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Iran's Position in the Foreign Policy of “Putin’s Russia”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hamid-Reza Azizi

Russia’s presidential polls were held last week and, as expected, Vladimir Putin, the incumbent prime minister and former president of Russia, won the absolution majority of votes to be elected for a new term in office. His election has led to heated debates on the future course of Russia’s foreign policy and various opinions have been expressed in this regard.

Apart from possible developments inside Russia, the point which has drawn the highest attention from analysts is the overall trend of Russia’s foreign policy. The highest attention has been paid to Russia’s relation with the West, especially the United States, followed by geopolitical developments in other areas of interest to Russia.

Of special concern are Russia’s relations with East Asian countries (especially China) as well as Arab revolutions in the Middle East. Meanwhile, efforts made by the West to influence the ongoing political trends in the Middle East, including intervention of the West in Libya or what is going on in Syria, will undeniably leave their mark on the future orientation of Russia’s foreign policy.

It seems, however, that correct understanding of what may possibly happen to Russia’s foreign policy under Putin requires due attention to the background of the political current which dominates Russia’s foreign policy and which is led by Putin. Attention should also be paid to the experience of his past two terms in office as president.

Vladimir Putin was elected to the Russian presidency in 2000 after the country had already gone through two periods of theoretical development in its foreign policy. The first of those theoretical approaches – or as is more commonly known, foreign policy “discourses” – was an approach that dominated Russia’s foreign policy from early years of the 1990s and following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

This approach, which is also known as Euro-Atlantic or Western approach, was associated with the name of Andrei Kozyrev, the first foreign minister of the former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. The Euro-Atlantic approach which was born out of the extreme optimism rife in the post-Soviet Union period, believed that Russia should strengthen ties to the West and emphasized on the necessity of bolstering relations with Europe and the United States, implementing Western-style political and economic reforms, and integrating into Western institutional structures.

The subsequent failure of that approach, especially failure of Western-style reforms, in addition to increasing fears about expanding influence of the West on the immediate neighborhood of Russia and empowerment of nationalist currents in the Russian parliament, caused Russia to make changes to its foreign policy approach.

Appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as the Russian foreign minister in 1996, increased the pace of the aforesaid trend and from that time, a Eurasian discourse dominated Russia’s foreign policy. According to that discourse, Russia is a superpower with roots in both Asia and Europe. At the same time, it put more emphasis on the expansion of relations with Eastern (including Asian and Middle Eastern) countries when it came to development of Russia’s foreign policy.

In fact, this extreme approach was a response to the Western-minded approach which, unlike proponents of that approach, looked at Western political structures with great pessimism. From this viewpoint, the West was not a cooperating partner, but a major source of threat while expansion of Western institutional structures – especially NATO – was considered as the most important risk to the national security of Russia.

When Putin was elected in 2000, he made protection of Russia’s national interests under a “pragmatic” atmosphere away from ideological prejudices, his most important priority. This goal was later materialized in the form of “normalized modern great power” discourse. On this basis, Russia was, in the first place, a great power in a post-bipolar world which was striving to achieve its deserved position in the new global system. Meanwhile, being “modern” and “normalized” meant that Russia both “needed” and had suitable “grounds” for cooperation with the West.

During that period, although Russia’s relations with the West temporarily improved after 9/11 terror attacks, prolongation of the US military presence in Afghanistan and its subsequent invasion of Iraq, faced Russia with a new challenge. Moscow came to believe that the United States is, in fact, using new means to further limit Russia’s breathing space. Therefore, despite continuation of cooperation, bilateral relations did not go beyond a certain level since on the basis of the same pragmatic approach, national interests of Russia and requirements of being a “great power” were not congruous with presence of the United States in the region.

Election of Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 raised hopes in the West that it can enter into a new phase of interaction with Russia. Apart from the political shock resulting from Russia-Georgia relations in 2008 – which was considered by the West as the continuation of Putin’s legacy – the West made renewed efforts to mend fences with Russia within the framework of the US President Barrack Obama’s initiative which aimed to “reset” relations with Moscow.

After the United States and Russia signed the new version of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) two years later to reduce their nuclear weapons, there were many hopes on both sides about further improvement of Washington-Moscow relations. As a result, many analysts started to talk about “honeymoon” in Russia’s relations with the West. Now, in 2012, rapid changes at international and regional levels have revealed the bitter side of that so-called honeymoon. In addition to Putin’s special viewpoints about Russia’s foreign policy directions, that bitterness is sure to overshadow future course of the country’s foreign policy.

In fact, after failure of final approval and implementation of START and new debates about deployment of NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey and the Eastern Europe, relations between Russia and the West have taken a downturn. Putin has been among Russian officials who have taken sharp positions against that deployment. NATO’s allegations that the missile defense shield is not targeting Russia have generally failed to reduce Russians’ pessimism about it.

In addition, NATO’s intervention in Libya and efforts made by the West to support the Syrian opposition in their attempt to topple the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, have been considered as negative signs by Russia. Moscow believes that the West is gradually closing in, and many analysts believe that the main goal of the West’s creeping movement is to dominate the Eurasian heartland.

Another factor, which should be added to international conditions, is Putin’s positions toward the West during the country’s recent presidential election campaigns. His stances were generally in line with the idea of Russia being a “great power.” On the whole, his positions indicate that Russia’s foreign policy is set to take sharper stances on the West in the upcoming six years. Under these circumstances, if the Republicans succeed in winning the US presidential elections, even “confrontation” between the two countries cannot be considered a remote possibility. Otherwise, “pessimistic cooperation” is the best possible state which can be expected to dominate Russia’s relations with the West.

All told, many political experts believe that three important factors determine future outlook of the Russian foreign policy, especially toward the West, which include:

- The first factor is deployment of NATO’s missile defense shield closer to the Russian borders. This issue is of special importance to Russia because it has damaged the country’s international standing as a nuclear power and has, in fact, cast doubts on Russia’s “threat capacity.”

- The second factor is role of Turkey in recent developments in the Middle East. At present, the triangle of Turkey – Saudi Arabia – US, is trying to restrict Russia’s allies. This will not only undermine Russia’s regional standing, on the one hand, but will also lead to emergence of a powerful Turkey as a new threat to the restoration of Russia’s position as a great power, on the other hand.

The third factor is the role played by the United Nations Security Council. Russia has been constantly concerned about its power in the Security Council as the rightful heir to the former Soviet Union. In fact, Moscow eyes the Security Council as a means of achieving its goals and to guarantee that it will continue to play its global part as a superpower. In the meantime, the United States’ efforts to circumvent the Security Council’s mechanism and take unilateral measures constitute a source of threat to Russia.

Under these conditions, revising Russia’s foreign policy approaches seems to be inevitable. The most important point, however, which should be taken into account here is foreign policy requirements of Russia in various fields. Undoubtedly, one of those requirements is to have powerful allies both in the region and at global level.

It seems that China is the one country which is more in line with Russia’s foreign policy approaches and priorities than other countries while being a great power as well. Although Russia is seriously concerned about China’s influence in its eastern regions, it seems that, at least, in short term and from a tactical viewpoint, the two countries will adopt more or less converging approaches.

From a regional viewpoint and in view of the existing conditions, Iran can be a gravitational point in the foreign policy of Russia. From this angle, if developments in Syria take a negative turn to the detriment of Russia, Iran will be the last line of resistance against the West’s step-by-step progress in the region. Undoubtedly, due to friendly relations between Iran and Russia, it is imperative for Russia to have a powerful Iran in its neighborhood which will be the strongest counterweight to restrain the regional clout of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, let’s not forget that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies in international relations and national interests are the main yardstick for determining foreign policy of various states. In view of the above facts, reelection of Putin will lead to closeness of Iran’s national interests with Russia, at least, from a tactical viewpoint. There is no doubt that it would take the diplomatic finesse of Iranian statesmen to take advantage of this opportunity to the best benefit of the country’s national interests.

Source: Tabnak News Website
http://www.tabnak.ir/
Translated By: Iran Review

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