Russia Moves on the Foreign Policy Chessboard

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Russian President Vladimir Putin © Pavliha

September 21, 2016 23:23 EDT

Opportunities across the board await Russia in its foreign policy, but it must be careful not to upset existing allies.

Turkey’s readiness to restore relations with Russia; Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU); the circulation of rumors on the Green Continent about the need to revise relations with Moscow; the increased willingness among Middle Eastern countries to develop relations with the Kremlin; and forthcoming changes in the White House are all opportunities that provide the Putin government with more options and more maneuvering space in its foreign policy. The adoption of a pragmatic approach makes it possible for the Kremlin—from both theoretical and practical standpoints—to make the most of these diplomatic openings.

Russian Foreign Policy

Russia’s pragmatism is based on such principles as the involvement in a positive game with all sides; the necessity of usefulness of action; the effectiveness of reaction; avoiding useless belligerence; strategic opportunism; and multi-tier and resilient identity. Within the framework of this approach, an effort is being made to create adequate maneuvering room for making tactical changes in order to take advantage of the smallest opportunities.

Russia’s military operations in Syria—from their sudden beginning to their sudden downturn—were an example of Moscow’s pragmatic approach, which till today has produced relatively successful results. By starting those operations, Russia met part of its interests, including by reminding the West and its regional allies of the importance of Moscow’s geopolitical spheres of influence; protecting its interests in Syria; and strengthening the Russian coalition in the Middle East through interaction with Iran.

Likewise, by suddenly reducing its forces and military strikes in Syria, the Kremlin paved the way for meeting another part of its interests in relations with the West and its regional allies.

With this in mind, finding a more expanded space for “effective” maneuvering by Russia to interact with and affect various sides in the region can be regarded as one of the most important achievements of Moscow’s pragmatic game in the Middle East. This is why while taking to task the policy adopted by the Obama administration in the region, some American diplomats have referred to Russia’s “active” game with various regional actors—including Syria, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Israel and the West itself—describing the situation as a sign of Washington’s retreat.

Russia, however, has been successful in creating and maintaining a fluctuating atmosphere among these actors at a time when its official allies (Iran and Syria) see themselves in confrontation with the other side (the West and its regional allies). On the one hand, the Kremlin has bolstered its policy and influence in the Middle East through interaction with Tehran and Damascus, while on the other it has proved to the West and its allies that solving problems in the region would not be possible by ignoring the interests and considerations of Moscow.

Room for Change

The Kremlin is also taking into account the necessity of creating and maintaining effective maneuvering space with regard to other issues, and with different actors as part of its realistic assessment of weaknesses and limitations of its foreign policy assets. This is true because Russia knows that these assets are not sufficient to achieve its ambitious goals. As a result of experiences under the former Soviet Union and also during the 1990s, the Russians have realized that a unilateral approach will have no result other than the wastage of existing resources.

This approach will provide the necessary conditions for Moscow to take advantage of new opportunities in ties with Turkey, the EU, the United States and countries in the Middle East.

Indeed, taking advantage of these opportunities is not that easy, tactical changes will not come without a cost, and there is no guarantee about the final achievement of goals. However, it must be noted that rapid regional and international developments do not provide guarantees or safe margins for any state actor.

In the meantime, a pragmatic approach has offered a wider arena for play, and more possibilities are there for tactical fluctuations among sometimes conflicting actors—a result of which Russia’s chances for achieving its goals have increased.

Practical trends also show that compared to other actors, Moscow has more expanded space and options for action, and it will be able to maintain this capability in the foreseeable future as well. Regardless of whether Russia’s foreign policy goals will or will not be realized, this capability can be considered a “success” for the foreign policy of the country.

Russia-Iran Relations

However, although the wide maneuvering space, change in tactics and a multi-tier game have been “useful” to Russia, this approach has not been very pleasing to its nominal allies, including Iran. This is true because Iran is well aware that any change in Russia’s game with other actors—especially Turkey, the EU and the US—would have inevitable effects on Moscow’s relations with Tehran and, subsequently, on Iranian interests.

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Experience has shown that, in most cases, this effect has been negative. However, in the new round of relations with Moscow, the Iranians have been looking at Russia as a balancing actor against the West. As a result, Iran has been willing to have long-term ties with the Kremlin.

Therefore, it seems that Moscow’s current approach to the development of relations with Iran is not a merely tactical step, but a result of fixed necessities in the foreign policy of Russia and a consequence of geopolitical considerations that make it possible for this approach to remain relatively stable. However, it must be noted that even within this framework, Moscow maintains the maneuvering space for tactical changes, and these changes may not be necessarily in line with Iranian interests.

With this in mind, Iran must consider pragmatism—and the constant tactical changes in Russia’s foreign policy—as a principle in order to hold stable ties. On the other hand, Moscow must take necessary measures in order to reduce to a minimum the negative effects of these changes on Iranian interests. It is only in this state that Russia and Iran would be able to come up with a more stable model for long-term interaction.

*[An earlier version of this article was originally published by Iran Review.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Pavliha

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