On September 30, 2015, the Russian Air Force launched air strikes in Syria, targeting opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Russia has emerged as perhaps the most pivotal actor in the Syrian war, having shown its ability to prop up Assad’s government through forceful intervention, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiates with the United States over Assad’s future. Though U.S. President Barack Obama has argued that the Russian intervention was ultimately a sign of weakness rather than strength, he seems resigned to the reality of Putin playing a larger role in Syria. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out in March, “we would not have gotten the initial ceasefire without Russia.” Pushing back against critics, Kerry also continues to argue for the necessity of seeking Putin’s cooperation if Assad is to be brought to the negotiating table.
Even so, there is only limited agreement between Russia and the United States over how to proceed, with the ceasefire balancing on the verge of collapse and the so-called Geneva III peace process stalled since April 21. Both countries remain intransigent over the question of Assad’s future, supported in this by their Syrian allies as well as by regional states like Iran and Turkey. For Russia, the Syrian conflict is clearly a burden, but it is also a source of influence, through which the Kremlin has sought to develop its regional alliances, especially with Iran.
Putin’s policies may remain opaque, but there are few people better placed to analyze Russia’s policies in Syria and in the wider Middle East region than Nikolay Kozhanov, a Russian expert on Iran and the Middle East. He is currently a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting lecturer in the political economy of the Middle East at the European University at St. Petersburg. From July 2006 to November 2009, Kozhanov served as a diplomat in the Russian Embassy in Tehran and in 2010, he received his PhD in in international economics and economic security from St. Petersburg State University.
Speaking from Saint Petersburg, Nikolay Kozhanov has been kind enough to join Syria in Crisis for an interview, elaborating on his view of the Kremlin’s evolving role in the Middle East, its complex linkages to the Russian-Iranian relationship, as well as other Russian interests in the Middle East.Dr. Kozhanov, thanks for participating in this interview. Let’s start with an easy question: Russia is flying airstrikes in Syria. How did this happen?
I believe it was mostly a reaction to events and it did not necessarily rest on a longer-term plan for how to achieve peace in Syria. To be frank, the Russian leadership are not very good strategists. But they are very good at tactical matters. They look at things from the ground up to see what they can do to improve on Russia’s interests at that particular moment, and then they do those things. It is often a reactive policy.
It was the same thing with Syria. The decision to bring in forces seems to have started around June or July 2015, which leaves a rough maximum of three to four months for military preparations. In other words, this started when Russia realized Assad was just losing ground in Syria. That was an immediate reaction.Some claim that the intervention happened on an initiative from President Vladimir Putin, over the objections of old Syria hands like Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. Is this just gossip or could it be true?
Well, I’m reminded of that old X-Files slogan, you know: “The Truth Is Out There.” It is very difficult to say and there is a lot of speculation. But what I can say is that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not a decision-making structure. It is basically a kind of postal service, receiving incoming messages from other countries and sending the messages they’re asked to deliver.
As for the decision-making structures, that depends on the issue. It might be the Security Council of the Russian Federation or a certain group of people within the Security Council. Some issues may be handled by the presidency or by certain people in the presidency, or indeed by the president himself. I would not think that Bogdanov was ever a decision maker on the Syrian issue. He has been very skilled in executing this policy, but he has not decided it. I would say that the decision to intervene was surely taken at the highest level, by the president and perhaps some people in his inner circle.
Were they aware of the difficulties? To begin with, Russian foreign policy is usually very reactive. It is not obvious that anyone had calculated the outcome. They would just have been trying to understand how to avoid a problem, the problem here being that Bashar al-Assad was losing. Their answer was to bring in military force.
However, looking at the way that they implemented this decision, I think we can definitely say that the Russian authorities showed that they knew what they were doing. Up until the final days before the air strikes, no one dared to think there would be an intervention. They moved all the materiel and made all the preparations very effectively, very quietly. So in that sense, they were definitely on top of things.The Syrian war is also in some sense a regional conflict, and Russia has its own relations with both friends and enemies of Assad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, is now shifting his country's foreign policy, including to restore relations with Russia after downing a Su-24 jet in November 2015. What is your view of what is happening between Russia and Turkey?
My perception of what happened between Moscow and Ankara is that these relations unfortunately became too personalized. The role of personality—I mean of the Russian president—has increased in Russia in recent years. It was not as obvious in his first and second terms, but it has become very obvious now. It started becoming more apparent after 2011 or 2012. The current state of Russian-Turkish relations is not natural. Under other circumstances, our two countries would see a growing cooperation, as was the case before this incident with the Russian fighter jet.
Then again, one must also realize that one of the main drivers of the improving relations was the personality factor. Putin had connected with Erdogan on a personal level. He once actually used a Russian phrase, a kind of coarse, popular term, to say that he thought Erdogan was a “real man.” It showed his appreciation for him. You can see him connecting with other leaders in the same way, like Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. He likes strong personalities, perhaps authoritarian leaders, often with a military background—in other words, men like himself.
The problem is that this personal style of conducting foreign policy also has serious drawbacks. If he likes someone, he will definitely do his best to patch up relations. But if he is offended by someone and takes it personally, he can act against common sense just to avenge himself and prove that he was right. This can really ruin relations with other countries. One example was the Russian-Iranian relationship after 2008, when then- president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voted to make Doha the headquarters of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, after having personally promised Putin that he would vote for Saint-Petersburg. Relations did not really improve again until after Ahmadinejad left office.
So I’m afraid we’ll have the same story with Ankara, where Erdogan seems to be a very similar character. Some of my colleagues even call this confrontation between Moscow and Ankara “the war of the two machismos”. This state of relations is unnatural for both countries, but I’m afraid that we will not see the return of the Russian-Turkish relations to the same level as they were before November 2015 as long as both Putin and Erdogan are in power together. So far, they have demonstrated a certain level of pragmatism and managed to work out a formula that would allow them to maintain a minimal level of dialogue between the two countries. Yet, they will not be able to regain the mutual trust that previously existed, and that will create a lot of artificial obstacles for the development of their relations. In order to see real changes we need to have at least one of them leaving his post.Let’s move to another big player in Syria. Your specialty is Iran and the Russian-Iranian relationship. I have actually argued here on Syria in Crisis that even though Russia and Iran have different priorities in Syria, their alliance is likely to last. Both seem determined to save Assad and would have trouble doing it themselves. Would you agree?
For me, the Russian-Iranian relationship in Syria is the best example of how the overall Russian-Iranian relationship functions. Moscow and Tehran are not completely aligned in Syria, but they are using each other, just like in the rest of the region. The best way to characterize it is that old phrase, a “marriage of convenience.”
I do believe that there is an end point when they will feel that the mission is done, when their goals have been achieved in Syria. At that point, they will have to clarify their intentions and make decisions on how to proceed, and that could be difficult. But so far, it’s quite a happy marriage, and the longer the conflict goes on, the closer they become and the more they learn to work together.
Also, they have by now become mutually dependent. Iran needs Russia to deliver weapons and ammunition to itself and to Assad, for the air cover, and for diplomatic support. Russia needs Iran to provide cannon fodder on the ground, but also because it provides specific kinds of support and can shape political opinion in the region, particularly of course in the Shia Muslim world.To me, this brings to mind the Syrian-Iranian relationship. It started as a marriage of convenience in 1979, when both opposed Saddam Hussein, the United States, and Israel. Then this alliance solidified in Lebanon, where they worked hand in hand to support Hezbollah and other groups. In the early days Syria sometimes fought Hezbollah and their Lebanese and Palestinian clients would clash with each other, but over time, there emerged a sort of division of labor that reduced these frictions. Lebanon became a sort of catalyst for a very close alliance. Of course, this is different because Russia is not primarily a Middle Eastern power, but do you see some similarities?
Yes, I agree, but again, there are several particularities. First of all, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East is all based on the principle of balancing between the major regional players. However, the region functions in such a way that you have to take sides. This means that the Russian strategy was supposed to be doomed to fail from the very beginning. Yet,—and this is actually a fantastic phenomenon—the Kremlin has been remarkably successful so far. Moscow have improved its relations with Israel, but at the same time also with Iran, while recently hosting Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers and drawing closer to Egypt, and so on. And despite all challenges, Russian-Algerian relations are still prospering. Finding common ground between Russia and Iran in Syria also fits into this broader strategy.
We also should not ignore the neighborhood factor. I was arguing with some American scholars over this recently: they were saying that now that the nuclear agreement has been concluded, Iran isn’t that interested in Russia anymore. But the mere fact that Russia and Iran are neighbors and face a rather large number of common challenges, including those in the Middle East and in the Caspian region, is enough to create a basis for the long-term dialogue.Being neighbors could also be a source of conflict.
Of course! But historically for Russia and Iran, it has played a positive role. Obviously there are counter-examples, look at Russia and the Baltic states. But with Iran, this seems to work the opposite way and it creates an interesting basis for their dialogue on Syria.
Let’s also recall that what happens in Syria and elsewhere will affect the interests of each country and can be mutually beneficial for their diplomacy.
For example, before Syria and before the Arab Spring, the Iranians were looking for someone to counter-balance the American presence in the region. They tried with China, but couldn’t find it there. They tried the Russians, but they weren’t very successful. That is, until the Syria events and Euromaidan in Ukraine. The current confrontation between Russia and the West naturally brings the Russians closer to the Iranians, since they share a level of mistrust of the West.Still, the Iranian government was born in opposition to the United States. It has been in conflict with the West since the start in 1979, this is in many ways a part of the identity of the current Iranian regime. In Russia, I guess there has historically always been tension—obviously during the Cold War—but for the modern Russian state this seems like an exception. Neither Russia nor Europe and the United States appears to be very happy about the current level of hostility.
Russia and Iran are different. On the Russian side, Moscow is more oriented towards the West. Both economically and culturally, the Russians look to Europe and the United States, not the Middle East. For the Iranians, it is the other way around. I cannot see Iran improving its relations with the West in any fundamental way until after the passing of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Of course, there are statements by some anti-Western ideologues in Russia that seek to move the country in the same direction, and I am sure that the current trouble between Russia and the West will leave certain scars in Russian memory. Relations won’t become as good as they were before the Crimea events, before the sanctions, and so on. That could create some openings for anti-Western ideology to become a driver of Russian policy in the Middle East region, too. But normally, this would not be the main focus.