Putin, Iran and the Issue of “Bigger Cake” in Russia’s Foreign Policy

Monday, May 14, 2012

Alireza Noori
Expert on Russia and Central Asia Affairs

Putin, the man of difficult days of the Russian policy, is back at Kremlin. He has officially taken charge for a six-year period (which may probably extend to 12 years) in office in order to realize his country’s hopes by reconstructing economic and domestic policies of Russia and restoring Moscow to its deserved position in the international arena. Although he is well aware of the general direction of his future policies, there have been many speculations and debates going on in domestic and foreign political circles about future outlook of Russia in the new presidential term of Putin, especially the quality of his foreign policy.

Out of all issues which are of import in this regard, the “traditional question” about benefits of an Eastern or Western turn in Russia’s foreign policy has drawn more attention from analysts. In view of the current international developments, they have tried to determine whether it is better for Putin to incline to the East and get back to “not-so-warm embrace” of Eastern countries, or change course toward the West and engage in difficult, though more profitable, interactions with the United States and the European Union.

Regardless of these speculations, Putin has shown that in practice, he thinks about “benefit” or as he put it, “the interests of people who have voted for him,” more than Eastern or Western orientation of his country’s policies. During his previous two terms in office (2000-2008), Putin showed that he does not believe in traditional ideas for choosing foreign partners, which conforms to the aforesaid approach, and attaches more importance to efficiency of a “partner” for securing the interests of Russia regardless of the “direction” in which that partner moves. This principle is based on resilient and multifaceted nature of a pragmatic approach. That is, Russia can define and redefine its position under various circumstances as a regional or global player, a big power, a norm-abiding nation-state, a trans-Atlantic partner, or a Eurasian power, and interact with other countries in accordance with the definition of its role. This is the same “property” which has been mentioned as a multi-vector foreign policy and which allows for Moscow to easily vacillate between the East and the West.

However, despite the above simplified definition of identity and, subsequently, the principle of “interacting with all,” it is noteworthy that a “Western” orientation will be historical choice of the Russian foreign policy as politicians in Kremlin have always shown more interest in the vector which points to the West than other vectors. Of course, this option is not based on a merely ideological mentality, but is more a result of tangible interests that result for Russia from getting close to the West.

It is also noteworthy that Putin is well versed about changes in international environment and is well aware that the goals he has set for the Russian foreign policy, including to boost international standing of Russia, turning the country into a “big power” in a multipolar world system, and stabilizing Moscow’s position as a powerful actor at regional and global levels, are by no means achievable by sticking to the outdated strategy of “balance of big powers.” As a result, redefining the concert of power, which was first introduced in Europe during the 19th century, can be more compatible with Putin’s Hobbesian views of the international system. In the new definition of the concert of power, a number of big powers (including Russia on the side, not in the face, of Western powers) will take charge of managing international affairs as new principals.

It is the same realistic view of Russia’s assets which will certainly make Putin keep on the safe side in his effort to achieve the aforesaid goals one of whose important aspects is to have a peaceful relationship with the existing hegemonic, though weakened, power of the international system (that is, the United States). The main extant imperatives for Russia include the necessity of reconstructing the Russian economy and dealing with two important foreign threats in the country’s foreign policy. Those two threats include: 1) the West’s effort to redefine the political map of the Middle East by manipulating the “Arab Spring” developments to the detriment of Russia in order to marginalize Moscow in the Greater Middle East map; and 2) to redefine security map of Europe by deploying the “European missile defense shield” with the inevitable result of pushing Moscow out of political and security trends in Europe. Both domestic economic conditions and the said threats remind the “icy man of Kremlin” that achieving his goals and fending off the aforesaid threats will not be possible without interaction with the West.

The reason seems obvious. Putin knows that the necessary capital and advanced technology which is needed to rebuild the Russian economy is the West’s monopoly. On the one hand, the United States is the main protagonist of the plan which aims to change political maps of the Middle East and Europe. Therefore, interaction with Washington, even reluctantly, can speed up Russia’s economic reconstruction and also increase Moscow’s share of future developments in the Middle East and Europe.

On the other hand, Putin is well aware that the East is playing no particular “part” in these developments. Therefore, although Eastern countries can make limited economic contributions to Russia’s reconstruction effort, they cannot play a part in eliminating threats which are facing Russia, especially through redrawing the political maps of the Middle East and Europe. Considering this, it would not be realistic to assume that Putin would try to form a Eurasian axis, including Russia, China, and India, (and some sources have mentioned Iran as another side of that alliance) as a counterweight to the Western front in order to reduce aggressive pressures against Moscow.

Like everybody else, he is aware of the reality that forming an alliance which would consist of Russia – China – and India triangle is only “daydreaming” and although another group like BRICs can be formed in “theory” to issue statements in condemnation of unilateralism of the United States, that triangle can be of no practical effect at international level. Therefore, Putin knows that what some analysts call the Eurasian axis (comprising Russia, China, and India plus Iran), can have no other capacity but to meet limited economic interests of Russia. He also knows that interactions between Beijing and Washington are more diverse and broad-based that interactions between Beijing and Moscow and China will never prefer Russia over the United States.

Meanwhile, the reality which greatly bothers Russians, including the “conceited” Putin, is that Western countries are neither “openhanded” enough to give as much as maneuvering space to Russia as it wants in their political game, nor are they “generous” in giving something in return for what Moscow will be ready to do for them. However, although the West is trying to impose its political – normative hegemony on Russia and take charge of setting the rules of the game, which is not compatible with Putin’s intransigent spirit, since the “bigger cake” is on the West’s side, he has tried (and will try) to reach an agreement with the West on the basis of the simple principle of pragmatism.

Let’s not forget that just in the same way that Michael McFaul has been the “architect” of Obama’s plan to “reset” the United States’ ties to Russia with Obama simply implementing that plan, Putin has also been the “architect” and “implementer” of the “reset” plan on the Russian side. It was he who ushered Russia into strategic talks related to START III treaty, greatly helped the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan, and also ordered Russian authorities to support international sanctions resolutions against Iran. As a result, the assumption that in his new term in office as president, Putin will take an aggressive approach to oppose US unilateralism, will take steps to bolster Eurasian axis (comprising Russia, India, and China), and will also engage Iran in that axis as a preventive measure against expansionist policies of the US and NATO, is not upheld by foreign policy realities of Russia and is, especially, incompatible with political psychological profile of Putin.

Similarly, the assumption that election of Putin will be followed by a major development in Tehran-Moscow relations and this will be an exceptional opportunity for further expansion of bilateral ties between Iran and Russia, does not seem to conform to the reality. As said before, Putin will certainly look for his share of the “big cake” on the Western side of the Russian foreign policy and will certainly try to secure the “interests of people who have voted for him” by establishing positive interactions with the West. He is well aware that heading off the threats that emanate from deployment of NATO’s missile shield in Europe, eastward expansion of NATO, the situation in Afghanistan, and Iran's nuclear program will be only possible through interaction with the West, not with India, China, or Iran.

Perhaps, it was due to this understanding that General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, deliberately talked about Iran's nuclear threat in his recent remarks and asked the United States to let Moscow “take part” in the game of missile defense shield because such common understanding exists between the two sides! In addition to open remarks made by Putin about the necessity of bolstering ties between Moscow and Washington, Russia’s thought-provoking measures in letting the US forces use Ulyanovsk transit route for military logistics through Russia was another clear signal which indicated Kremlin’s willingness to further expand cooperation with the White House.

Another assumption which cannot be easily brushed aside is the possibility that Putin’s recent “anti-West” stances are sign of a purposive effort by him to pave the way for increasing the “price” of Russia’s participation in the US game. Perhaps, this option has been put on his agenda as a forthcoming deal with the West seems quite possible. (It is noteworthy that Kremlin’s siloviki that are led by Putin define their identity on the basis of anti-West positions to which Putin also owes a large part of his popularity and votes. Therefore, most analysts are possibly right that the large part of Putin’s occasional anti-West criticism is merely meant for propaganda.)

It should be noted that following what happened during the second round of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 in Istanbul, Turkey, Putin is fully aware that the rules of game between Iran and the West may easily change. He knows that the forthcoming nuclear talks in Baghdad as well as the West’s negotiations with Iran can lead to any result, including a possible agreement between the two sides. Russia is currently trying to avail itself of tense relations between Iran and the West and gain acclaim by proving itself as a mediator and, as such, prove its position as an effective element in international equations. Therefore, he knows that if such an agreement is reached in reality, it would greatly restrict Russia’s maneuvering room. It is apparently for this reason that Russia has been trying to reserve a certain space for fluctuation with regard to Iran's nuclear issue. As a result, when taking position on the nuclear issue, he concurrently chides or lauds both Tehran and the West (by opposing sanctions and warning against military action against Iran, on the one hand, while emphasizing on the existence of ambiguities in Iran's nuclear program, on the other hand), so that, if the atmosphere changed, it would be able to change sides in short notice.

Meanwhile, Iran should pay more attention to dynamics of international political equations and the reality that Russia’s foreign policy is “interest-based.” This will help Tehran, in case of Moscow’s possible U-turn toward the West (as has already happened in the course of approving anti-Iranian sanctions resolutions), to avoid repeating the old story of “complaining” about Russia and accusing it of being an untrustworthy “partner” which “only plays the Iran card.” Also, Tehran will be able to minimize damages resulting from such a U-turn which may follow an agreement between Moscow and Washington over the European missile defense shield.

Last but not least, the above facts prove that Moscow has always tried to solve Iran's nuclear issue through interaction with the West, not with Tehran (for example, by offering the step-by-step initiative which was discussed by the former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton without discussing it with Iran). Therefore, it would be apparently better for Tehran if it decided to solve its nuclear standoff by working with the West instead of trying to encourage Moscow’s mediation (the latest example of which took place in a recent trip to Moscow by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to discuss the step-by-step plan). In conclusion, although taking sides and using various means is quite usual in the foreign policy, and is effective in many cases, it would be more expedient to reflect more profoundly on the effectiveness and real benefits of such means in advance.

Key Words: Putin, Iran, “Bigger Cake” in Russia’s Foreign Policy, West, NATO, EU, Noori

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