Russia’s Policy in the Gulf and South Asia

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Kenneth Katzman 

There is substantial debate in the United States over whether Russia is an adversary or an ally of US efforts to stabilize the Gulf and South Asia region. The United States and Russia would appear to be natural allies in the post-September 11 Gulf and South Asia region; terrorism and extremism emanating from that region threatens both mostly Christian powers. However, the latent sense of rivalry that Russia feels for the United States in the post-Soviet period has prevented a closer alliance that could have helped bring the region more stability than has been achieved to date.

Like the United States, Russia sees threats to its own security emanating from the region. To Russia’s immediate south are Muslim states that formerly were part of the Soviet Union and are subject to Islamic influences from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the extremist groups operating in Pakistan. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Islamist violence has rocked Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, although these states have, at least for now, quelled the violence. Russia also faces rebellious Islamist movements within the Russian federation itself, such as that which has taken place in Chechnya since the early 1990s. Chechen rebels who have and may continue to train in Pakistan in Al-Qaeda encampments, or which have an ongoing relationship with Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, have been responsible for several major terrorist attacks in Russia in recent years. These include the Moscow theater takeover, and the Beslan school massacre.

Unlike the United States, Russia is eager to reverse its sense of diminished world influence and its essential subordination to the United States in international politics. Some journalists report that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin feels that the United States views him as a virtual employee or protégé leader who is expected to support America’s growing empire. Russia’s sense of lost glory does, to some extent, color its policies in the Gulf and South Asia region.

Russia continues to resent its humiliating expulsion from Afghanistan after more than ten years of its occupation of that country. Despite overwhelming firepower, Russia and its partner components of the Soviet Union were unable to stabilize Afghanistan, and its withdrawal was viewed as a defeat. While Russia might have viewed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States as a sign of US fallibility and vulnerability, Russia undoubtedly viewed Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a potential threat to Russia’s own security and interests. Content to allow the United States to do the fighting that would benefit Russia itself, Russia cooperated with the US-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by muting its opposition to the US and coalition use of air bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In the post-Taliban period, Russia has provided small amounts of humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan, but it has remained a minor player in post-Taliban Afghanistan because of the lingering Afghan memories of the long Russian occupation.   

Although Russia suffered a policy defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it had developed a close ally in the Arab world in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Russia’s alliance with Baathist Iraq gave Russia a foothold in the Gulf region and certain influence on the Arab-Israeli dispute, although that influence also flowed from Moscow’s relations with Syria. The downfall of Saddam Hussein erased Russia’s influence in Iraq, and voided its agreements with Saddam Hussein to eventually develop several oil fields in Iraq. Russian officials are quietly pleased that the United States has experienced the extreme difficulties it has experienced in attempting to stabilize Iraq, although those difficulties appear to have eased somewhat with the apparent success of the US “troops surge.” Russia believes that the US failures in Iraq have served as a brake on any future US military adventures or expanded ambitions. Russia has studiously refused to help the United States improve its position in Iraq. At the same time, Russia undoubtedly realizes that the Islamic extremism that has been fostered in Iraq might ultimately cause harm to Russia or the Central Asian states.  

It is on Iran policy that the United States is the most dependent on Russia as well as wary of Russia’s intentions. Unlike Iraq, Iran was never a “client” of Moscow, and Russia’s influence on Iran has always been limited. The relationship has remained relatively confined to Russian sales to Iran of conventional arms, nuclear technology, and some assistance primarily to Iran’s missile programs. However, Russian sales to Iran did, to some extent, undermine US efforts to contain Iran strategically, and might have represented an effort by Russia to enhance its influence in the Gulf or break the US monopoly as strategic security guarantor of the Gulf. In addition, the two countries have often found themselves allied against US efforts to encourage the development of energy routes to Europe that bypass both Iran and Russia.        

Russia’s policy of building a relationship with Iran has continued over the past three years, even though Russia itself perceives a nuclear Iran as a potential threat to Russia. A nuclear Iran would be positioned to threaten the Central Asian states, which could potentially put Russia in a difficult position as the security guarantor for those states.  Seeking to preserve its relations with Iran, Russia has slowed US efforts to force Iran, through the imposition of progressively stronger UN sanctions, to abandon its civilian uranium enrichment program.

The Bush Administration believes that enrichment is ultimately intended for a nuclear weapons program, notwithstanding the release of  a recent US intelligence estimate that stated that Iran has suspended the covert aspects of its nuclear program since 2003. Russia has voted for two UN sanctions resolutions thus far, because Russia undoubtedly knows that shielding Iran from any international penalties—at a time when Iran was clearly defying the international community—would rebound against Russia itself. However, in these two resolutions, Russia has used its leverage to ensure that its $1 billion contract to build a civilian reactor for Iran at Bushehr would be exempt from any sanctions. Until recently, Russia had been working with the United States by refusing to fuel the Bushehr reactor until Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program. The intelligence assessment might have given Russia political cover to reverse that stance and, in December 2007, it began providing the fuel to Bushehr. Russia, along with China, is also holding up agreement on a third and stronger UN sanctions resolution on Iran.

The conclusion we can draw is that the potential for US-Russian cooperation, after September 11, to combat Islamic extremism and stabilize the Gulf region, has been squandered. Russia refuses to cooperate with the United States as a junior partner, or to undertake policies that result in enhancing the US image as the world’s only remaining superpower. Even more ominous has been the observation that Russia seems to revel in US difficulties in the region, both in failing to capture the top Al-Qaeda leaders or in fully stabilizing Iraq or Afghanistan. Russian policy toward Iran could result in that country joining the club of nuclear nations, an outcome that could trigger an all-out arms race in the Gulf and embolden Iran’s efforts to structure the Middle East to its advantage.


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