The recent visits of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have raised the eyebrows in the region, causing observers to wonder what the Russian leader is doing in the Middle East. A senior expert has provided answers to this question.
Dr Bahram Amir-Ahmadian, a Eurasia expert and professor of regional studies has reviewed the recent visit of the Russian president to the Middle East and its possible implications, in an interview with Khabar Online.
Amir-Ahmadian is a professor of political geography at University of Tehran. He is an expert in Eurasian, Caucasian, and CIS issues.
Q: What do the Russians want in term of security?
A: Russia needed to have a strong presence in two places: One at the Sevastopol port on the Crimean Peninsula, which was the place to keep the Black Sea Fleet’s nuclear submarine. Russia leased the area from Ukraine, where Ukraine was at odds with Russia. In the meantime, hard power was used instead of soft power, and Russia seized the area. The next location was in the Mediterranean Sea, near the Suez Canal, the crossing point of the Russian commercial fleet, i.e. the Port of Tartus. Russia has been using this port since the Soviet times and must preserve it. So, in addition to protecting the port, Russia has also sought to support the Syrian government. Russia’s intimacy with the Middle East also goes back to the Soviet era that Moscow is keen to revive. So we see it forms an economic union or a customs union. They are even looking for presence in the Indian Ocean. It should be noted that Russia is not powerful economically, politically, and culturally, like the Soviet era.
Russia has tried to maintain both the port and the Syrian government. Russia’s propinquity to the Middle East countries goes back to Soviet era and many Russians like to revive that era. For example, a military, economic union, has lead to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is a collective security structure.
The CIS is consisted of 12 countries. Of course, they are 11 now. Ukraine has left, and Georgia is separated, but their performance is not like the Soviet Union era. Some countries, such as Kazakhstan, still have their own structure as there is no alternative for them. Russia’s presence in the Middle East is just to quench the Soviet ambition. Russia does not have the status of a cultural, political and economic power to be considered a great power. It means, it cannot replace the United States. It cannot replace the US because there is no point in it to replace America.
Q: You mentioned that Russia does not benefit greatly from the trip; given your own assertion, so can we say the reasons for his trip were security issues? Or other issues like resolving the Yemen crisis and holding negotiations? As we know, Russia had called for political dialogue to resolve the Yemen crisis. Lavrov, on the other hand, upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, said that we do not know who was behind the attack on Aramco.
A: Since the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, they have always stated that they can resolve the Afghanistan issue, but in practice we have seen nothing. As for their presence in the Persian Gulf, they will have communication problems because the Russian language is very difficult. The second language of the Arab countries is English and Moscow will face challenges. Even the Central Asia and the Caucasus states are undergoing changes to replace English. Russia has limited soft power, and most importantly they are viewed as violent and unreliable party. For example look at Egypt. Egypt in the Arab world has suffered a major blow from the Soviet Union, though some say the Soviet Union and Russia are two separate entities. But all former Soviet officials were Russians. The same culture and the same people are still at work. The same Putin and Lavrov had responsibilities during the Soviet Union! They only reinforce their sense of ambition to tell their nation “don’t worry! We are spending militarily!”
I have seen Russia from Siberia to the Ural and Volga, the Caucasus and so on. In the Asian regions of Russia there is a lot of construction work to do. They are an underdeveloped community with a traditional context. They are not like Moscow at all. Our problem about Russia is that we think it’s European. Russia is not even industrial. If it was, Why Russian brands are not known in other countries? What goods are made in Russia that are vital except weapons and nuclear power? An industrial economy can develop. Russia is just a hard military power.
Q: So, what is the purpose of Russia’s moves in the Middle East? What does she want to do? Export oil? Well that’s what the Arabs have! Again I get back to the previous question regarding security. After a recent visit to Russia, the Iranian delegation talked of the possibility of a joint war game in the Persian Gulf. Can it be said that Putin is only looking for security issues, given that you referred to the fact that they are only looking for their past glory.
A: For Russia, Iran does not have the position that we define for ourselves in its foreign policy. We are a country with independent foreign policy. We are not dependent on foreign policy. We make our own decisions. Many in Iran say Moscow is Tehran’s strategic partner, but the Russians deny it. Unfortunately, in Iran, the concept of strategic partner is not interpreted well. However, the important point is that Iran can turn into an independent geopolitical state, relying on domestic forces and national power. It has all the components of a regional power. The preconditions of tuning into a regional geopolitical state are efforts to promote its industrial development. The 20-Year National Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that in 2025, the Islamic Republic is one of the countries with the most engagement with the international community.
I believe that Iran’s soft power is much more than Russia’s. Russia’s soft power alongside its hard power makes sense, but Iran’s soft power has other characteristics. Iran is far superior than the countries around us, but we need more efforts. We cannot say that Russia’s presence in the Middle East has been effective unless it can be felt by everyone. At the same time, if a country wants to be strong, it must have a brand as well as a character. Russia is not a country to trust. Everyone is witnessing that Russia has seized Crimea, Abkhazia and Ossetia and resorted to force.
The problem with Iran-Russia relations is that the Russians are very violent and it cannot be identified by their outer shell. Russian culture also says that laughter is the job of the crazy. Another point is that the Russians have invaded Iran and seized our land. In 1907 the Russians and British divided Iran.
Q: For example, the plan to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and its fall was designed by the British, but the Ottoman Turks also do not trust the Russians.
A: That’s because the Russians fought the Ottomans. The Crimean Peninsula was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Russians seized it from the Ottomans. The Russians’ mental and physical thirst is endless and this is part of their culture that needs to be contained. We should not forget the S-300 issue. When the Russian generals were setting time for the US invasion of Iran, and when it came to delivering the S 300, they were talking of sanctions! Fortunately, our military forces in Iran adjusted the situation. This is one of the issues that shows the Russians cannot be trusted. Russia will never give priority to the interests of Iran instead of its own interests. Iran should never put aside its interests for the sake of the interests of another country.
To conclude, the Russians in the Persian Gulf cannot do anything because of the difference in economic structure as their economies are not similar to those of the Arab countries. In such circumstances, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation will not be formed. An entity like ECO can hold up to 10% of trade, which in the EU is over 50%. So what seems necessary is to give a clear picture of Russia. It is seeking its own interests, and Iran must be pursuing its own interests. Of course, wherever it is in our interest, we must work with the Russians and most importantly our private sector must enter.
Q: Finally, will Putin’s Russia fall into the hands of another man? If that happened, how would be the Iran-Russia ties like?
A: It is not likely that a powerful person like Putin would exist in Russia. As long as this vacuum exists, Putin will remain President. One of the issues regarding Russia’s soft power is that it cannot accept anyone else. There is a view in the West that the second person should be more powerful than the chief himself. But in the east they believe that the dumbest person should be the deputy so as not to stage coup against the leader. Putin is the lifelong president.