Nikolay Kozhanov, a visiting lecturer in Political Economy of the Middle East at the European University in St Petersburg, a senior lecturer in Political Economy and Economic Security at the St Petersburg State University, a contributing expert to the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, sat down with IRAS for an exclusive interview about different aspects of Iran-Russia bilateral and regional ties.
In the past years, for example, in the past 4 years, Russia’s presence in the region has dramatically increased, both diplomatically and militarily. Why?
“Well, the question may be simple but the answer is really complicated. Because when the transformation of Russian foreign policy started in 2012, almost 5 years ago, it took the whole five-year period for the Russian foreign policy to transform. Moreover, during this period Russia has passed several stages. So we could say that between 2012 and 2015 Moscow realized that it needs to be pro-active in the region but it tried to limit its activities by diplomatic efforts only. So, it tried not to get involved too deep in the regional affairs. But in 2015, when the civil war in Syria started to threaten the survival of the Assad regime, Russia realized that it needs to be more active. And yet, during the second period, which is 2015 and September of 2015, Moscow was still largely considering itself as a country in defensive position. So, it was trying to give a response to what it saw as challenges for its political, economic, and military interests. And only after the deployment of its military forces in 2015 in Syria, it started to be really proactive and started to channel and all to be in the lead of certain events taking place in the Middle East that they were directly related to.
“So, we can basically see the transformation of this policy from non-involvement to trying to shape the situation in Syria or in, the best example, Libya, for instance. There are actually multiple reasons for this transformation to take place. First of all, it was definitely the Arab Spring which created quite a lot of concerns among the Russian leadership. Moreover, the Russian leadership believed that the Americans were behind it. And that compelled them to get involved in order to prevent what they saw as the potential for the failure or the destruction of governmental institutions in the Middle East which could, form the Russian point of view, set an example for the destabilization of other regions, including the ones close to Russia or Russia, itself. The second reason was the return of Mr. Putin to his presidential seat. Some people are arguing that Putin was just the same as his previous terms, whereas he was not. He was more disappointed in the West, he was no more seeking reconciliation with the West, and he wanted to give the Western powers what called by Minister Lavrov a lesson that Russia should have taken into account after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, and after the beginning of destabilization of Syria.
“And finally, the third reason was related to the situation in Russian economy. The regular deterioration and the crisis related to the drop down in oil prices, compelled Moscow to count every Kopek and Ruble. And it suddenly realized that for certain industries, for certain areas, cooperation with the Middle East matters. There was also an understanding that, in order to improve the situation in the oil and gas market, it should also be involved in the dialog with the regional players which again places the Middle East in the circle of Russian interests. Moreover, it made Russia interested in cooperation in the Middle East itself. Russia was considering the Middle East as just, let’s say, kind of a trading item in its relations with the West.”
What is the appropriate order for Russia in the Middle East, or more precisely the “West Asia”?
“Well, one of the main characteristics of the Russian presence in the Middle East right now as oppose to the Soviet times, for example, is that Russia doesn’t have a clear ideological agenda. That means that Russia doesn’t think about what kind of order, in political terms, would be comfortable for Russia. I say Russia has the vision that what Middle East can work with? So, from this point of view, I say that Moscow is extremely interested in the Middle East, where it can secure its presence in the economic and political side and also guarantee that the Middle East is not creating challenges for its security, for the post-Soviet states or the Russia itself.”
Is Russia in favor of the status quo for the regional order?
“Well, at the very beginning Russia was definitely in favor of the status quo. Some experts are arguing that now it can accept certain changes. But from my experience, from my discussions with Russian officials, I will say that Russia still would like to preserve the current states and institutions in the Middle East; but it also wouldn’t mind certain adjustments if it see that these changes could be in the favor of the interests of Russia.
“Yet, I cannot imagine any drastic changes of the borders that could satisfy Moscow right now. For instance, even in the case of the Kurdistan referendum that took place just recently, Moscow abstained from making any clear statement and, given its economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia definitely wouldn’t mind strengthening its relations with the Kurds. But, at the same time, it also cannot provide an official and open support to their independence because any change of the borders (I mean, formal change of borders, imagine a real independent Kurdistan) with Russian support will, on the one hand, bring certain damage to the Russian interests, from the point of Russian relations with other players, and on the other hand, Russia has no illusion and they know that a real independent Kurdistan could destabilize the region for the wrong, which is not in the interests of Russia who knows that, to eliminate any security challenges for Moscow, the region should be stabilized.”
Regarding what you mean by destabilization, maybe could we say that such an independence movement can generalize to other regions, other countries, for example, Iran, Kurdistan problems or other countries?
“Well, definitely, it will create a source of tension between Arbil and Baghdad. It creates certain concerns that probably could be an example for the Turkish Kurds.”
Is Russia afraid of generalization of such movements?
“Russia is concerned about any destabilization situation in the region and by saying this I mean any attempt to acquire independence in other countries will definitely be a way to destabilize the region.”
So, let’s move from West Asia to Persian Gulf. What is Russia’ Persian Gulf policy in general after this recent visit by King Salman?
“Well, again, in the Russian strategic thinking, [Persian] Gulf area is definitely divided into several sub-rulings. You can distinguish Iran, you can distinguish Iraq and Kuwait and you can distinguish the other GCC countries.”
Mostly I am focused on Arab countries.
“Well, as oppose to what some Russian analyst are currently saying about the historical meaning or historical importance of the recent visit of the Saudi king, I would be very cautious about making any conclusions. From my point of view, Russia pursuits quite a number of technical goals that were determined largely by the situation on the ground. So, because of its difficult economic situation, it is quite important for Moscow to bring the Gulf money to the Russian economy.
“It is also important to deal with Saudi Arabia in order to coordinate the efforts between Riyadh and Moscow in OPEC and oil market to improve the current situation with the oil prices. Finally, for Moscow it is also quite important to acquire certain supports from the Saudi Monarchy for the sake of Russian efforts in Syria. But at the same time, I guess that the Russian leadership has no illusion about the potential of this development.
“First of all, they clearly understand that they cannot compete, economically or politically, with the United States in terms of being friends with or own Saudi Arabia. Secondly, it is all the political equations the Saudi attributions are bind to; they demand that Russia should split from Iran or should downgrade their relations with Iran, which is absolutely unacceptable for Moscow that sees Iran as an important country in the region, especially important in terms of the reestablishment of Russia as one of the key players in the region.
“But at the same time, as I said, current developments, current analyses, maybe demand Russia to try to find common language with Saudi Monarchy. But I don’t believe that we are standing on threshold of new page in the development of these countries. Russia knows that Saudi Arabia is interested in this because the Saudi king goes to Russia and they are also interested in settlement of technical goals. It was important for Muhammad Bin Salman to show that he and his father can reach at least some kind of success in the international arena in terms of dealing with other powers. It was important for them to achieve Russian consent regarding the situation in Yemen, or at least make sure that Russia is silent about what is happening in Yemen, at to some extent they manage to achieve this. And it was also important for them to find some common understanding on Syria, which I guess it was only partly received.”
How Kremlin thinks about Saudi Kingdom’s soft power in central Asia? Is it a threat to Russia’s interests? Is this soft power important or even considered by Kremlin or not?
“Again, I am not an expert on central Asia, if you are asking me that. But as an expert on the Middle East or the Gulf I can say that definitely there is a certain presence of Saudi Arabia in Gulf countries and central Asia. It was clearly worshiping after the developments on the ground. But I will say that Saudi is not considered as the main threat or challenge because of two reasons. First of all, in Russia’s strategic thinking, it’s the western presence that traditionally believed to be the main threat for Russian interests.
“And secondly, I guess there is a clear understanding in terms of financial influence and in the current conditions it is quite difficult to challenge the Gulf countries. The only pre-condition that Moscow has is actually that Saudi citizens should not finance the terrorist activities of several of these groups in central Asia. But I guess the fact that Russia has started or tried to talk to the Saudi Monarch and to find a common language with Saudis, it is more interest in the dialog with Russians and less in activities that Russia could consider as a challenge for itself. But, in a nutshell, I don’t believe that Moscow actually cares that much about Saudi’s activities in central Asia, as long as they are not threatening the security of any of the central Asia states or Russian state.”
So, let’s talk about the recent US-Russia relations. Imagine the situation that some Iranian leaders or maybe within the Iranian leadership there are some concerns about improving the relation between Russia and the United States. If you want to discuss these issues with Iranian leaders in order to decrease such concern, can you guarantee that this engagement between these two powers do not influence or affect Iran’s presence in Syria? Can you give them guarantee, like “don’t be afraid of our engagement with the United States”?
“Well, I cannot either say that, “I cannot give guarantees”, but, on the other hand, I cannot also give guarantees for 100%. So, there are no on hundred percent guarantees. Let me explain why. On the one hand (let’s start from the negative side), the development of Russian relations with the West will always be affecting Moscow’s approach towards the Middle East. The Russian relation with the Middle Eastern players started largely because of the beginning of the huge confrontation, or better to say the split, between the Russia and the West and for Moscow, the signification of these relations was an important leverage to decrease the negative influence of this confrontation on Russian economy and Russian political interests and also to create a certain leverage in terms of the influence on the West, as well.
“So these developments and the signification of these ties will always be affecting the dynamics of the Russia’s relations within the Middle East as well. Secondly, the Russian leadership is extremely pragmatic. It understands that, off course, cooperation with Iran is important. Way more important than maybe cooperation with quite a number of other regional players. But, in order to settle this issue completely, it will need to talk to the international community including the United States. And from this point of view, the influence of the United States on these negotiations will be also affecting Russia approach toward cooperation with Iran.
“Thirdly and finally, Russia has adopted a very tricky approach towards the Middle East which is based on the principle of balancing between the main players in the region. So, this means that Russia should somehow balance its relations with Iran and with world as well. So, this also put certain restrains on Russia’s cooperation with Iran. And we have all seen how this affected the discussion involved the escalation that Minister Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson agreed on in the southern Syria with actually not involving Iran directly in this discussion. Having said this, I need to come down to the bright side.
“So, first of all, definitely there is a deep transition in the Russia’s vision of the Middle East itself and Iran. There is an understanding and this lesson was learnt from the Arab Spring, of using Iran or the Middle East as just a trading item in Russian relations with the West. That led to a situation where the West was cheating on Russia but Russian influence in the Middle East was also decreasing. So, basically, it was not a win-loss or win-win position, it was a loss-loss position for Russia. It was losing both the Western track and on the Middle Eastern track.
“And it realized that now it is time to approach the region from the other end and to appreciate these relations for the sake of Russia’s own interests in the region. So, that’s why I don’t believe that, if we imagine an improvement in the American-Russian relations coming any time soon, we cannot expect the Russian relations with the Middle Eastern powers grows and we will come back to pre-2012 state. The Russians are ready to cooperate with countries, not because of its interests in the West.
“Secondly, there is also the emergence of a number of interests that are related to the oil and gas sector, related to the interests of Russians in nuclear industry, related to the Russians’ arm producers, including cooperation with Iran. And finally, let’s face it: we should not expect any romance in bilateral relations on the Putin. It is not because of Putin’s disappointment in the West, they yielded to that, it’s no longer because of Trump not actually fulfilling his election promises to improve relations with Russia, but actually because Russian president’s team are considered toxic in the States, and their distrust in the West. So, we can say that without Putin actually leaving the political stage and his team being replaced with someone else, without this we won’t see the West being interested in to trying to reestablish relations with Russia. That naturally means that Russia will remain an opposition to the West and its cooperation deals will be occasional. Will they still be talking to the United States? They will be talking, but to certain extent.”
We know that there are negotiations between Israel and Palestinians have started but within the Palestinian faction there is a negotiation discussion agreement. So, my question is that what tools Russia possesses in order to positively or negatively affect such peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians?
“Formally Russia is supporting the ‘two-state solution’. But from my point of view, it is much more interested in the negotiation process rather than its outcome. Because for Russia, the Palestinian issue here is just a way to remind about itself as an important player in the international arena. And if we trace it back Russian activities related to Palestine and the Palestinian conflict we can see that in most cases, they were intensified together with the international community.
“But, all Russian initiatives nail around independence. They are usually within this trend of intentions to settle this question. But, the international community actually is losing interest discussing this question. And Russian also is taking a step back. Again, my perception is that the emergence of the independent Palestinian state would create much more problems for us, in terms of a new state that needs support and its emergence won’t go easy, in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations. And Russia would need to really choose side in this conflict. If it fully supports Palestinians it would affect the Russian interests in Israel which are much stronger and bigger. So, from this point of view, Russia would prefer to play the role of the mediator that tries not to put much pressure on either side of the conflict.”
You know that Russia is the only country that has full diplomatic ties and relations with all the countries in the Middle East. Is it good for Russia or deters its policies?
“That’s a very good question. Because on the one hand, definitely, Russia’s ability to talk to every power in the Middle East is a really good asset. So, it puts Russia in the role of a mediator that makes it quite appealing for the old players. You could still see that, for instance, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and to certain level, Turkey, still considered Russia, to some extent, the great power or the power which could talk to Iran or to Syria, whereas, for instance, Iran was considered one side of the conflict. So, Russia profited from this situation in Syria. Then, it also wants to use this position of, let’s say, a country that can talk to each and every one as a leverage to increase its importance in the international arena as a mediator and wants to show the West that, “Look, you cannot settle issues without us. We could help you, because we can talk to Tehran, to Damascus, and to all our peers at the same time.” But again, each one has two sides. On the negative side, the strategy of talking to each and every one means that we need to balance between each and every one.
“So, it naturally puts restrain on the cooperation of Russia with the regional players. Let’s say that the capacity of Russia to develop its relations with one regional player depends solely on the development of this relation can bring the negative effect on its relation with a third power. So, that’s why Russia is interested in talking to Iran, interested in its development of its relation with Iran but this dialog would always be limited in order not to negatively affect Russia’s relations with Israel or, I don’t know, the GCC countries. But it works both ways. That also means that Saudis will never see Russia splitting from Iran.”
We know that Iran has close ties with Russia, not only in the military perspective, but also in political and economic trades, and Iran hopes to grow and develop such ties and relations. On the other side, Saudi Arabia still has good ties with Russia, and proved recently that they want to improve their relations. So, why Russia has not played the role of a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to resolve their conflict? Is it against the Russia’s interests for this conflict to be resolved?
“Well, to the extent that I know, when the Saudi authorities executed Nimr Al-Nimr and the recent investigational confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia started, Russia proposed itself as mediator but it was not a pusher power. I guess that in this situation the Russian percolation should be formulated as follower. They definitely don’t mind playing the role of the mediator, but only when they believe in the success of this mediation. I am afraid that they see that this conflict will be difficult to settle right now. And, another thing that also affects the Russia’s position here is actually the perception of Russia in the Gulf.
“I mean, first of all, Saudi Arabia, and then, UAE, they believe that Russia is Iran’s ally. And from this point of view, they do not completely trust Russia. Especially given the stubbornness with which Moscow is denying or rejecting any Saudi offer as to abandon Iran. So, in this situation, well, the game is quite trickier than what Russia would prefer. It will involve in a situation from which it cannot get out as a successful power.”
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