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Russia Does its Own Pivot

Russia is increasingly paying attention to developments in Asia. But are positions on Iran and Syria hurting it?

By Javad Heydarian for

Moscow may be facing growing domestic political challenges with opposition forces calling for a post-Putin political order, but its profile in Asia has in many ways improved in recent years.

In the post-Cold War era, Moscow is facing a new global strategic landscape, where Asia is increasingly becoming the center of global economic activity and geo-political competition. Yet while the Asia-Pacific region is host to some of the world’s biggest economies, the West and Central Asian regions are critical flashpoints, with Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria topping the international security agenda.  

In response, Moscow has gradually re-configured its Europe-centric foreign policy by paying more attention to developments in Asia. An indication of Russia’s growing strategic investment in the continent is its membership and growing role within major regional security and economic fora, from the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit to the Six-Party Talks on North Korea and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia isn’t only interested in developing its Far Eastern and Siberian regions by expanding trade and cooperation with neighboring Asian countries, especially China, Mongolia, Japan, India, and South Korea, but is also keen on enhancing its strategic depth in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region. Obviously, there’s an element of great power politics in play: China’s influence is on the rise, feeding its growing territorial assertiveness across East Asia, while the United States has unequivocally expressed its interest in retaining its leadership status in the Asia-Pacific theatre. The strategic and economic stakes are extremely high, so Russia will seek a piece of the action.

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However, Moscow is yet to craft a coherent policy towards, and deepen, its strategic presence in East Asia. It has yet to clarify its position on the critical issue of building an overall regional security architecture that accommodates the interests of all major players. Strategic ambivalence and a wait-and-see approach will do little to enhance Russia’s position in the region.

While it’s primarily trade and large-scale economic interests that motivate Russia’s current maneuvers in East Asia, the Middle East has presented more fundamental strategic questions. Russia’s acquiescence was critical to the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) mission in Libya. However, Russia got its hands burned, when it realized that the West used the United Nations’ mandate – in the form of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 – as a pretext for regime change.  The mission creep in Libya has obviously embittered Russia-West relations, with Moscow intent on preventing further strategic reversals in the Middle East.

Syria is in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval, while Iran is at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program. Both countries are important, because Syria is Russia’s sole strategic ally in the region, while Iran is a major political and economic partner.

For Russia, then, the stakes are high. Syria is host to Russia’s sole naval base in the region and Moscow fears that the Arab League and NATO will (again) use a humanitarian mission as a pretext for regime change in Syria, practically re-drawing the regional strategic landscape. On Iran, Moscow feels that the crippling sanctions are designed to undermine the regime, limiting Iran’s ability to assist the Syrian regime.

No wonder that Moscow has consistently blocked any measures against the Syrian regime, vetoing multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions in recent months. Underscoring the significance of Syria in Russia’s strategic calculations, Moscow has chosen to withstand a flurry of international criticism and diplomatic censure from Arab and Western countries, which feel that Russia is playing a cynical geo-political game to protect its ally.

Amidst a possible civil war, Russia has not only promised to continue its military cooperation with Syria, but it has also sought the diplomatic support of countries such as China. It has also opposed calls for a peacekeeping mission in Syria, arguing that Syria should be allowed to try to establish a semblance of stability before any peace keeping force is sent.

With Russia facing its own domestic insurgency movements and growing political opposition, there should no surprise over the ferocity with which it argues in favor of the issue of sovereignty and non-interference.

Crucially, Russia may fear the West and the Arab League are interested in pushing back the government forces from critical flashpoints such as Homs so that the armed opposition can establish some control over prospective “safe zones.” In such an event, there will be a justification for external intervention to secure and expand humanitarian safe zones. Obviously, NATO members such as Turkey will play a crucial operational role if a humanitarian intervention is on the horizon.

Iran is part of an even bigger game of geo-political jostling between the West and Russia. It should therefore be obvious why Russia has vigorously opposed any military action against Iran’s nuclear program, while criticizing unilateral sanctions against Tehran. Instead, Moscow has proposed a so-called “step-by-step” approach, whereby in exchange for Iran’s cooperation at every stage of negotiation there will be a corresponding rollback in sanctions. If Iran is weakened or the regime is toppled, then the West will be able to consolidate its dominance in the highly strategic region of Middle East. This would be a heavy blow to Russia’s influence and interests in the region.

So far, it’s clear that Russia is determined to prevent any regime change in Syria and Iran. More broadly, Moscow will do anything to retain and assert its tenuous influence in the Middle East, while seeking a greater strategic and economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].