President Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria marked a major turning point in Russian foreign policy in 2015. Over the last 15 years, Putin has increasingly relied on the use of military power to achieve his domestic and foreign-policy objectives, starting with the invasion of Chechnya in 1999, then of Georgia in 2008, and then of Ukraine in 2014. Putin’s Syria gambit was the logical, if dramatic, next step in Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Syria, however, is supposed to be different from these previous military interventions. While Putin correctly calculated that most of the world would condemn his military actions in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, he hopes for solidarity and support from the international community for his actions in Syria. We asked Dr. Zhand P. Shakibi, professor of political science at New York University and visiting lecturer at University of Tehran, the authenticity of U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria plus other questions. The following is an edited version of the interview.
While Russia and the U.S. are cooperating on the Syrian civil war, the U.S. financial restrictions against Moscow are still in place. How do you define this picture composing of both collaboration and enmity?
“I think this kind of relationship between the U.S. and Russia –Soviet Union–is completely natural. We have seen that the U.S. imposed sanctions against the Soviet Union on technology, but they have cooperated on other areas. So, the idea of zero-sum game which characterizes the relations between Soviet Union and the U.S. is quite wrong. It is quite common two great powers to have worldwide interest; therefore, I don’t see any contradiction. There was an expectation amongst many that what happened in Ukraine would be a new Cold War or the emergence of isolation between these two countries. It didn’t really happen. They cooperate but they did have genuine interest together. And when their interests have clashed, they have found themselves in confrontation.”
So, you think that such binary opposition in their relationship is a trend?
“I don’t think it is a trend, but it is something that is the characteristic of the relationship. I think diplomacy in the national relations is too often perceived as a zero-sum game; either they could have hostile relations or best friends of each other. Countries when recognize the threat –genuine threat or common threat- they come together to contain that together. In the Syria case, both the U.S. and Russia eventually came together on the certain issues which quite affect the US allies, the European Union and Russia in terms of Caucasus. So, it is not trend, it is a fact of life. It is no guarantee; it is realism in the relations.”
Does Russia favor such the so-called American approach?
“Yes, I think if you look at Russian statements about the international relations, when to come to nations such as even Iran, they say we have common interests, we see common threats, we can work with you, we work with you, but it does not mean we go to find agreements on all areas to compete each other in such areas. For the Russians, it is realists that dominated Russia since the beginning of 19th
If that’s true, why Russia tries to define itself with the West?
“I think for those who study international relations should have understand that reality is never consistent; it is full of contradictions. Probably international relations are the best example of contradiction. Reality neutralizes ideology, neutralizes the idea of westernization in the Russian minds. Russia has competition with the West, cooperation with the West; it is a characteristic of Russia in international relations for at least two hundred, three hundred years. I do not see any contradiction or anything odd about it.”
On Syria, is Russia’s involvement in Syria a U.S. game to contain the role of Russia or it is just Moscow engagement with Washington on the Syria Crisis?
“U.S. approach to Russia’s involvement in Syria is not contradiction but affirmations of Russia’s role as great power, affirmation of Russia’s global interests. Russia's ideas to international relations goes back to the fact that when great countries such as Russia, China, The United States and Europe have the right to decide and the responsibility to solve these kind of issues which arise in the international system, for example Syria. In Russian point of view, The Americans and the European Union try to push Russia out of this role, you saw it in Ukraine or once again in Syria. Therefore, Russian people look at it as a return to its traditional role as great power, working with other great powers in dealing with small problems that happen in bigger countries, for example in Syria.”
Do you believe the idea that the U.S. tries to contain the power of Russia by persuading this country to engage in Syria?
“There are several elements which laid out to Putin's decision. One is we all know hit Russia as historical fear of spread of radical Islamist groups among its southern borders. Therefore, the breakdown of Syria crisis and emergence of Daesh and the increasing destabilization of the Northern Caucuses is serious to the Kremlin. Secondly, Russia sees Syria as allies in the Middle East. You have to remember that Russia is so considered itself a world military power. And Russian navy is able to demonstrate itself in the Mediterranean. Third, by ousting Assad, there is a fear that Syria will not only face a revolution but end up falling to the hands of a pro-U.S., a pro-Western government. I underline this point again that Syria is very important as a military base for Russia. If they lose their port in Syria, they no longer able to project naval power in the Mediterranean. So, Russia has military interest, has geopolitical interests and if Syria goes to the wrong hands, then Russia has internal domestic issues in the Caucasus.”
Could we expect a tradeoff between Russia and the West on Ukraine and Syria?
“I do not think that Russia involves the Syria Crisis in exchange for financial sanctions. I do not think that is going to happen, because Mr. Putin crosses several red lines. First, the Crimea, then intervene the Eastern Ukraine. These are the two redlines the Europeans and Americans won't expect. The Eastern Ukraine crisis and the Syrian Crisis are not really linked. The West believes that if they let Russia gobbles up Crimea and governs the Eastern Ukraine to its proxies, then what happens when China goes after some other countries. The Chinese will tell I do what Russia have done in the past with no blame on Moscow.”
What do you expect of upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw and their approach to Russia?
“Polish officials say that biggest threat to Europe is not Daesh, but is Russia. You have traditional enemies or antagonist within NATO: Poland, Latvia and others, in particular who are not going to allow resumption of warmer relations with Russia in the event of Ukraine crisis. Also, if you look at the U.S. supreme command report laid out about two months ago, it is strategy policy for coming years. Number one is that Russia is a threat. They are going to increase forces, funding and alertness. In this report, there is no type of accommodation.”
Will Russia turns to an enemy or it remains as threat?
“I think that Poland and The Baltics will go for it but Washington, London, Paris and Berlin won't allow naming Russia as enemy. But no reconciliation, no rapprochement will take place between Russia and NATO since the Ukraine crisis continued.”
Will the U.S. presidential hopefuls take different approach to Russia? What do you expect of Post-Obama U.S. relationship with Russia?
“It is very difficult to say because Trump hasn’t really provided policy details. Trump is too unpredictable. Hillary Clinton has a very negative opinion of Putin and Russia. I think she would be tougher on Russia than Obama has. I think she will work with eastern European countries such as Poland and etc. to contain the Russia’s power. Remember Hilary Clinton still has visions of humanitarian intervention, the U.S. role in the world as making the World safe with democracy, etc. etc.; she still has messianic view, and you can see her support for war with Iraq, what she did in Libya, what she did in Syria and I think she sees Russia as enemy number one. I think you see deterioration between the U.S. and Russia, when she becomes president. I should add this point that as long as Vladimir Putin is the president of Russia, there won’t be any significant improvement in their relationship.”
On Iran-Russian relations, Tehran prefers to name Russia as an ally and Moscow prefers names Iran as a follower. So, their foreign policy is quite different accordingly. Iran concerns that Russia deals with the Syria Case within the international context and seeks the solution through world powers engagement. This will force Iran to accept the joint agenda from the U.S. and Russia. Is such concern legitimate and worth of attention?
“As I said before, if you look at the trends in Russian diplomacy, especially since the beginning the 19th
century to today, two major themes are obvious. Number one is balance of power. No country should be number one. Countries should balance each other. Secondly, it is only the great powers that have the right and responsibility not only to solve little crises, but moreover, to have spear of influence. Other great powers should not interfere in the spear of influence of other great powers; they divide the world. Whenever there is a problem, we get together and we make proper policy to deal with issues. It does not mean that Russia does not take into consideration the interests and concerns of the regional powers, but they are not overriding. At the top, the great powers decide, regional powers and small powers should abide by what the great powers. And if you are looking at what is happening now in Syria, Russia and the U.S. are getting close on many issues; both switch their positions and get closer together, work together, decide together but consider the concerns of regional powers.”