What About Russian Expansionism?

Interview conducted by Jaime Ortega.


Dr. Nikolay Kozhanov.

He is an academy associate at the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House and a visiting lecturer in the Political Economy of the Middle East at the European University at St.Petersburg.


1) Since 2014, Russia has officially committed 67 military violations on international airspace and waters all over the world. Why has Russia started to aggressively violate international law? And will they also commit airspace violations in different sovereign countries across the Middle East to challenge US influence, if they grow stronger in Syria? Do you fear Russia?

There is no a simple answer to this question. First of all, Moscow’s evolution in a serious troublemaker on the international arena started not in 2014 but two years earlier – in 2012 when Putin was re-elected for the third presidential term. That time most of the experts on Russian foreign policy made a serious mistake: they assumed that Putin’s return into the presidential office will bring little changes in Moscow’s behavior. The main argument in favor of this theory was that the Russian leader had been in the continuous control of the Russian foreign policy since 2000 and most of his habits were well-know to the international society. Yet, the Putin of 2012 was different from the Putin of 2000 and 2004: more authoritarian, more decisive and more anti-Western. He was seriously disappointed by the failure of the reset in Russian-US relations and existing tensions with the West. This could not but affect Moscow’s stance on its relations with the US, EU and the Middle East. Thus, to a large extent, the active support provided to the Assad regime was the Kremlin’s revenge to the West for what Moscow saw as its political and economic losses in Libya and Iraq. The Russian leadership was apparently offended that its silent support for the Western military operation did not receive any acknowledgement in the US and EU. This, in turn, impelled the Russian authorities to prove that they could cause serious trouble if their position on regional affairs was not taken into consideration by Western players.

By 2012, the general domestic situation in Russia also favored changes in Moscow’s foreign policy towards more provocative actions in the West and Middle East. Quite a substantial share of the Russian society were still trying to get along with the fact that after the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991 Russia seized to play the role of a super-power. This part of the population was experiencing – what I call – “the post-Imperial syndrome”: the situation when people forgot or even do not know (if we take into account those who were born after 1991) about the ugly side of the Communist regime which, at the end of the day, was the reason for its fall but start to  miss about what they saw as “the symbols of the past imperial glory” often associated with the ability of the USSR to confront the West. Consequently, in 2012, the Kremlin decided to shore up the social base of its support by active appealing to the nationalistic sentiments of the Russian population. Their appeals received a positive response. A large proportion of the mid- and lower layers of the Russian population wished to see the Putin of 2012 more actively protecting their national interests and cementing relations with the non-Western world. Putin gave them what they wanted. Russian support for Damascus, close relations with Tehran and rapprochement with Egypt were supposed to symbolize a return to the old traditions of the Soviet Empire for those missing the “imperial” glory of the USSR. Prior to its fall in 1991, the USSR had good political and economic relations with these countries. The same could be said about those 67 military violations on international airspace and waters that happened all over the world since 2014. Moscow exploits it both for domestic and external interests: it tries to reestablish its image as the leading world power on both tracks.   

2) Not long ago Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov vowed to attack and use “nuclear ballistic missiles” against Denmark and Finland if they joined the NATO scud missile defense system. Is Russia’s threat serious, or are they playing “new bully in the school?”.

This question is directly connected to the previous one: should we fear Russia? I believe that while Russia is definitely a serious troublemaker it still does not deserve the “evil empire” label used by Reagan to characterize the USSR. On the one hand, given the Kremlin’s intention to reestablish the image of Russia as a great power that is ready to use force to defend its interests, we should not have expected Lavrov saying something different. He reacted to the rumors about the possible alignment of Denmark and Finland with the NATO exactly in the way to support the image of Russia “rising form the political and military weakness of the 90es”. On the other hand, Putin’s Russia is not the new version of the USSR. Its elite is extremely pragmatic and free from ideological motivations. “Bulling” allows Moscow to gain political dividends both externally and domestically whereas it will try to do its best to avoid the real full-scale conflict with the West as this will inevitably hurt the political and, what’s more important, economic interests of the Russian ruling clans.    

3) Has the Arab League, seriously considered the adoption of an strategical partnership with Russia, considering Americas default foreign policy for the last eight years on the ME?  

Russia is awkwardly trying to reclaim its Cold War role as a counterweight to the US in the region. From this point of view, the strong memory of Soviet presence in the region still exists among Middle Eastern policymakers and local population. However, as opposed to the USSR the Kremlin does not directly oppose Washington, but rather exploits the region’s pre-existing disappointment with the US through practical moves which contrast American and European behavior. In other words, Moscow exploits the shortcomings of Western policies in the Middle East. Thus, the reluctance of Washington to protect Mubarak compared with the Russian support provided to Assad encourages regional powers to consider Moscow a more reliable partner. The fast dispatch of Russian weapons to the Iraqi authorities in 2014 when Bagdad badly needed new equipment to defend itself from the rising Islamic State while the US-led Western states were only thinking about whether and how they should help the Iraqi army was also to demonstrate that Moscow is a much more responsible friend. All these examples naturally push the Arab League and the Middle Eastern countries of the region towards Russia even in spite of those atrocities done by the Assad forces in Aleppo under the cover of Russia. Yet, there is also an understanding in the region that Russian political and economic capacities will never be enough to match or replace that of the US. Under these circumstances, the real partnership between Russia and the countries f the region will always be limited. Some countries of the region might use this rapprochement with Moscow as a way to diversify their foreign policy and hedge the risks of being solely dependent on the US support. The others may use these closer contacts with Moscow as leverage to shape their own relations with the US: they intensify dialogue with Russia in order to make Washington more flexible on sensitive bilateral issues.

4) United States under the direction and influence of Obama, was not capable to defend Ukraine and Crimea from Russia– even though the annexation of Crimea was constitutionally adopted. in retrospect, the same principle could be applied with ISIS in Iraq, and US ineptitude not to defeat ISIS. Has the United States betrayed its geo-strategical alliance with key nations and partnerships that depend on US military intervention and logistical support under enemy threat? Would the US intervene, if Iran declared war with Saudi Arabia –looking at Yemen — and Russia backed Iran?  

I am not in the position to make judgments on the US foreign policy. Definitely, Moscow’s road to Damascus started in Georgia and Ukraine. The absence of a proper international reaction on the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine made Putin confident enough to challenge the interests of the US and its allies in the Middle East. However, as I have said, Moscow success in the region is often determined by the policy mistakes made by the West. This suggests that “corrections” in Western approaches to regional issues would limit Russia’s capacity to maneuver.

5) Will Donald Trump get along with Putin?

The election of Trump as a new president of the US can bring both opportunities and challenges for Moscow and its foreign policy. While the Russian elite – de-facto – wanted him to win the presidential race, I believe that, in reality, Hillary Clinton’s victory would be a better outcome for Moscow. In case of Mrs. Clinton, Russia would deal with the “devil” it knows. Her decisiveness to confront Moscow if necessary as well as her views on the US presence in the Middle East were more-or-less well-known. If she won the Kremlin would be well-aware about what to do. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s views on Russia and its presence in the region are very unclear. During his presidential campaign, he made several bold statements regarding the possibility of Russian-US cooperation in Syria and beyond. Yet, it is still early to make judgments on whether he is ready to implement them. Like Putin, Trump is a populist and pragmatic. This can be a base for mutual sympathy. Nevertheless, the example of Turkish president Recep Erdogan and British MFA Boris Johnson also show that pragmatism and populism are not enough to build long-lasting positive relations: initial mutual sympathies did not prevent either Erdogan or Johnson form making bold moves against Putin’s interests.  

6) Russia has backed Assad’s forces against the overwhelming consensus of the Arab League to support democracy– discarding Iran. Why is Russia strategically in favor of backing Assad against the will of most Sunni countries? Is that helping Russia earn support in the ME?

There is a set of factors that brought Moscow in Syria on the side of Assad. It includes Russian interests in opposing the Western attempts to support the revolution against the ruling regime, Moscow’s plans to create additional leverage of influence on the US and EU through its involvement in the Syrian civil war and, finally, pursuing its own military interest. However, the key role is played by the Kremlin’s concerns regarding the possible overspill of the Syrian instability to the post-Soviet space. My experience shows that the Russian government sincerely believes that Assad’s removal from power would trigger the expansion of jihadism and instability in the Caucasus and southern Russia. Moscow is deeply concerned about the efforts of some forces in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to support the most radical factions in Syria. Officials believe that the current situation in the region directly influences domestic stability by provoking Russian religious extremists to undertake more aggressive anti-government actions. Unsurprisingly, then, Moscow does not want the Islamist influence in the Middle East to grow. And that’s where Putin’s experience may play crucial role. The rise of his career and popularity began with the Second Chechen war (1999-2001/2009). Putin probably remembers how hard it was to return the rebel province to control and how expensive it is to keep Chechnya under it. Presumably, he does not want the story to be repeated.

7) Russia recently threatened the US, by deploying anti-aircraft missiles in Syria. Clinton has repeatedly said that even though she plans not to set “boots on the ground” she plans to use “Syrian Airspace”. If The United States decided to use Syrian Airspace would Russia use the defense aircraft missiles to stop the US?

I doubt that Moscow decide to get involved in the open conflict with the US. However, when playing in a “chicken game”, there is always a danger that your opponent can finally use the real force. In case of Syria, this can work both in case of the US and Russia.    

8) Not long ago, Russia and Turkey suffered a serious dispute after two Russian jet fighters were flag down and shot close to Turkey’s/Syria border. A showdown between Turkish president Recep Erdogan and Putin looked imminent, but escalation never resumed to war. If Russia did not carry out war with Turkey after the incident, would it really take a bigger risk facing the US?

As I said, Moscow is extremely pragmatic. It knows its chances and the real war is not in Moscow’s interest. Yet, while avoiding the open confrontation with the West, Moscow can use the measures of the asymmetric response to react on any Western actions it considers as aggressive. I should remind about Russian sanctions imposed on Turkey after the incident with the Russian fighter jet as well as about Moscow’s increased support to the Kurdish movements. Both of these steps were very painful for Ankara and, definitely, not in its interests. That’s why complete ignoring of the Russian opinion may be dangerous.

9) Clinton’s foreign policy as Secretary of State, was responsible for the Arab Spring and the dissolution of dictatorships across the Muslim world. How do military generals like general Khalifa Hafta (Libya). Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt) – including Iraqi General Othman Al-Ghanimi feel about Clinton’s policy? Does Russia offer a better solution than the US in the Middle East?

Again, I would like to avoid making judgments about the US foreign policy as I am not an expert on it. Both Russian and Western analysts are arguing about Putin’s sympathies to strong and authoritarian leaders that bring him closer to figures such as Sisi, Haftar and, previously, Erdogan. Thus, some members of Putin’s administration are even saying about certain “chemistry” existing between the Russian and Egyptian presidents that helps them to find common language.

10) General Al-Sisi supports, General Khalifa Haftar; the Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, but it does retain some ground in Libya under the General National Congress. Clinton’s relationship with Muslim Brotherhood is more open, as even in the US, they represent several political organizations under a different synonym. Does the Egyptian and Libyan general view the Clinton administration as a threat to their power-structure, bearing in mind she hasn’t ban the Muslim Brotherhood in America and Obama disliked their undemocratic rise to power? Could that bring Russia –and even China—closer to Egypt and Libya and their relationship further away from the US?

For the regimes existing in the Middle East cooperation with Moscow has one tangible advantage. As opposed to the US, Russia demonstrates little care about the domestic affairs of the Middle Eastern countries. In most cases, the Kremlin also remains extremely pragmatic. Thus, Moscow was equally interested in dealing with Morsi as the president of Egypt and, later on, with General Sisi as his “successor”. Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Russia as terroristic. Yet, one of the first signals that Morsi received from Moscow was saying: “we ready to deal with you irrelatively to your background as long as you are ready to deal with us.” Under these circumstances, Russia does not raise the question of political freedoms in Iran, and tries not to be critical of Israel’s policies in Palestine and Gaza in spite of its support for a two-state solution.

11) The head of the Russian armed forces Sergei Shoigu, is said to be “more influential” than Putin, when it comes to military strategies and decision making. Shoigu is supposed to replace Putin as president soon; how will he fair with Clinton, in the case she wins the US election?

I am afraid that it is too early to tell about Putin’s successor and the time of the transfer of powers from Putin to a new leader of Russia. However, I would suggest that under Shoigu we would see the continuation of the current semi-confrontational policies of Russia in its relations with the West.

12) Does Israel play a central role in Russia’s and even China’s success to captivate the attention of the Arab League, considering the Israeli-US historical partnership? If Russia vowed to defend Arab countries from Israel, would it win the appeal of Middle Eastern leaders who oppose US interventionism?  

The situation when Russia vow to defend Arab countries from Israel seems hardly possible for me. Currently, Russian-Israeli relations experience positive trend. The bilateral dialogue is based on a high level of mutual pragmatism that boasted an impressive improvement in the depth of their military, political and business cooperation. Russian engagement in Syria only strengthened this cooperation. Moscow openly promised Israel that it moves in the Middle East will not undermine Israeli security. It is believed that Russian-Israeli dialogue achieved a “special relations “status”. Thus, Israel refused to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea and criticized the Western sanctions imposed on Russia. Russia, in its turn, has also consistently avoided direct criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Relatively recently, according to Israeli sources, Putin also promised “not to push” the idea of the WMD free zone in the Middle East. Russia and Israel also reached a high level of information sharing and coordination of their activities in Syria enhanced by a special secure telephone line that will allow a direct and encrypted connection between Putin and  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

13) If Russia were to declare war to the United States, who is more prepared? Who would win? 

I am afraid that I do not have enough information to make such judgments. Moreover, I do not believe in the possibility of the open US-Russian conflict in spite of Moscow’s behavior.

14) Will the Middle East in the next 10 years, be a split between Russia, the US, and  China? 

I think that neither of these countries is interested in dividing the Middle East in “the zones of influence” as it was during the cold war. At least, Russia does not have enough capacities to do this. The others might not have enough will. On the other hand, why should we limit the range of players by Russia, the US and China? I could name more countries that can play an important role in the region’s destiny in the next decade such as India and Japan, for instance. What we can say for sure is that, in the next ten years, Russia and China will be more active in the region whereas the US will also maintain its important role. Currently, the Kremlin believes in its Middle Eastern strategy. Success in Syria, rapprochement with Iran, the strengthening of ties with Egypt and the development of dialogue with Israel and the GCC add to the Kremlin’s confidence. Consequently, any attempts to change Russian approaches towards the Middle East will be challenged. While the Russian government will remain interested in dialogue with international players on key Middle Eastern issues, it will try to impose its own vision of the region’s future with little inclination to make concessions.

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