By George Friedman
Most speeches at diplomatic gatherings aren’t worth the time it takes to listen to them. On rare occasion, a speech is delivered that needs to be listened to carefully. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave such a speech over the weekend in Munich, at a meeting on international security. The speech did not break new ground; it repeated things that the Russians have been saying for quite a while. But the venue in which it was given and the confidence with which it was asserted signify a new point in Russian history. The Cold War has not returned, but Russia is now officially asserting itself as a great power, and behaving accordingly.
At Munich, Putin launched a systematic attack on the role the United States is playing in the world. He said: “One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way … This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons.” In other words, the United States has gone beyond its legitimate reach and is therefore responsible for attempts by other countries — an obvious reference to Iran — to acquire nuclear weapons.
Russia for some time has been in confrontation with the United States over U.S. actions in the former Soviet Union (FSU). What the Russians perceive as an American attempt to create a pro-U.S. regime in Ukraine triggered the confrontation. But now, the issue goes beyond U.S. actions in the FSU. The Russians are arguing that the unipolar world — meaning that the United States is the only global power and is surrounded by lesser, regional powers — is itself unacceptable. In other words, the United States sees itself as the solution when it is, actually, the problem.
In his speech, Putin reached out to European states — particularly Germany, pointing out that it has close, but blunt, relations with Russia. The Central Europeans showed themselves to be extremely wary about Putin’s speech, recognizing it for what it was — a new level of assertiveness from an historical enemy. Some German leaders appeared more understanding, however: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made no mention of Putin’s speech in his own presentation to the conference, while Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Putin’s stance on Iran. He also noted that the U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was cause for concern — and not only to Russia.
Putin now clearly wants to escalate the confrontations with the United States and likely wants to build a coalition to limit American power. The gross imbalance of global power in the current system makes such coalition-building inevitable — and it makes sense that the Russians should be taking the lead. The Europeans are risk-averse, and the Chinese do not have much at risk in their dealings with the United States at the moment. The Russians, however, have everything at risk. The United States is intruding in the FSU, and an ideological success for the Americans in Ukraine would leave the Russians permanently on the defensive.
The Russians need allies but are not likely to find them among other great-power states. Fortunately for Moscow, the U.S. obsession with Iraq creates alternative opportunities. First, the focus on Iraq prevents the Americans from countering Russia elsewhere. Second, it gives the Russians serious leverage against the United States — for example, by shipping weapons to key players in the region. Finally, there are Middle Eastern states that seek great-power patronage. It is therefore no accident that Putin’s next stop, following the Munich conference, was in Saudi Arabia. Having stabilized the situation in the former Soviet region, the Russians now are constructing their follow-on strategy, and that concerns the Middle East.
The Russian Interests
The Middle East is the pressure point to which the United States is most sensitive. Its military commitment in Iraq, the confrontation with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and oil in the Arabian Peninsula create a situation such that pain in the region affects the United States intensely. Therefore, it makes sense for the Russians to use all available means of pressure in the Middle East in efforts to control U.S. behavior elsewhere, particularly in the former Soviet Union.
Like the Americans, the Russians also have direct interests in the Middle East. Energy is a primary one: Russia is not only a major exporter of energy supplies, it is currently the world’s top oil producer. The Russians have a need to maintain robust energy prices, and working with the Iranians and Saudis in some way to achieve this is directly in line with Moscow’s interest. To be more specific, the Russians do not want the Saudis increasing oil production.
There are strategic interests in the Middle East as well. For example, the Russians are still bogged down in Chechnya. It is Moscow’s belief that if Chechnya were to secede from the Russian Federation, a precedent would be set that could lead to the dissolution of the Federation. Moscow will not allow this. The Russians consistently have claimed that the Chechen rebellion has been funded by “Wahhabis,” by which they mean Saudis. Reaching an accommodation with the Saudis, therefore, would have not only economic, but also strategic, implications for the Russians.
On a broader level, the Russians retain important interests in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. In both cases, their needs intersect with forces originating in the Muslim world and trace, to some extent, back to the Middle East. If the Russian strategy is to reassert a sphere of influence in the former Soviet region, it follows that these regions must be secured. That, in turn, inevitably involves the Russians in the Middle East.
Therefore, even if Russia is not in a position to pursue some of the strategic goals that date back to the Soviet era and before — such as control of the Bosporus and projection of naval power into the Mediterranean — it nevertheless has a basic, ongoing interest in the region. Russia has a need both to limit American power and to achieve direct goals of its own. So it makes perfect sense for Putin to leave Munich and embark on a tour of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.
But the Russians also have a problem. The strategic interests of Middle Eastern states diverge, to say the least. The two main Islamic powers between the Levant and the Hindu Kush are Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Russians have things they want from each, but the Saudis and Iranians have dramatically different interests. Saudi Arabia — an Arab and primarily Sunni kingdom — is rich but militarily weak. The government’s reliance on outside help for national defense generates intense opposition within the kingdom. Desert Storm, which established a basing arrangement for Western troops within Saudi Arabia, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of al Qaeda. Iran — a predominantly Persian and Shiite power — is not nearly as rich as Saudi Arabia but militarily much more powerful. Iran seeks to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf — out of both its need to defend itself against aggression, and for controlling and exploiting the oil wealth of the region.
Putting the split between Sunni and Shiite aside for the moment, there is tremendous geopolitical asymmetry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to limit Iranian power, while keeping its own dependence on foreign powers at a minimum. That means that, though keeping energy prices high might make financial sense for the kingdom, the fact that high energy prices also strengthen the Iranians actually can be a more important consideration, depending on circumstances. There is some evidence that recent declines in oil prices are linked to decisions in Riyadh that are aimed at increasing production, reducing prices and hurting the Iranians.
This creates a problem for Russia. While Moscow has substantial room for maneuver, the fact is that lowered oil prices impact energy prices overall, and therefore hurt the Russians. The Saudis, moreover, need the Iranians blocked — but without going so far as to permit foreign troops to be based in Saudi Arabia itself. In other words, they want to see the United States remain in Iraq, since the Americans serve as the perfect shield against the Iranians so long as they remain there. Putin’s criticisms of the United States, as delivered in Munich, would have been applauded by Saudi Arabia prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in 2007, the results of that invasion are exactly what the Saudis feared — a collapsed Iraq and a relatively powerful Iran. The Saudis now need the Americans to stay put in the region.
The interests of Russia and Iran align more closely, but there are points of divergence there as well. Both benefit from having the United States tied up, militarily and politically, in wars, but Tehran would be delighted to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that leaves a power vacuum for Iran to fill. The Russians would rather not see this outcome. First, they are quite happy to have the United States bogged down in Iraq and would prefer that to having the U.S. military freed for operations elsewhere. Second, they are interested in a relationship with Iran but are not eager to drive the United States and Saudi Arabia into closer relations. Third, the Russians do not want to see Iran become the dominant power in the region. They want to use Iran, but within certain manageable limits.
Russia has been supplying Iran with weapons. Of particular significance is the supply of surface-to-air missiles that would raise the cost of U.S. air operations against Iran. It is not clear whether the advanced S300PMU surface-to-air missile has yet been delivered, although there has been some discussion of this lately. If it were delivered, this would present significant challenges for U.S. air operation over Iran. The Russians would find this particularly advantageous, as the Iranians would absorb U.S. attentions and, as in Vietnam, the Russians would benefit from extended, fruitless commitments of U.S. military forces in regions not vital to Russia.
Meanwhile, there are energy matters: The Russians, as we have said, are interested in working with Iran to manage world oil prices. But at the same time, they would not be averse to a U.S. attack that takes Iran’s oil off the market, spikes prices and enriches Russia.
Finally, it must be remembered that behind this complex relationship with Iran, there historically has been animosity and rivalry between the two countries. The Caucasus has been their battleground. For the moment, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a buffer there, but it is a buffer in which Russians and Iranians are already dueling. So long as both states are relatively weak, the buffer will maintain itself. But as they get stronger, the Caucasus will become a battleground again. When Russian and Iranian territories border each other, the two powers are rarely at peace. Indeed, Iran frequently needs outside help to contain the Russians.
A Complicated Strategy
In sum, the Russian position in the Middle East is at least as complex as the American one. Or perhaps even more so, since the Americans can leave and the Russians always will live on the doorstep of the Middle East. Historically, once the Russians start fishing in Middle Eastern waters, they find themselves in a greater trap than the Americans. The opening moves are easy. The duel between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems manageable. But as time goes on, Putin’s Soviet predecessors learned, the Middle East is a graveyard of ambitions — and not just American ambitions.
Russia wants to contain U.S. power, and manipulating the situation in the Middle East certainly will cause the Americans substantial pain. But whatever short-term advantages the Russians may be able to find and exploit in the region, there is an order of complexity in Putin’s maneuver that might transcend any advantage they gain from boxing the Americans in.
In returning to “great power” status, Russia is using an obvious opening gambit. But being obvious does not make it optimal.