By Michael Curtis
We’re having a political heat wave, it isn’t surprising the temperature’s rising with the escalation of tensions, diplomaticall and politically with even a threat of military issues between the United States and Russia. In retaliation for Russia’s expulsion of 755 U.S. diplomats, President Donald Trump on August 31, 2017 announced Russia will have to close a number of its posts in U.S. cities, Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco. Fear of further retaliation on both sides is the beginning of wisdom.
That fear is understandable, because of imminent military activity. In September 2017 Russia is holding a large military exercise, code name Zapad 2017, a joint Russian-Belarussian exercise, partly on the border with Lithuania and Poland, and which it announces as a purely defensive operation. The official Russian statement is that about 12,000 service members would be involved, of whom 7,200 would come from Belarus. They would be accompanied by 70 aircraft and helicopters, and combat vehicles, including 250 tanks, and 10 warships.
There is no resumption of the Cold War, but a crisis could occur as a result of misunderstanding. NATO is not responding to the Russian exercise by deploying more troops along its border. NATO has four multinational battle groups in Eastern Europe. But by coincidence the U.S. is playing a larger than usual role this year, for the first time since it was started in 2014, the U.S. is taking on the role of NATO Baltic air policing mission to ensure the security of Baltic airspace, a mission rotated yearly among NATO members to cover the eastern flank of NATO. This involves the deploying by the U.S. of certain assets: a tank brigade to Central and Eastern Europe; and a number of F-15C Eagle fighter planes and 140 airmen from the U.S. base Lakenheath in UK to Lithuania.
The vital question is whether there is a danger of confrontation between Russia and NATO? In view of the increase in Russian military activity is there in reality a “Russian threat”? President Putin has shown his image of physical toughness in a variety of ways, riding shirtless on horseback, diving into a deep lake, performing judo, and even underwater fishing. Equally, he has made it clear that Russia wants to play a more prominent role on the international stage than in recent years, to be a geopolitical power in the Middle East as elsewhere.
The attempt to influence events has been demonstrated politically and militarily. In 1999, Russia opposed the NATO air strikes and bombing of Belgrade and other Serbian military positions during the Kosovo war after Serbian forces has brutally attacked Kosovo Albanians. In March 2003, Putin condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a “great political error,” though he did not criticize the purpose of the operation, the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Russian aid to Iran is more troubling. By providing instructions on how to construct them Russia helped Iran develop what is now a formidable Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 intercontinental ballistic missile system with a range of 800 miles. After some hesitation, Russia supplied Iran with the anti-aircraft S-300 system with a range of 200 miles, which it regards as a defensive weapon.
Russia is helping Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a ten-year project expected to be launched before 2025. Iran already has a Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr, the country’s first nuclear energy project. Russia has also signed a deal with Iran to build up to eight more reactors in the country. In partial response, Iran allowed Russia to fire cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea over its territory into Syria.
Relations between the two countries have a cultural dimension of a kind. Russia was chosen guest of honor at the Teheran International Book Fair in August 2017, and President Putin has listed a work by the 11-12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam as one of his ten favorite books. In an interview in April 2008, Putin said, “In my free time I study works by Khayyam,” and recommended that people buy his poems.
Russia has become a player in Middle Eastern affairs, in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, the dispute between Israel and Palestinians, and in fighting Islamic terrorism.
Putin is not ideological, but pragmatic, prepared to make deals as his envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, has shown. Russia is not a superpower, and is prepared to cooperate with all sides, perhaps to divert attention from Ukraine, and to insist on justification of annexing Crimea.
But overall, Putin appears to have four main objectives: checking any advance of NATO in East Europe; obtaining the removal of sanctions against it; stability in the Middle East; and fighting Islamic terrorism.
Sanctions, starting in March 2014, have led to travel bans, freezing of assets, restricting credit to a number of energy and defense firms and banks. They have affected business, but they have not prevented Putin from supporting separatist republics in Ukraine.
In his policy of stability in the Middle East, Putin has been critical of the West for supporting and aiding the Arab Spring and the attempt to overthrow Arab rulers. He criticized President Barack Obama for abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. His claim is to play a role focusing on political-diplomatic settlements of conflicts in Libya and Syria, where his policy differs from that of the U.S., and with Israel and the Palestinians.
Putin has been concerned to fight terrorists, especially ISIS, and to prevent the spread of terrorism from Syria through Turkey to the Caucasus. Russia is still conscious of the conflict in Chechnya, where foreign jihadists, including al-Qaeda, appeared in the late 1990s. It is noticeable that Putin has good relations with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now that Turkey apologized for shooting down the Russian Su-24 fighter jet in Syria, and after Russian warning of the military coup in Turkey in July 2016.
Differences between Russia and the U.S. remain. The fate of Syrian President Bashir Assad is a significant point of difference, though there are hopeful signs. During the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, agreement was reached on July 7, 2017, between Trump and Putin on setting up a de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, though it is confined to one area of the country, and also allows the maintenance of Iranian-backed forces in areas controlled by Assad, which is a potential threat to Israel.
Nevertheless, Russia is on friendly terms with Arab countries and with Israel, with which there are regular phone calls and visits, common interests in trade, economic and investment cooperation, nanotechnology, and elimination terrorism. Israel has one million people who came from Russia, and Russian is the third largest spoken language in Israel. But one major problem needs to be solved. Russia does not consider Hizb’allah a terrorist organization, arguing that it has never committed any terrorist acts on Russian territory. Russia considers it a legitimate sociopolitical force.
Cordial relations with Israel include regular phone calls and visits, common interest in trade, economic and investment cooperation, nanotechnology, and above all concern about terrorism. Israel has 1 million people who came from Russia, and Russian is third largest spoken language in Israel.
Russia in August 2017 appointed a new ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, 62-year-old hardliner, former deputy foreign minister and former defense minister. His role should not be as a participant in the seemingly interminable Congressional hearings about alleged Russian activity, but to make clear that Russia has no aggressive intentions against NATO or the U.S. Perhaps his song should be “We’ll be together again.”