2016-01-28

With its active engagement in regional conflicts Russia tries to prove an indispensability of its regime


In the last several months we have witnessed a number of Russian initiatives on the resolution of regional conflicts more or less important for western interests. Along with its efforts to be a part of the Syrian peace process Moscow sends signals that it is ready to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran and to participate in the negotiation process between the Taliban and Afghan central government. It seems that with such active foreign policy Moscow is in fact pursuing its primary goal today – protection of its political regime.

Already for more than a year Russia has been trying to convince western partners that any violable solution in Syrian civil war is unthinkable without Moscow. Having decided to expand its military presence in war-torn country Russia deliberately ventured to become not only a part of this conflict, but more importantly to be an indispensable element of its solution in the long run[1].

Bilateral agreement between Assad government and Moscow on the permanent stationing of Russian air base on the Syrian soil[2] and existing plans of the Russian military command to further the operation range in the northwestern Syria[3] suggest that Kremlin is determined to keep its hold in Syria.

On the other hand, Russian diplomats, while calling upon Western community to unite in the fight against the international terrorism in the Middle East putting aside all mutual disagreements[4], precondition all talks with demand to draw a distinct line between terrorists and legitimate Syrian opposition groups. Such maneuvering not merely weakens negotiating positions of the whole anti-Assad camp, it also gives Moscow an upper hand to manage a resolution process as well[5].

Another example of Moscow’s attempts to wedge itself into existing regional conflicts is a recent statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the Kremlin expresses its readiness to help Saudi Arabia and Iran to resolve diplomatic crisis broken out early in January. Prospects of being drawn into an outright sectarian conflict between largest branches of Islam don’t seem to deter Russian leadership from more meddling. Besides Moscow sends a positive signal to Riyadh with whom it is waging a proxy war in Syria.

Russia is trying to seize a great opportunity. First of all, the monarchy can’t afford itself an open military conflict with Iran taking into account grim reality in the kingdom. Low oil prices and ongoing war in the neighboring Yemen restrain Riyadh in dealing with ever expanding Tehran. Secondly, Saudi leadership is not quite satisfied with how its Western partners deal with Iran and its regional ambitions in Syria and Iraq. In the eyes of the king, USA doesn’t seem to be much concerned with the spread of Iranian hold in the Persian Gulf either[6].

This very nuance makes Russia a good mediator between two regional powerhouses and allows it to gain importance for the West who is watching with much great trepidity how the Middle East is about to break into another bloody conflict. Moscow’s activism however is not limited to a single region. It is highly important for the Kremlin to be engaged in conflicts, where the West encounters certain difficulties and great dividends from participation are in sight.

In late December Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov announced that Russia has communication channels to exchange information with the Taliban and that Russian interests in Afghanistan coincided with those of the movement[7]. This line, according to experts, is a remarkable departure from the long-held policy of abstention from getting involved in the Afghan politics and moreover having any dialogue with the Taliban, designated by Russian in 2003 as a terrorist organization.

Apparently, Moscow wants to become a part of solution process in Afghanistan. The Kremlin feels discontent that existing negotiations held in the framework of “Istanbul Process” platform with participation of USA, Pakistan and China are conducted without Russia. Successful entering into the existing process promises Russia to bring good benefits. Moscow can get back again its status of an influential player in the region, this, in turn, has to make its Western partners to reckon with Russian interests elsewhere[8].

To comprehend what is hidden behind such initiatives of Moscow one should look at the events that took place in the last few years in the Russian immediate periphery, in its historical sphere of influence. The case in point is of course regime in Ukraine change that took place in November 2013.

Moscow’s reluctance to let Kiev go from under its influence and Russian attempts to keep certain leverage on the coming Ukrainian governments resulted in a decision to provide support to pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine. Economic sanctions imposed by the West following Russian operations on the Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine failed to have a substantial impact on the Russian foreign policy[9].

First of all, as experts point out, though the sanctions coincided with low prices of oil, main Russian export revenue source, political effects were rather insignificant. The fall of income doesn’t transform into a fall of regime popularity. Russians, who survived economic crisis of 1990’s, have low pain threshold[10]. Moreover, political regime in Kremlin is doing a good job by successfully riding a wave of patriotism after the annexation of Crime and launching of the first after the collapse of the USSR military campaign in the Middle East and employing a “besieged fortress” discourse at home[11].

Secondly, decline in incomes of the Russian political elites also doesn’t constitute a determinant factor in the foreign policy decision making. People, familiar with the peculiarities of the Russian political system, say that wellbeing of elites in Russia is to a much greater extent dependent on the existence of political regime, rather than on relations with the West.

Considering a big role Ukraine plays within the mythological construct of “Greater Russia” in the consciousness of people and taking into account importance of Kiev in perplex of relations between West and Russia one can say for sure that Ukrainian events aka “Euromaidan” and the subsequent fall of Yanukovich regime made for great uneasiness in Moscow about its own regime[12]. For political elites “Euromaidan” stood in line with other so-called “colored revolution” and served as an ill omen of coming wave of regime changes in the post-Soviet space. In the mass perception, not without help of the Kremlin’s enormous propaganda machinery, tragic events in Ukraine embodied Western meddling into internal affairs of Russia’s brother country.

In Moscow’s calculations, support to separatist “people’s republics” must derail post-“Euromaidan” process and demonstrate fruitlessness and even destructiveness of regime change policy therefore securing the prospects of its own regime in the long run. To serve this goal Russia reverts to proactive foreign policy globally. Experience of the North Korea and Iran clearly demonstrate that authoritarian regimes choose to be either too dangerous or too important for the regional stability to be ignored by the West. Choosing the latter, Russia by virtue of its active engagement in number of conflicts crucial for the Western partners is trying to make its own regime too indispensable to disregard.






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