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Russia, Crises in Syria and Ukraine, and the Future of the International System

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jahangir Karami

In recent years, Syrian and Ukrainian crises have served as grounds for conflict between Russia and the Western world in the diplomatic and security spheres. Some even consider these events as the rebirth of the Cold War. Some questions could therefore arise: Is there a relationship between these crises? What are their effects on Russian security? Why has Russia been seriously engaged in these crises? What has been Russia’s understanding of these crises over the past two years? The point that I want to present in this paper is that the recent crises, from Russia’s viewpoint, are the extension of issues such as NATO expansion and the deployment of missile defense systems to attack the Russian heartland in Central Eurasia and weaken its position as a leading power in an international multipolar system. This idea is based on the theory of structural and defensive realism. Basically, the Russian authorities maintain a structural and defensive attitude in their international relations. To examine this point of view, I consider the future of the international system from the Russian standpoint. I then discuss the consequences of the Syrian and Ukrainian crises for Russia’s security and interests. Finally, I confer on Russia’s opportunities and limitations in the expanding international system.   

Formation of a future international system and Russia’s viewpoint

The end of the bipolar world system was an opportunity to develop a Western international system in the form of a unipolar system and the globalization of Western institutions. However, many students of international relations believe in the “unipolar moment” and that a unipolar system cannot form. Thus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we witnessed a unipolar system, but this system was transformed gradually. The increasing power of China and the revival of Russia under Vladimir Putin, as well as the growing role of other powers such as India, practically impelled the international system toward multipolarity. Now the system has a uni-multipolar character. It is in transition. Two options for this model are thus apparent: a natural multipolar world that is consistent with the conditions of the world today and a bipolar system that is ideal for the West.

When the US-based unipolar system can no longer remain in force, it will be better for the West, including the United States, to develop a bipolar system because they know how to successfully operate in such a system. But the real world is a multipolar system and Russia can act as an actor in strengthening this system. Russians neither have the power to play a crucial role in a bipolar system, nor are willing to witness the formation of a bipolar system between China and the West, in which it would play an active role with China against the West.

In the US-desired plan, as we have seen, the world will be divided between two poles – the “free world” and the “unfree” (restricted) world, and China will serve as the principal actor of the totalitarian world. Thus, any country on China’s side will be accused of serving the totalitarian side of the bipolar system. The West is interested in such bipolarity because it knows how to act in this bipolar system. Dividing the world into “good” and “evil” is the gamesmanship of the West. The West has the necessary skills and technologies to develop this bipolarity. Thus, they are trying to guide the world trends in the geopolitical, military and security arenas toward a bipolar world. The Chinese have only two choices. They should accept the role of an economic power, as well as the terms of the West’s game, especially in the military arena, and not enter this arena. Or, it can have a military role that may implode its society. China has a $120 billion military budget. If it wants to allocate as much as the West, it should reach $1 trillion. This amount will impose the conditions where 8-10 percent of the economic growth is impossible.
Thus, the West doesn’t want to give China the opportunity to be an economic power and quietly expand its influence and gradually enter the military arena.

In its strategic documents over the past 15 years, Russia has underscored continuously its interest in a multipolar international system. By establishing and strengthening its position in Central Eurasia and developing a convergence in this region, Russia will reinforce and establish its role in a multipolar international system through the CIS, CSTO, and EURASEC. Russia has found that serving as an economic hegemony in the region is the most important factor for playing a powerful and influential role in the international system. Without economic convergence (integrity), political and security institutions will be temporary.

The Syrian crisis and the threat to Russia’s southern region

The issue of the south plays a significant role in the security of Russia, and this has created important concerns since the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa. There are 20 million Muslims in the North Caucasus and the Central Volga area, who are influenced by Middle Eastern terrorist and hard-line groups, and this has made Russia highly concerned with developments in the region. However, Turkey’s power and the regional influence of its Islamists have added to Russia’s concerns regarding Ankara’s activities in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Russia believes that it is increasingly being attacked by the South with the help of the Arabic, Western, and Turkish fronts, and sees the Syrian issue as a continuation of this trend. To be aware of this threat and fight against it, Russia has changed its policies over the past two years and focused more on southern Russia, the Black Sea, the North Caucasus, and even the South Caucasus, and has also expanded its military bases in these regions. For example, we can point to the reinforcement of the power of the Russian army in the Gyumri military base in Armenia. What is of pronounced importance for Russia, regarding Syria, though, is not economic (in spite of having $2 billion in economic interests there) or military (in spite of the importance of the Tartus base) interests, but rather the changing of the regional power balance along Russia’s southern border, because Turkey, as a member of NATO and also as an ally of the West, will occupy a special position in the region.

Russia is experiencing a situation similar to the one that it faced in the 1980s and 1990s. The West’s cooperation with the Islamists resulted in the Afghanistan syndrome in the 1980s and the Chechnya syndrome in 1990s, and now, after a decade-long pause due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the same situation is occurring again. The connection between the Islamists and the West is seen through Turkey’s mediation between the Taliban and the United States to open relations or dialogue. This is happening when the West, and particularly the United States, is seeking to avoid options that would involve radical engagement. 

Nevertheless, compared with the past, Russia faces a much more complex and complicated situation in its southern region and Central Eurasia. Today, it seems that the borders of the Middle East and Central Asia are collapsing and, if the developments continue in the Middle East, the southern borders of Central Asia, which were previously enlarged by Russia, will be reduced in size by regional states. 

Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s strategic vulnerabilities

The Ukrainian president’s refusal to sign an agreement between Ukraine and the EU was rather a pretext for the West to settle scores with Russia. Of course, one should consider the fact that economic pressure on the people in Ukraine was intolerable for them, and under Yanukovych this pressure became greater than ever. In Ukraine, there is a fragmented oligarchy and the government is weak. In fact, no one has sufficient power or influence to establish a unified government. The EU has shown idealistic signs to Kiev, which, in spite of the crises and dilemmas in the country, are believed by a segment of the population. They compare themselves with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and envy them. However, the true story of Ukraine is more than this and the meaning and concept of Ukraine are outside the realm of the everyday social life of its people.   

However, the crisis in Ukraine should be considered as revenge against Russia for different issues in 2013. Over the past year, Russia has seen some successes in the international domain. One of them is the Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Moscow, in spite of pressure from the United States, awarded asylum to Edward Snowden and used this as a tool to scandalize it before its allies. In the case of Syria, Russia, along with Iran, could support and establish the government of Bashar al-Assad and force the opposition to fight each other. As one can see, today the clashes are more often between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (DAESH) and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, than between the Syrian Army and this entity. Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are accusing each other of failure in the case of Syria. Russia prevented a US military attack on Syria by proposing the chemical disarmament of Syria and could resolve the problem. In the Egyptian case, it seems that, after four decades, Russia was able to develop new influence in North Africa. In the Iranian nuclear program, Russia, from the very beginning, has emphasized that this particular crisis should be resolved via diplomacy. The results of the recent negotiations and the agreement were of some success for Russia because they released Iran from the further pressure of the West.  

The Russian government advised Ukraine not to sign the Western plan, because at the same time, since 2010, Russia began a Eurasian economic convergence in an EU fashion and, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, developed a customs union. As a next step, the membership of Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine was planned. Armenia and Belarus have not signed this agreement with the EU. Ukraine’s membership in the Eurasian Union is vital for Russia. The 46-million population and Ukraine’s vast territory and geopolitical situation have made the issue important.   

Accordingly, it can be said that the West has been worried about Russian successes in 2013 and attempted to stop this progress. So, Ukraine was a good choice that could distract Moscow’s focus from the Middle East and busy Russia with issues surrounding the country in the region. The outcome of this global competition is what one can see now in Ukraine, which is a proxy war between Moscow and Washington, in addition to the diffused violence in the country. Today, Russia, witnessing the Ukraine crisis, is worried about its southern plane. The Kremlin sees this plane as countries stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus, as well as the Middle East, including Iran and Syria in particular.   

Russia’s opportunities and limitations in a future international system

In spite of the pressures that it faces from its west and south, Russia practically has the capabilities to reduce these pressures, and, while defending its interests and security, play a crucial role in the formation of the future international order. One of the most crucial capabilities is the role that it has in the United Nations and other international institutions, such as the G8. Russia’s veto right can be a limited concert for coordination in international security issues and is crucial to defending the Westphalian international order and respecting the national sovereignty and non-interference principles as the central pillars of that system. This issue was seen in Russian policies regarding the Syria crisis. The West tried to pass a resolution to take action against the Syrian government, but Russia strongly opposed the resolution and prevented it from being approved.

It is also necessary to discuss maintaining the strategic coordination status between Russia and the United States as the main pillars of the bipolar international system. Russia’s opposition to the US and NATO missile defense shield is understandable, and as far as Russia has the first or second greatest nuclear power potential to hit its rival, one can be sure of the existence of the balance of terror and non-war situation between the two powers. This situation paves the way for Russia to maintain a limited capability in terms of using its military force. In recent years, in addition to propaganda about the hegemony of America, the nuclear superiority of America and the end of the nuclear balance of the past four decades, which was based on mutually assured destruction (MAD), have been emphasized. It has been argued that the age of MAD has come to an end and for the first time in recent decades the Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals could be destroyed by just one nuclear attack. For the first time, America has gained nuclear superiority. This situation, along with programs such as “quick world impact” and an atmosphere resulting from such claims, will cause a feeling of inertia regarding the Russian missile capability and it is widely supposed that all international equations will be in favor of the West. Developments related to the expansion of NATO, the EU and, most importantly, the establishment of European missile defense systems have led to a condition, in which Russia, faced with a psychological or genuine threat of failing to make a first or second nuclear impact, has now been forced to enter a new arms race.  

Finally, we should point to Russia’s regional role in the form of four regional institutions: the Commonwealth of Independent States, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Although each of them is faced with some limitations, they provide some possibility in the political, economic, and security fields for coordination and cooperation to maintain and expand Russia’s influence. Thus, we can see that Russia is still a major regional power in Central Eurasia and, in spite of pressures, it has important possibilities to be present as a leading global power and plays a key role in shaping the multipolar international system. This is repeatedly mentioned in Russian strategic documents over the past 10 years – that Russia is opposed to the continuation of unipolar international system in international politics and is not willing to go back to the bipolar system and the Cold War. Rather, it supports a multipolar system and the role of international institutions in political, economic, and security issues.

From Moscow’s view, in a multipolar international system, many possibilities exist to expand economic cooperation and transmit them to other crucial fields. In fact, Russia believes that, without developing an economic convergence, political and security cooperation in the region will continue to be limited and remain vulnerable. In this case, Russia follows the pattern of the EU and ASEAN. From this viewpoint, without economic convergence, other political and security institutions would be rootless and fragile and, at the same time, it is necessary for Russia, as a great power in the international system, to play a crucial and hegemonic role in Central Eurasia. Consequently, separating Ukraine from Russia means eliminating the Russian idea of Eurasian convergence.

Conclusion

Now, based on the abovementioned facts, I can conclude that since the new idea of Boris Yeltsin to develop an all-conclusive convergence with the Western world failed and the Kosovo crisis put the final nail in the coffin of the foreign policy rationale of Gorbachev, a fresh line of thought based on the theory of structural realism has formed in Moscow, which can be defined by the statement: “Russia as a great power in a multipolar international system.” Based on this statement, Russia should guarantee this role through economic and industrial reconstruction and regional institutionalism in Central Eurasia. This maintains some international organizations such as the UN and Russian strategic coordination, and it also limits the unilateralism of the United States. However, these goals have been challenged by the expansion of NATO and the deployment of missile defense shield, and the crises in Syria and Ukraine have been planned to fulfill this aim.  Thus, Moscow sees itself in a defensive position to maintain its regional power in Central Eurasia, as well as its global power in the multipolar system. The secret of Moscow’s rapid use of military force in the Ukrainian crisis is related to this point.

*Jahangir Karami is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Tehran.

Source: Valdai International Discussion Club
http://valdaiclub.com/

More By Jahangir Karami:

*Will Ukraine Crisis Become Finally Manageable?: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Will-Ukraine-Crisis-Become-Finally-Manageable-.htm

*Opportunities Provided to Iran and Russia by Iran Nuclear Deal: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Opportunities-Provided-to-Iran-and-Russia-by-Iran-Nuclear-Deal.htm

*A New Phase in Iran’s Relations with Russia?: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/A_New_Phase_in_Iran%E2%80%99s_Relations_with_Russia_.htm

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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