia and Canada. What is more, the United States has not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which somewhat complicates Washington’s position in the Arctic Council.
The absence of the United States on the world’s energy markets could lead to a temporary revival of OPEC and a strengthening of Russia’s positions. The “green” and “shale” revolutions will continue unabated, however. Washington’s departure from the global arms and foodstuff markets would also result in a significant restructuring of these markets. Even with the joint efforts of the remaining players, the gap left by the United States in the arms market would be extremely difficult to fill.
With Hollywood no longer the centre of the global film industry, cities that used to hold that position -primarily Paris and Rome – would have the chance to revive their former cinematic glory. However, European filmmakers would face tough competition on the global entertainment market from filmmakers of Indian and, in particular, Chinese origin The disappearance of New York from world fashion would give a second wind to Paris and Milan, while the United Kingdom would probably become the centre of musical life for a long time to come.
According to Dr Andrey Kortunov, the departure of Apple – and its iPhones and MacBooks – from the portable electronics markets would create a vacuum that a dozen of the biggest electronics giants in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would fight to fill. America’s self-imposed isolation would send shockwaves through higher education and science markets globally to reverberate for decades to come.
Quite naturally, the world would not lapse. It would survive the departure of the United States just like it survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. It would be difficult and extremely uncomfortable at first, especially for those international players who have been hiding in the shadow of the American superpower for decades. The withdrawal of the United States would lead to a number of crises and conflicts and a long period of instability and uncertainty as the struggle for the “American legacy” would inevitably be long and tense. Somehow, we would still get through it! Plus, the world already had a preview of Washington as an unpredictable and unreliable partner during Donald Trump’s presidency. It will actually be easier to resolve certain problems without Washington, since the U.S. is often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
According to Dr Andrey Kortunov, the world would miss the United States. “We would miss the American optimism, the American energy and the American drive. We would miss the high-rise buildings of Manhattan, the narrow streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans and the expansive prairies of the Great Plains. We would miss the country music, the Chicago-style steaks and the Californian nutmeg chardonnay. We would miss Halloween, Thanksgiving and, perhaps, Independence Day. Just like the entire world would miss Russia, Argentina, Ethiopia and New Zealand. Every single country is unique and indispensable in its own way. In this sense, the United States truly is an indispensable nation,” he asserted in his conclusion.
European Russia accounts for about 75% of Russia’s total population. But demographical documents further indicate that 1.8 million Russians live in the European Union (majority in Britain, Germany and France), 1.3 million Russians live in the United States (majority in New York and Washington) and in Canada. Both the United States and Canada, and European Union have provided better living conditions for Russians more than for American, Canadian and European citizens (in fact very small number) who live in the Russian Federation.
But then, the rhetorical questions are: What Would Really Happen to Russia Without the United States and Europe? Can Russia lead the emerging global economic order? Is Russia ready to support developing countries where the United States and Europe have failed? Is Moscow a financial hub and host to international organizations’ representation offices as in New York and Washington, and in Europe? Can Russia turn into superpower with hegemony characteristics, and provide the same conditions for foreigners as obtained in the United States and Europe? Is this the end of Russians’ American and European Dream?
Dr Andrey Kortunov’s distinctive question is: What Would Happen to the World Without the United States? Special gratitude for food-for-thought and thought-provoking question from Dr Andrey Kortunov, the Director General of RIAC. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) is a non-profit academic and diplomatic think tank that was established in February 2010. The RIAC makes strengthening peace, friendship and solidarity its direction of activities, and works closely with the state, academic community, business, and civil society in an effort to find foreign policy solutions to complex diverse issues.
The Fate of Ukraine: Can the West Stop Russia?
The options of financial containment are exhausting as Russia bristled through the last obstacle to its domination in the Luhansk province of Donbas. With the anticlimactic fall of the city of Lysychansk, Russian troops have turned to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk – the forefront cities in the neighboring Donetsk region. A heavy shower of artillery rocks both the cities as Russian forces (alongside the separatist fractions) are tilting toward drawn-out ground warfare to triumph over Ukraine’s southeast – cementing a formation extending down to Crimea, the former southern-Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014. The strategic victory over Donbas would compensate for the initial failure in central Ukraine and allow Russia to regroup to eventually pressure Kyiv into surrender. Despite visible attrition in Russian forces, intense missile strikes have resumed in Kyiv and Kharkiv while Ukrainian defensive forces are preparing to launch a counteroffensive to reclaim Kherson. The Western coalition is privy to this subtle shift in momentum – albeit reacting a little too late!
The G7 summit was a mockery of the supposed resolve the West wished to portray. Banning gold imports from Russia and debating on an oil price cap was the highlight of the meeting (looking past the crude retorts by soon to be the ex-prime minister of the UK). Admittedly, the embargo on gold exports would hurt the Russian economy. Russia holds approximately $100-140 billion in gold reserves – about 20% of the total holdings of its central bank. Budgetary estimates reveal that gold is Russia’s second-most profitable export commodity – secondary only to energy exports. The ban would significantly dent trade as almost 90% of the gold export revenue comes from the G7 economies. And while Russia would still be able to streamline gold to alternative economies in Asia, the embargo would effectively “[deny] access to about $19 billion of revenues a year,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his interview with CNN. Thus, the US is seemingly determined to tumble the Russian economy to cripple the Kremlin’s ambitions in Ukraine. The mantra is the same – cutoff maximum revenues to the point that Russia struggles to finance its war of attrition. Unfortunately, such strategies are not enough.
Placing an oil price cap on Russian supplies is trickier than banning gold imports. For starters, gold is not essential for economic and social survival and, frankly, not the basis of upheaval in many developed economies struggling with skyrocketing inflation. While gold exports cannot flow easily to alternate markets, Russia has been sufficiently successful in replacing Europe as the prime market for its crude supplies.
Six months since the invasion and revenues earned by Russia from oil exports are already up by more than 50%, according to a market report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Since the invasion, Europe has relatively reduced its reliance on Russian oil while the US has absolutely banned crude imports from Russia. Still, India has procured roughly one-fifth of total Russian exports since the invasion – up from less than 1% pre-war quota. According to an exclusive Reuters report, Indian customs documents reveal that companies are rapidly replacing the US dollar to evade sanctions and purchase Russian energy supplies. In June alone, India imported roughly 44% of its 1.7 million tonnes of Russian coal via non-dollar settlements – either in yuan or the Hong Kong dollar. In July, that number increased over a fifth to a record high of 2.06 million tonnes.
Alternatively, China has been the core defiant force against Western pressure – despite not outright supporting Putin – terming sanctions against Russia as “illegal” and “Immoral”. China has also been a crucial economic lever for Russia – both symbolically and practically. According to the General Administration of Customs China, bilateral trade with Russia increased by 29% YoY during the first seven months this year. The most notably traded commodity is the Russian crude. Beijing imported roughly 55% more Russian oil in May compared to the same period last year, prodding Russia to replace Saudi Arabia as its biggest oil supplier. In combination, China and India have counterbalanced the revenue shortfall by $24 billion in energy imports from Russia – more than $13 billion in revenue compared to 2021. The US should now question: how exactly can a price cap work in this scenario?
According to official sources, the G7 coalition is considering placing a cap at $40-60 per barrel of Russian oil. However, the mechanism of implementation is still hazy. As of now, the ambitious plan to cap Russian oil revenues is still very much an ambition, without any concrete structure or broader consensus. On one hand, the G7 is considering to cap the oil revenues of Russia. On the other hand, the EU is easing payment restrictions for oil supply from Russian monopolies like Gazprom Neft and Rosneft. Many experts have questioned the viability of such a theoretical (and contradictory) policy. “The price cap policy would not put Russia under the immediate fiscal stress many expect,” said Mark Mozur, a market analyst at S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Failure to bring India and China on board would automatically tune the futility of the plan before it even gets launched. European insurance services provided to Russian oil cargoes could be replaced by Asian counterparts, assuming that the European companies would comply instead of overriding the cap to avoid a retaliatory cut back on oil supply from Russia. The recent slash in gas supplies through Nord Stream 1 (NS1) pipeline hints that Russia could potentially choke oil supply to Europe if a price cap is enacted. “As far as I understand, we won’t be supplying oil to those countries which would impose such price limits. And our oil (and oil products) will be redirected to the countries which are ready to cooperate with us,” said Elvira Nabiullina – Governor Russian Central Bank. According to the Russian Ministry of Finance, fossil fuel revenues have already surpassed last year’s budget projections. Thus, Russia is not short on finance for the remainder of this year. Yet a winter without Russian oil or gas would be a nightmare for a Europe already grappling with hyperinflation. Citing recent estimates by JP Morgan, if Russia resorts to retaliatory output cuts, the global oil prices could soar to around $380 per barrel. Hence, despite cutting export volumes, profits from oil sales would still flourish the Russian coffers. Ultimately, the superficial policy of a price cap could only spell doom – not just for Europe but for the entire global economy teetering on the cusp of a recession.
Mr. Richard Connolly – Director of the Eastern Advisory Group – perfectly sums my position: “For as long as the political will is there in the Kremlin and for as long as export prices remain high, I don’t see any immediate financial constraints confronting the Kremlin.” Thus, the desperate cartel-like strategies by the G7 economies only highlight the West’s constrained toolkit. Russia has successfully projected force in eastern Ukraine while simultaneously pressing intensely for Kyiv. The West, on the other hand, has focused on fortifying its own security instead of resolving the conflict in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly exuded optimism – refusing to cede the captured territory to Russia and hoping to negotiate from a position of strength. However, that position would almost certainly falter by 2023 when Western aid starts to dry up. “No one expects another $54 billion [in aid to Ukraine],” said Peter Baker, the Chief White House correspondent for The New York Times.
The truth is, while the NATO expansion might detain Putin from launching another invasion in Europe; it would not impede Russia from further dismantling Ukraine. Perhaps the Western bloc should pause and consider a few harsh realities. Firstly, the prospective expansion of NATO was the very catalyst that sparked the invasion in the first place. And secondly, an embargo on Russian commodities would not substantially damage the Kremlin unless Asia (predominantly India and China) supports the western consensus. And that support would certainly not be gained by pressuring India or evoking tensions over Taiwan with China.
The skewed western logic evades common sense sometimes. The West is cautious not to supply advanced weaponry to Kyiv; avoid tilting the war against Russia to the point of risking a nuclear retaliation from Putin. However, advancing Ukraine to retrieve captured territory in the south is somehow a safer strategy. It is unbelievably naive! And I believe the US already realizes this paradoxical reality yet continues to push forward – to save face and prolong the defeat of its pseudo-democratic rhetoric. Understandably, a push for diplomacy with Russia – though the ethical path to prevent further bloodshed – would be a swift political death to President Biden, as he prepares his bid for re-election in 2024. Therefore, we should be ready for two outcomes: a segregated Ukraine or mass destruction in Europe.
Ultimately, these sanctions and strategies, the NATO induction of Finland and Sweden, and the supposed candidacy of Ukraine to the EU have done nothing to derail Russia. Putin shows no sign of distress while political and economic attrition is gradually gaining a foothold in the US-led coalition. And expecting Putin to hang his gloves just because the West is exhibiting its renewed post-cold war cohesion is as fantastical as expecting a Ukrainian victory against Russia without detrimental consequences. Wishful at best!
The Moscow–Tehran Axis: Alliance without Rigid Obligations
Russia and Iran are finding ever more points of convergence in their foreign policies and across the domain of economic cooperation. It is no coincidence that a record number of high-level visits between the two countries have taken place this year, the most recent being Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran to take part in the Syria summit of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Fostering relations with Iran, along with the continued functioning of the Astana Process, demonstrate Moscow’s increasing use of pragmatism in its foreign policy: any non-Western power is a welcomed partner, even if there are contradictions and inconsistencies in its relations with Russia.
Biden in the Background
The Astana summit and Putin’s visit to Tehran came immediately after U.S. President Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East. Despite numerous commentators suggesting that the Russian leader’s visit to Iran was a “response” to the initiative of the American president, there is no real substance to this argument. What Biden’s trip does do is place the trilateral meeting in the Iranian capital into a wider context.
The Middle East is one of those regions where the presence of the United States and Russia matters, although the dynamics of their engagement are diametrically opposed to one another. While Washington is gradually pulling out of the region that holds less and less allure for the White House, Moscow is doing exact the opposite, being increasingly pulled into the processes unfolding in the Middle East.
The basic approaches of the two sides differ as well. The United States has become accustomed to finding allies in the region so that they can become conductors of its policy, while at the same time looking for key troublemakers that it can try to contain and isolate. Russia, on the other hand, does not have friends or enemies in the region. Over the past decade, Moscow has been trying to act as a universal mediator, maintaining relations with all the key forces in the Middle East.
Against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, the United States has set about trying to turn Russia into an international pariah. Moscow sees the Middle East as a possible route to circumventing the sanctions, even if partially, so it is only logical that Washington would seek to isolate Russia in the region. This is proving somewhat difficult, however, even with its impressive list of allied states and the lukewarm reaction of Middle Eastern countries to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. For one thing, no one in the Middle East wants to be faced with a choice between Moscow and Washington. In the Middle East, Russia remains a player to be reckoned with, and its interests coincide with those of almost all the countries in the region—including Washington’s partners—on a whole range of issues.
Take Turkey, for example, a NATO member who has serious disagreements with Russia over Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus. Worse still, Ankara has openly criticized Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, lending active support to Kiev by supplying hi-tech weapons. At the same time, Turkey, much as Russia, does not hide its annoyance at the U.S.-established order in the regions adjacent to its territory, notably the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Let’s not forget Russia–Iran trade relations as trade turnover between the two amounted to some $33 billion in 2021 and the bilateral trade is expected to reach even greater heights by year-end 2022. Given this, Ankara will clearly want to continue dialogue with Moscow, both with regard to Syria and on other issues.
A somewhat similar situation has been the case for the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Not a single one of these has joined the Western sanctions against Russia, and the United Arab Emirates is turning into something of a hub for Russian capital. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made it clear that his country places its agreements with OPEC+, where Russia is a key player, above U.S. interests, and Joe Biden’s visit did nothing to change this.
Outside the Persian Gulf, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has also refused to pursue a policy to isolate Moscow. Cairo has been one of the biggest importers of Russian weapons in recent years. And, like the United Arab Emirates, the country is also cooperating with Russia on Libya. Finally, there is another important U.S. partner, namely, Israel. Despite some friction with Moscow, Tel Aviv is still willing to cooperate with Russia to sustain its policy of containing the Iranian threat in Syria. In other words, all these players have more than enough reason to turn their backs on the binary approach that Washington imposes on them, where they are forced to choose between the United States and Russia.
The Astana Model
It would be quite a mistake to dub Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East a complete failure. He got some wins here and there, such as the Saudi decision to open flights to and from Israel. Besides, it is unlikely that the U.S. was harboring any real hopes to reverse the regional alignment, including the attitudes towards Russia, all in a single trip. What is telling here is the situation as such. The events in Ukraine were indeed a turning point in relations between Moscow and the West—however, the Middle East did not undergo any major changes until February 24, 2022, and later.
Today, the situation in the region is much different to the Cold War-style polarization that analysts bring up so frequently. The Middle East of 2022 is a complex combination of multi-vector approaches of various countries. All this is not so much a reflection of Washington’s weakness as it is an illustration of the fact that Russia continues to be an important and legitimate player for Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.
It is this difficult political climate that gave rise to the Astana format, a platform where the parties with different approaches—and even waging a proxy war against each other—can come to the negotiating table as partners who resolve issues. True, this format may only have worked in relation to the Syrian dossier in years gone by, but the most recent summit took the paradoxical relations between the countries to a new level. Turkish drones carry out targeted attacks on the Russian Army, which in turn shoots them down. But this did not prevent Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan from sitting at the same table and having a constructive conversation at the meeting in Tehran. Moreover, one of the main topics on the summit’s side-lines did not even have anything to do with the region, and that was finding a solution to the issue of exporting grain through the Black Sea.
This has nothing to do with banal hypocrisy on the part of sides with opposing interests. The participants in the Astana summit were not hiding behind smiles, sticking their middle finger up at each other from inside their pockets… no, they held a constructive dialogue. The grain issue was eventually resolved thanks to the negotiations between Turkey and Russia, and the summit in Tehran was largely responsible for getting the two together in the first place.
The Astana summit is swiftly turning into a model that reflects the basic principles of Russia’s foreign policy. What this model essentially boils down to is political realism in its purest form, where everyone is invited to cooperate, regardless of accumulated problems and disagreements, assuming the sides have overlapping interests.
And the invitation has effectively been extended to the West: despite the proxy conflict waged between Europe and Russia on the Ukrainian soil and despite the economic war in the form of sanctions, Moscow is nevertheless prepared to sell oil and gas to Europe. “Gazprom has always fulfilled and will continue to fulfil its obligations in full. If that’s what European countries want, of course, as they are the ones closing the pipes,” Vladimir Putin noted calmly at a press conference following the Tehran summit.
At the same time, the Astana format stands at odds with the traditional integration models of the West, which believes similar values to be a prerequisite for alliances. Certainly, the Americans do not always follow this approach. Still, even those relationships where common values typically play little if any role—such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia—become bogged down by human rights issues (in this case, Biden’s condemnation of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). In the present situation, we see that the Astana model of radical realism allows Russia, in such a difficult situation, to pursue dialogue with all players in the Middle East, while the United States is facing problems talking to its traditional allies.
With the relations with the West collapsed owing to the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s policy towards Iran is increasingly perceived as a policy case that could be heading in a promising direction. Putin’s trip to Iran did not bring any significant breakthroughs, although news reports about the summit and events surrounding it were overwhelmingly positive. One newsworthy item, for example, was the launch of the rial/rouble pair on the Tehran Currency exchange on the day of the summit, while another was a memorandum signed between National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom to involve investments of approximately $40 billion into Iran’s oil sector.
Some important news came out shortly after the Russian President’s visit, such as the decision to increase the number of flights between Russia and Iran up to 35 per week, or the announcement that an agreement on the supply of aircraft parts and maintenance work was being drawn up, or plans to earmark $1.5 billion for the development of railway projects in Iran.
It must be noted here that there is no guarantee that all these initiatives will be successful in the end. For one, timelines have not been set out for most of the projects, and not all of them will even reach the stage of implementation. And those that do—for example, the supply of aircraft parts—will concern a limited set of products. The Iranian aviation industry has been in a rut for a number of years now, thanks to the sanctions. They have learned to make certain things on their own, sure, but most parts are either imported through third countries or stripped from old planes that no longer fly.
Despite all this, some projects might turn out to be rather successful. The number of areas where cooperation between the two countries is possible is clearly expanding, and this is thanks to the sudden spike in interest on the Russian side in Iran. In addition to this, traditional pockets of cooperation are getting a new push. For example, the export of Russian agricultural products against the backdrop of the global food problem is fast becoming a key element of Iran’s food security. And the North–South Transport Corridor, which has been operating in test mode for the past few years, could very well become the main export route for Russian products.
A certain rapport can also be witnessed in the domain of foreign policy. Iran’s reaction to the events in Ukraine was more positive than that of the other Middle Eastern states. During his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Tehran, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stressed that NATO would have started a war with Russia on the pretext of Crimea if it had not been stopped in Ukraine. Certain changes can also be seen in Syria, where Russia’s responses to the actions of Israel are becoming increasingly harsh. Finally, the hallmark of the trilateral summit in the Iranian capital was the attempt of Tehran and Moscow to convince Ankara to abandon its military operations in Syria.
Be that as it may, there is no way the alignment between Russia and Iran would turn into a full-fledged alliance. The main reason why this will never happen is because of Russia’s image in Iran, which is riddled with negative historical connotations. Distrust of Tehran and a poor understanding of its policies can be found among the Russian elite as well. Besides, the sides disagree quite strongly on a number of issues, including their respective policies in the Middle East and how to resolve the territorial disputes over the Caspian Sea.
Also keep in mind that Russia and Iran are competitors in the energy market. The agreement with Gazprom largely stems from Russian efforts to gain leverage over the Iranian oil and gas industry. Exactly how much leeway the Iranian side will give to Russian companies remains to be seen.
However, paradoxical as it may sound, the bunch of contradictions that has accumulated in Russia–Iran relations does not stand in the way of rapprochement between the two countries. Russia is realistic in its approach, and this makes it possible to focus on areas of common interest, even when there are far more problems in bilateral relations, for example in Moscow’s relations with Ankara. At the same time, both Moscow and Tehran are extremely interested in an alternative to the West-dominated economic order. Neither country can do this alone, but these two “political outcasts” countries are better suited to the task than anyone else.
Here, positive developments were reflected in the conclusion of a long-term strategic agreement between Russia and Iran similar to the documents that Tehran signed with China and Venezuela. Judging by what Russian officials said, the project will be finalized quite soon. Importantly, the agreement will take the form of a memorandum—a formal confirmation that the intentions do not impose any direct obligations on the two countries. The “Russia–Iran axis” will continue to move in more or less the same direction. Relations between the two countries may well expand and deepen with each passing year to never-before-seen levels, but the sides harbor no intention of taking any unwanted obligations, including becoming allies.
From our partner RIAC
Astana Trilateral Summit 2022: What did Russian President Achieve?
Since he launched the fateful invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian President had not traveled outside the former Soviet territories. His only visit outside Russia was to “friendly” Central Asian States in June, where he predictably received a warm reception. The first trip by Putin outside former Soviet territories proved to be to the Iranian capital Tehran for the Astana Trilateral Summit — a forum established for the settlement of the Syrian conflict and features key players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian conflict took a back seat and the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the discussions at the trilateral summit.
After the boycott of Putin by the Western world, the Russian leader has been attempting strategic and economic reorientation toward Asia and has achieved considerable success in making up for the losses in revenues incurred owing to the Western economic sanctions by selling oil at heavily discounted prices to countries like China and India. The trip to Iran provided the beleaguered Russian leader an opportunity to dissipate the impression of Russian isolation — no matter if the support extended is from a state under the severest of Western sanctions – Iran. The outright endorsement of his Ukraine invasion and scathing condemnation of the Western world was precisely the music Putin wanted to hearken and the Iranian Supreme Leader had plenty to offer.
Nonetheless, being under Western sanctions has positioned both the countries abreast and Russia, by offering even cheaper energy rates, has captured the energy and steel markets previously held by under-sanctions Iran. The shift did cause some resentment in Iran and Putin sought to assuage the Iranian grievances by signing the $40 billion deal between the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom for the development of oil and gas fields in Iran. Nonetheless, the suspicions do persist as the Iranian Supreme Leader pushed Russians to follow up and fulfill the agreements signed between the two countries in the oil and gas sectors.
Putin’s Tehran visit has cemented Russia’s position as an important power broker in the Middle East having friendly relations with countries on both sides of the regional Middle Eastern divide. Besides its longstanding relationship with Iran, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war forestalled the almost certain downfall of Bashar’s regime and the country is also a party in the Libyan civil war, wherein it patronizes the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Moreover, Russia now has a multifaceted relationship with the USA’s Arab allies — particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar — primarily owing to the convergence of their energy interests in OPEC Plus. The Arab countries also avoided harshly denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine — as the West would have anticipated — so as to avoid antagonizing Moscow, and top Saudi and Emirati royals reportedly declined calls from President Biden during the initial days of the invasion.
Days before Putin visited Tehran, President Biden took a trip to the Middle East and in his address to a gathering of Arab leaders, tried to reassure Washington’s Arab allies that the superpower remains committed to the region and urged oil-rich Arab nations to increase their oil production to mitigate global oil price shock caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Following Biden’s visit, the de facto Saudi ruler Muhammad Bin Salman and President Putin during a phone call agreed to keep coordinating within the framework of OPEC Plus. Accordingly, during the cartel’s meeting held on August 3rd the OPEC Plus members agreed to make a small increase in the oil production, which is unlikely to drastically impact the energy prices as President Biden counted upon.
Even more remarkably, in utter defiance of the US sanctions, Saudi Arabia is importing Russian oil at discounted price for domestic use while selling its oil at higher prices in the international market. In effect, in a major geopolitical turnaround for Moscow in the Middle East, Putin has been able to reaffirm its partnerships, and the days of Arab capitals uncritically following Washington’s lead are all but over.
Putin’s meeting with Turkish President Erdogan during Astana Summit also captured headlines — initially after the Russian President was left awkwardly standing for around 50 seconds waiting for his Turkish counterpart before their meeting and successively for the discussions between the two strongmen to strike a deal to freight the Ukrainian grain from its three Black Sea ports (the deal has now been reached). During the discussions on Syria, Erdogan reportedly talked about the Russian President as “My dear friend Putin” in an exhibition of the close relationship between the two strongmen. Though Turkey and Russia feature on the opposite sides of equations in the Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan-Armenia, and Ukraine conflicts, they have long-lasting trade and energy ties. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, did not join the Western sanctions against Russia and is now buying more oil from Moscow. Correspondingly, Moscow looks to Turkey as a partner — nonetheless a difficult one — among a host of antagonists and as a crucial market for its energy products and wheat. Yet another meeting between the two leaders in the Russian city of Sochi further hollows Western gambits to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine; meanwhile, Putin continues to assemble allies.
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