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Putin’s Military Move Tactical to Gain Strategic Advantage

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
By: Ramin Nadimi

Iran Review has conducted an interview with Iranian political scientist and commentator Kaveh L. Afrasiabi to talk about the crisis in Ukraine, Putin’s military move, independence of Commonwealth of Independent States, possibility for an armed conflict, and effect of Ukraine crisis on regional issues.

Professor Kaveh Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy and a former advisor of Center for Strategic Research. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Is Russia actually punishing Ukraine and now that Yanukovych’s government has fallen, is Moscow planning to take advantage of this opportunity and - like the past experience in Georgia in 2008 – take the eastern part of Ukraine, especially the Crimean peninsula, away from the country?

A: It is difficult to predict Putin's next moves in a fluid and rapidly evolving crisis which as in any crisis may trigger unintended consequences. One must take into account a confluence of factors including Russian fear of NATO at their doorsteps and the political psychology that feeds on the traditional role of Ukrainian buffer state. One must add to this Ukraine's growing east-west split that is conducive to separatism irrespective of Moscow. It may well be said that Putin’s military move is tactical to gain strategic advantage over Kiev, rather than territorial annexation. My hunch is that Putin is playing deft cards but is aware of their sunk-costs so chances are he is seeking hegemony not territory as long as NATO is kept at a distance and Russia’s long-term access to Crimean bases is guaranteed.

Q: It seems that Moscow is taking advantage of Russians living in the former Soviet Union republics as a leverage to exert pressure on governments of those countries. The question is to what extent the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States are really independent? And to what extent Russia respects and recognizes their independence?

A: We are witnessing a classic example of sphere of influence politics that is defensive as much as it is offensive. Kiev's new government provoked Russia by dropping Russian as second language, not to mention the other overt signs of hostility against Russia. We should therefore keep in mind the situation’s unique intricacies and avoid generalizations based on incomplete knowledge of a complex crisis with internal, regional and international dimensions. Russia is after all obligated to not only respect but also protect Ukraine's territorial sovereignty per a disarmament agreement in the 1990s. So there are definite constraints facing Kremlin with every scenario of action.

Q: Do you believe that there is a serious possibility for an armed conflict to break out between Ukraine and the Russian army and the subsequent division of Ukraine?

A: certainly that is one 'nightmare ' scenario that may happen and get seriously out of hand. My hunch is that both sides want to avoid this and hopefully they will succeed, otherwise this could turn into a lose-lose proposition especially for Kiev that depends so heavily on Russia for energy, trade, and nuclear assistance. Another scenario is low-intensity warfare coupled with a politics of leverage aimed at Kiev's pro- west goals and objectives. A third scenario that is not likely to happen is Yanukevych's return from exile to lead his party in the next presidential race. What will happen next depends on the current efforts to mediate the crisis and also on those who want to steer it toward a full- blown crisis gripping Russia for some time. Time is of essence however and tense military standoffs in some areas can easily get out of hands and we shall know this rather shortly.

Q: To what extent the West – especially the United States and Europe – is ready to support Ukraine, and what position they will probably take in case of a military conflict in that country?

A: I don t think there is consensus among western powers and the leak from US officials actually shows US and EU were not on the same page and Putin may be sowing further division now. EU in my opinion has played a poor and short sighted role so far that has clearly backfired and the US on the other hand is unable to call the shots and has limited influence on the outcome. Lest we forget US relies on Russia for Afghanistan supply and a host of other international issues including Iran and now faces the dilemma of how to save the cooperative sides in the face of this sudden crisis?

Q: What effect will further deepening of Ukraine crisis have on recent cooperation between the West and Russia over other regional issues such as Iran's nuclear case and the civil war in Syria?

A: It all depends on the evolution and level of intensity and escalation of this crisis. If a compromise is reached soon without bloodshed and Russian army withdraws in exchange for certain quid pro quo, then the impact on other issues will not be significant. But on the other hand we witness a major escalation and or lengthy standoff, then inevitably there will be game changers on multilateral diplomacy on Iran nuclear issue particularly if Moscow is hit with Western sanctions and is greatly at odds with the western powers involved in this issue. Inevitably this would complicate the present talks and force Iran to reappraise its current strategy. Iran had a growing economic rapport with the deposed government in Kiev and there may be a loss of market just as Iran’s hitherto robust relations with Russia may experience new fissures in light of Tehran's goal of detente with the west. At the same time Iran may benefit from "crisis windfall" but we must make sure any strategic dividend does not turn into a loss. As the head of Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) Iran may have a role to play in terms of conflict management. In a worst case scenario there could be attempts to payback Russia in Syria, in which case Iran would need to coordinate even closer with Russia to protect their common ally. Meanwhile there is a great deal of uncertainty on all these issues but my hunch is the Ukrainian crisis will not thread the path of Syria.

Key Words: Ukraine, Putin’s Military Move, Strategic Advantage, Commonwealth of Independent States, Regional Issues, Iran, Syria, Europe, US, Afrasiabi

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

*US Counter-Productive Rhetoric Can Cripple Positive Effects of Iran Nuclear Deal: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/US-Counter-Productive-Rhetoric-Can-Cripple-Positive-Effects-of-Iran-Nuclear-Deal.htm

*Congress New Sanctions Bill Scuttles the Geneva Deal: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Congress-New-Sanctions-Bill-Scuttles-the-Geneva-Deal.htm

*The Nuclear Deal and Iran's New Strategic Position: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The-Nuclear-Deal-and-Iran-s-New-Strategic-Position.htm

*Photo Credit: Washington Post

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