Possible Sub-Texts to the Sino-Russian Veto of the Security Council Resolution on Syria (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 44

Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin (Source: AFP)

Moscow’s Reappraisal of Prospects for Europe and the Reset

Two recent articles by Sergei Karaganov of the Council on Defense and Foreign Policy offer another perspective on the Russian veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria and on Sino-Russian cooperation. In December, he wrote about “the revolutionary chaos of the new world” that is emerging and called the situation alarming and demanding. The world is a jolly joke – jolly for those nations and peoples who have the ability to adapt to the changes shaking the world – and bad joke to “the majority of peoples who cannot adapt to such a life.” Karaganov placed Russia among those contemporary societies and states to which rapid change posed a challenge. “Although the current Russian model has potentially strong sides, they are only potential.” In this revolutionary chaos, Russia emerges as a status quo power uncertain about where such chaos will lead and fearful of changes that will undermine the state and nation. Karaganov’s depiction of the emerging world order underscored the shift of power from a Eurocentric world to an Asian-centric one. “And the not-so-long-ago arrogantly tutorial Europeans have been recently reduced to asking financial assistance from the still Communist and quite poor Chinese.” The economic crisis in the West has not been solved either by Keynesian state spending or a Hayekian tightening of state finances. The driver for a global recovery is now in the East. “Contemporary Americans and Europeans have started to understand that they and their children will not, as they are accustomed, live better than in the past but more likely will be worse off.” Karaganov sees a collapse of the governing center, which has dominated American and European politics and the rise of forces on the extreme left and right. He is concerned about the possibility of the rise of new totalitarianism. And here he links this threat to the growing prospect of war, noting that demoralization after great wars fed the rise of Communism and Fascism. As at the end of the 19th and in most of 20th century, there is an intense competition for access to raw materials to feed economic growth. A dangerous turn has occurred with nuclear proliferation, which has accelerated. Karaganov puts the blame for this on the United States, which under President Obama made “Global Zero” into an objective of national policy. Hidden in the push for radical nuclear disarmament were two radically different objectives: one was to remove the risk of nuclear war from humanity in the hope of deepening international cooperation; and on the other side was the desire to eliminate nuclear weapons in order to make US conventional military dominance decisive in world affairs. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Qadaffi’s Libya, both of which gave up nuclear programs, stands in stark contrast with the situation of North Korea, which has set off nuclear devices and has avoided attack. Karaganov depicted events in the Arab Spring as exemplifying the revolutionary chaos.

Western leaders supported the overthrow of regimes that were overt allies of the West and now face the prospects of the emergence of Islamic regimes there. Interventions have been selective, even when framed as humanitarian interventions. Karaganov sees an explicit connection between these interventions and the growing talk of war with Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. In his conclusion, he holds out some hope that these forces can be checked.

“A new world not only creates problems but also opens huge possibilities. Billions of people in Asia are no longer undernourished. New markets, new spheres of intellectual activity, education and trade are emerging literally every minute. The world has become truly multi-polar. It has returned to the normal for human history, half-chaotic condition. Its centers have begun to balance each other more effectively, affirming a new creative instability. Nuclear weapons stand in the way of former or emerging hegemonic powers in their attempts to turn back the wheel of history or accelerate it by means of a great war” (Sergei Karaganov, “Revoliutsionnyi khaos novogo mira,” Rossiiskaia Gazeta, December 21, 2011).

Just a week later Karaganov signaled a need for Russia to shift its geo-strategic orientation from a Eurasian to an Asiatic one under the justification that Europe was in trouble and in decline. He pitched his proposal as provisional and based upon the direction of developments for the next few years. Examining the trends shaping the crisis of the Eurozone, he foresees at a minimum economic stagnation and at worst the collapse of the common currency, which had only until recently been touted as the Union’s greatest achievement. Moreover, the Anglo-French enthusiasm for military intervention in Libya drove NATO into that ill-conceived adventure, for which the United States showed no fervor. For Russia, Karaganov recommends a shift of orientation from Europe to the Far East for the following reasons: “…the European crisis makes the European Union and a large part of its members unpromising partners for Russia in the near future.” And behind the reorientation from Europe stands a radical re-appraisal of the direction of US-Russian relations:

“The ‘reset’ of Russian-US relations has petered out as the new agenda for it never materialized and failed to give it an impulse, and relations inevitably started to slide back. The split of the US political elite ties the hands of the incumbent quite constructive administration and makes Russia prepare for a possible rise to power of much more conservative, if not reactionary, leadership.”

This development, Karaganov predicted, would push Moscow into a confrontation with Washington, and under those conditions Russia should seek countervailing power to protect its own position. Karaganov embraced Prime Minister Putin’s call for a Eurasian Union, but put his own Asian spin on that proposal. Russia has to suppress its phobias about Asia and embrace the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East as part of the new Asian world. In this world, those regions would not be colonies of European Russia but centers of economic and intellectual development. At the core of this new Asian world is greater cooperation between China and Moscow in Central Asia and an effort to foster closer cooperation among China, India and Russia on issues of joint interest. (Sergei Karaganov, “Evropa bol’she ne rastet,” Rossiiskaia Gazeta, December 28, 2011).

This mention of Chinese, Indian and Russian cooperation might provide some insight as to just how strong the Russian position on Syria is in practice. It is important to note that both Russia and China have agreed to assess the Arab League proposal, but Foreign Minister Lavrov has made a cease fire a necessary precondition of the deployment of peacekeepers and pointed out that the forces opposing the Syrian regime have no unified military command or political agenda, which would make achieving a cease fire very difficult. In this response he seems to be aware of the risks involved in hasty actions without sound international commitments to achieve and support a cease fire (The Moscow Times, February 15). China has been even less forthcoming on the proposal to send peacekeepers. The spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Minister, Liu Weimin stated: “Relevant moves by the United Nations should be conducive toward lessening tension in Syria, pushing political dialogue and resolving differences, as well as maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East, rather than complicating things” (Reuters, February 14).

The Russian government seems well aware that pressure to intervene in Syria will mount and does not desire to see its entire relations with the Middle East put into jeopardy over Syria. One sign of the mounting pressure was India’s vote for the UN Security Council resolution and that of the General Assembly. India has been generally silent on the events of the Arab spring, adopting a position of waiting and seeing. But on the situation in Syria, India voted to support humanitarian intervention (P. R. Kumaraswamy, “Silence on Syria Is No Option,” Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses Comment, February 21). As Karaganov pointed out, Moscow has sought to follow a policy of triangulation among Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi in building an Asian-centric world. But recently on Syria, India has already made clear its dissent from the policy taken by Moscow and Beijing.

Recent Developments and the Implications of Sino-Russian Cooperation Becoming an Alliance

What Moscow has most feared is that the agitation over intervention n Syria is nothing more than a part of a larger campaign against Iran and its regime, which would lead to a larger conflict. Russia has steered a course of cooperation with the West on Iran and nuclear proliferation. Now its ties to Syria threaten to draw it into that dreaded larger conflict. Russia has long-term ties to Syria, continues to sell arms to the Assad regime, and has invested in the expansion of its naval base at Tatrus. But these would be necessary but not sufficient reasons to confront the West and the Arab world over Syria. China’s support in both the Security Council and then during the General Assembly’s vote for Assad’s removal has meant that Russia is not alone. Comments at the recent Valdai Club Summit on the Middle East re-enforce the importance of China’s support in the geo-strategic context as it is understood in Moscow. Intervention in Syria is part of a much larger geo-strategic game being played out in an unstable Middle East, with Iran as the primary objective. At the recent conference in Sochi held by the Valdai Discussion Club, Russian Middle Eastern experts asserted that “the anti-Syrian policy and attempts to remove the regime from power are really being directed at the objective of weakening Iran” (RIA Novosti, February 19).

Supporting Syria diplomatically does not tie Russian policy to supporting Iran should that be the course of developments in the Middle East. But recent events have hinted at just such an explicit tie. Now, however, Russia must deal with unilateral Iranian declarations that the appearance of Russian and Iranian warships in Tatrus, Syria are signs of a de facto alliance between Russia and Iran in the defense of the Assad regime (UPI, February 21) As one Russian author has argued, there seem to be no ground rules to govern the present crisis between Iran and the West. Israel remains an independent actor, which makes its own calculations regarding its security. And neither Washington nor Tehran has a good idea of just what would be the consequences of armed conflict between them. In this case Syria could be the spark to a larger conflict, in which Russia could find itself an unintended party. It remains unclear whether China would support Russia when faced by such a turn of events (Rossiiiskie Vesti, February 19).

It is still unclear whether China will follow Russia into an Iranian embrace. In response to its invitation to the “Friends of Syria” Summit in Tunis being organized by Western powers and the Arab League, Russia declined to attend. Moscow is urging that the UN send a special envoy to Syria “to help coordinate security issues and the delivery of humanitarian assistance” (The Moscow Times, February 21). China’s official statements have so far only acknowledged that they received the invitation and are still committed to non-intervention in Syria. “We do not approve an armed intervention or forcing a so-called ‘regime change’ in Syria” (Associated Press of Pakistan, February 21).

In the midst of the current crisis and his own electoral campaign for president, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin turned his attention to national security and defense. He has called a powerful defense “the guarantee of Russia’s national security,” in the face of “risks of a most varied and quite unpredictable nature.” Without mentioning the recent turmoil in the Middle East, he called attention to “new regional and local wars, which are ignited before our very eyes.” These regional and local wars threaten the interests of Russia and its allies. Putin did not define either the specific threats to Russia or Russia’s allies, but he did offer his solution: increased defense spending to give Russia a military that can defend Russian society and the state’s interests. This would involve maintenance of Russia’s “military-technical independence” and “the preparation of a sufficient, adequate military response” to those who would challenge Russian interests.

As campaign rhetoric, these remarks are not exceptional, but in the context of the crisis that is coming to a head over Syria and Iran, they offer little hope of an international compromise to avert a local war from becoming a regional conflict and carrying serious risks of evolving into a general war among nuclear powers. It is quite unlikely that Russia would be willing to risk conflict over Syria unless there was a deeper understanding between Moscow and Beijing over the relationship between the crisis in Syria and the mounting pressure on Iran. This crisis has the feel of old-fashioned diplomacy in the Balkans, and some of us may even remember from our history books how another Balkan crisis in a long series of crises became “the guns of August.” The last time such a thought crossed this historian’s mind was back in October 1962. I had just read Barbara Tuchman’s book and was in the basement of a college dining hall that was supposed to become a fallout shelter if things went terribly bad.