Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 September 2019

Moscow is warily watching the shifting geopolitical landscape

Its policies in Turkey, Iran and Venezuela compete with US interests and both will be battling to come out on top

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, withTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Kremlin. Alexei Nikolsky / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, withTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Kremlin. Alexei Nikolsky / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

G20 member states are gearing up for the Osaka summit in Japan on June 28, with the issues of concern including US measures against Iran and Turkey, the developments in Venezuela, US-Russian relations in the light of these dynamics and the future of US-Chinese trade negotiations. Sources familiar with the thinking of the Trump administration say the White House will issue a caution to Ankara to abandon the S-400 Russian missile deal and accept the US offer for discounted Patriot missiles, or face wide-reaching consequences.

This caution is expected next week and is likely to strengthen the hand of the Turkish military establishment, which sees the nation’s Nato membership as a priority that trumps president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s agenda. The American side is resolved not to allow a Nato member to facilitate Russian infiltration of the western defensive alliance. For its part, Russia is concerned because if Mr Erdogan backs down, this could mark a major setback for Russia’s project in Syria, predicated on a three-way co-operation with Turkey and Iran. Such a setback would draw Russia deeper into the Syrian quagmire, as both Turkey and Iran would suffer the consequences of US sanctions and recriminations, weakening the projects of all three powers in the Middle East.

Russia is watching closely and apprehensively for any negative repercussions to its investments in Syria. The Kremlin has serious concerns that the White House could successfully neutralise Iran and Turkey’s involvement in Syria, leaving Russia alone, unless the Kremlin and the White House reach a face-saving geopolitical deal. Russian public opinion no longer backs a continuous involvement in Syria and president Vladimir Putin has suffered declining approval rates as a consequence.

There is another problem for Moscow: an $8 billion arms deal with Iran that Russia has committed to fulfil next year. But if Russia delivers, Iran’s military power could be enhanced dramatically, which could cause problems for Moscow in the emerging geopolitical landscape. In addition, Russia will have to decide on the fate of joint military drills with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, which were scheduled for later this year.

In Latin America, Russia is coming to terms with the fact that it might have lost its foothold in the continent through Venezuela. There are indications the Venezuelan military is moving towards backing Juan Guaido and launching a coup against sitting president Nicolas Maduro, who has refused to step down and leave the country but whose hold on power is looking increasingly precarious. Russia has sold arms worth $12 billion to Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez and his successor Mr Maduro but sources say Moscow is likely to lose out in the deal. They indicate Russian companies have been operating without official licence in Venezuela, and that Moscow has invested upwards of $6.5 billion in the troubled country’s oil sector. It is possible that Mr Guaido, if he secures power, could cancel these contracts, with calamitous financial and political consequences for Russia’s position in South America. China is also concerned about losing about $40 billion in investments if the same scenario pans out in Venezuela as well as potentially losing access to its oil.

If the Trump administration succeeds in taming Iran and Turkey, this will destroy Mr Putin’s project and end his tactical alliances, especially in Syria

Developments in Turkey could have far-reaching consequences, including for the global economy and international stock markets. Next week, Washington will throw the ball into Mr Erdogan’s court to induce him to back down and perhaps at least postpone the date of delivery for the S-400 system. This exit could allow him to buy some time and dodge tough US measures, which could include economic sanctions, an end to preferential treatment and suspension of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 combat aircraft programme. In this context, Mr Putin could offer a helping hand, at least through mutually agreed postponement of the missiles’ procurement beyond the agreed July date.

Meanwhile, sources familiar with decision-making in Tehran have warned of further provocation regarding US interests. According to these sources, Iran has so far rejected all mediation efforts seeking to facilitate dialogue with the Trump administration, from Japan, Oman, Switzerland and even Russia. The Iranian decision is that “we do not want to talk to the United States,” said the source.

The Iranian leadership has made this decision while fully aware that Donald Trump will be compelled to respond to provocations, despite being opposed to a direct military confrontation. The regime in Tehran is aware it needs to rally popular support instead of anger, and mobilise international sympathy for Iran instead of pushback against its expansionist projects and ballistic missile programmes.

Mr Trump is convinced his strategy based on squeezing Tehran with sanctions is working and will achieve more results in the coming period. National security adviser John Bolton, however, has obtained a promise that if Tehran carries out provocation against US targets or allies in the Strait of Hormuz, the president will respond with a firm military action.

Moscow is watching shifting geopolitical tectonic plates closely, amid fears the US will come out on top. If the Trump administration succeeds in taming Iran and Turkey, this will destroy Mr Putin’s project and end his tactical alliances, especially in Syria. Presidential elections in Syria in 2020, desired by Moscow, would become an impossibility, and Mr Putin would be lured deeper into Syria.

A US victory in Turkey, Venezuela and Iran will thus turn the tables in Washington’s favour, at the expense of Russia and China. They will all be watching what happens this month.

Updated: June 1, 2019 05:53 PM

SHARE

SHARE