Russia back in the sun, for now
June 10th, 2013
07:40 AM ET

Russia back in the sun, for now

By Jonathan Adelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed are his own.

Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has fallen further from grace and power. Derided by some as “upper Volta with nuclear weapons,” the glory days of World War II and post-war years of vying with the United States for global leadership feel long gone. They were replaced by the dour 1990s, under the buffoonish Boris Yeltsin, a period marked by the loss of 2 million square miles of territory to states becoming independent, as well as bankruptcy, military disaster in the shape of the Chechen conflict and demographic decline.

True, rising oil prices bolstered the economy, but the country’s inability to stop Western interventions in Iraq and Libya, and mass terrorism incidents at home (Moscow theater 2002, Beslan 2004), were reminders of how far Russia had fallen. But recent events in the Middle East may have heralded a turnaround in diplomatic fortunes – for now, at least.

Moscow has, over the years, been dogged in its backing of the seemingly hopeless cause that is Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including providing billions of dollars’ worth of weapons. In Iran, again bucking the tide of Western disapproval, Russia allowed hundreds of its scientists, technicians and engineers to aid the Iranian nuclear program, it helped build the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and has provided Iran as much as 70 percent of its imported weapons. It has also used its U.N. Security Council veto (and threat of a veto) to protect both countries.

More from GPS: Why Russia won't cut Syria loose

And now, against the odds, both Syria and Iran look like winners. After numerous defeats, al-Assad’s army seems to have turned the tide and looks to be winning the battle. Iran, meanwhile, is sending Revolutionary Guard troops even as Hezbollah fighters train their sights on Syria’s rebels. All this as the West limits its involvement in Syria and appears inclined to stand back as Iran closes in on producing nuclear weapons.

The result is that what looked like two more Russian failures now seem more like brilliant strategic calculations. The Americans are praising Russia for pledging to co-host a U.N. conference in Geneva on Syria, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently jetted off to Sochi to discuss the situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the Europeans and Americans have been left to plead with Moscow to do what it can to try to halt further advances in the Iranian nuclear program.

So how has Russia managed this revival of fortunes? The uptick in Russian influence in part reflects the fact that the country still retains important advantages required to be a major international player – a vast arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons, intelligence services with a global reach, a long history in the Middle East, close proximity to the region in question and huge reserves of oil and gas.

But Russia has also been able to influence events because of the travails currently facing the United States – severe budget constraints, a hyper partisan Congress, weariness over American involvement in two wars and President Obama’s reluctance to back its demands up with force in Syria or Iran. The fact is that the European Union, given its ongoing economic crisis and lack of long range transports, bombers and aircraft carriers has neither the inclination nor the means to act decisively, while China and India have neither the desire nor the capability to make a difference on either side. This void allows Russia to play a significant and highly visible role.

All this said, Russia’s current moment in the sun is likely to be fleeting. If the United States, Europe or Israel decides to deploy forces over Syria or Iran, Russia can be expected to stay on the sidelines – its support for al-Assad and Tehran does not stretch to military confrontation with the West. And as the fatigue of the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to fade, expect the United States and even Europe to find the resolve to intervene more forcefully in the Middle East (and this is not to mention the wild cards of rising China and India).

In the meantime, though, Moscow has done something few anticipated – returned to the limelight as a major actor in a ley region of the world. Its time there may be brief, but Putin is no doubt enjoying the chance for Russia to bask in the warm glow of international influence once again.

Post by:
Topics: Russia • Syria

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Andrey

    Very strange conclusion for an article written by "a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver": like it will be a victory of some sorts for "the United States, Europe or Israel decides to deploy forces over Syria or Iran"! Are you mad or something? Russia does not care that much about Iran or Syria: it will survive without any or both of them! But what it is likely to care about is its international standing and integrity: and if US, Europe or Israel start direct invasion or support al-Qaeda directly with advanced weaponry: that will give Russia superior moral standing for its consistent anti-terrorist stand and opposition to the world bullies! I thought a professor of International Studies would be able to look a bit further than a simple score count and lamelite crap!

    June 10, 2013 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • USMC1369

      Well put, Andrey. Thank you.

      June 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        It's not true that "Russia does not care that much about Iran or Syria". For centuries Russia went to war with the Turks several times to gain influence in the historic "Asia Minor" and Central Asia. Peter the Great couldn't beat the Turks. Under Empress Catherine and Alexander I, Russia managed to establish stronghold in the Black Sea area. Nicholas I fought against Persians over Armenia. Much of the first half of the 19th century, Russia and Britain were vying for influence over the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent.

        June 11, 2013 at 6:31 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Russia's backing Iran and Syria has already alienated the Sunni Arab world. As Russia has plenty of oil itself, it doesn't rely on the Arab goodwill, as China and India do.

        June 11, 2013 at 6:49 am |
      • Andrey

        Turkey and Syria are different countries. The same goes for Iran. So could you please explain what 300 year old events have to do with this story?

        June 11, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • lucky

        The reason Russia expanded towards the Black Sea was to defeat its enemy. The remains of the Mongol Hordes (the Crimean Tatars) were still raiding Russia for people to sell as slaves during the time of Catherine the Great. Russia had paid ransom to the Ottomans, but that just emboldened the Turks to take more people as slaves. Pushkin's grandfather was ransomed slave who was raised as Peter I's son.

        June 11, 2013 at 10:54 am |
      • Andrey

        P.S. In my opinion using old historic facts to prove your point about modern politics is nothing but manipulation.
        Example: during that failed war with Turkey, when Peter the Great was surrounded by Turkish army: he was totally in their power. So Peter has collected all the jewelry he and his courtiers had on them at the time and sent Menshikov to negotiate the truce. Turkish Sultan took the jewelry and let Peter the Great and reminds of his army go! That shows how important jewelry is for Turks and proves that Turkey now want to join EU so they could infiltrate Holland and take control of its diamond industry...
        Here we go: total nonsense supported by historic "evidence"!

        June 11, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • JAL

      Russia has some heavy mech, just sayin...

      June 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • Johnny

      Молодец, Андрей!

      June 11, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Reply
    • David

      How Is invading 20% of Georgia's, supporting Abkhaz and S. Ossetian separatists, heck fighting on their behald, sending its airforce to bomb Georgian population out of Sukhumi give Russia a superior moral standing?

      Russia says it did so, because West secognized Kosovo's independence. Really? So why should Georgia be punished?

      You seam to have double standards. By the way If Russia does not care about Syria or Iran all that much why is it supporting the regime that is murdering its own citizens? Russia not carrying for Iran and Syria is just as true as Russia having any kind of Moral highground.

      Russia is far from having any moral advantage, quite the oppostive. The only real Bullie in the world is Russia. YOu can ask every Nation that neighbours Russia, they will agree that Russia is or has bellied them in a very recent history. Russia not only bullies its neighbours but the entire world with its oil and gas as a leverage and its military against Nations like Georgia.

      A Russian talking about moral is an oximoron because nothing can be further from one another than Russia and moral. Russia has lost its influence long time ago. Making its objections look like something has turned around is a false idea and I will tell you why. Russia has objected all western initiatives I mean every single one of them. Beginning from Kosovo and ending with Syria but not much has chnaged in favor for Russia. Those like you would like that but the truth is the West has been consistently winning on every aspect and this is nothing else but a cry in exostion of a dying empire. Russia has a lot of similarities with Iran and Syria. They are all run but dictators who will do anything to retain power, they will slach any moral standards for the sake of staying in power. Just take Putin for example. He has been rulling Russia for 20+ years. He was the one who called the shots while his sidekick Medvedev held his presidential chair warm for 5 years. Do not kid yourself and do not think for a minute that Russia has anything in common with Moral let alone have any advantage in it. It does not.

      And what is up with USMC1369 and Johnny speaking and supporting Russian posts? Are you guys Russians in disguise? I wouldnt be surprised because I would too discuise myself if I was Russian like you!

      June 12, 2013 at 10:52 am | Reply
    • M

      To the point

      June 12, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    Another worthless article and I would even say dangerous-pushing for more wars. We know where the funding of such articles can be traced to. The professor has no clue what he is writing about and it is not too difficult to figure out why. What he is overlooking is the position of the US- a bankrupt country vs countries with balanced budgets and in case of China with huge surpluses- they are no Libya . What the professor is overlooking as well is history. The US supported Communism from day one which destroyed Russia and China, where over 160 million people perished. As a payback for Communism they may just blow the Holy Land tp Kingdom Come to establish finally peace in Middle East. Any suggestion to attack Syria and Iran is a horrible one. It takes 17 seconds for a rocket to land in Israel and when rockets start flying no one will be able to stop the mayhem and we may even get a few our way. I say -absolute insanity and death wish, so please stop warmongering.

    June 10, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    Some US politicians are claiming that there are only two options regarding Syria: Military action (including arming rebels) or "sit&watch on the side lines". Answer the "what next?" question FIRST, so that we don't fall into another abyss. No significant US military action will be needed in Syria, if we show that we are willing to create economic partnerships with our new Arab friends in Libya, for example. There are risks, but that risk diminishes, when there is a large base of partnerships. It is time to put some REAL faith in the new framework.

    June 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  4. allthingsgeography1

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

    June 10, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  5. Sean B.

    A lot of interesting points measuring Russia on a scorecard produced from Russian influence outside of its borders, but I don't think things would fare so sunnily for Russia if we took a look at its domestic political structure in terms of corruption when compared to the western powers.

    June 10, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      With USAID kicked out of Russia: things are looking up!

      June 10, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Reply
    • Peter

      Don't hold your breath though, Sean. Corruption in Russia is older than Russia itself but it still standing and even, as professor Adelman eloquently pointed, enjoying the warm glow of international influence.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:36 am | Reply
    • Dom

      Domestic politics in Russia are very stable, with Putin having a majority support. Corruption isnt a big factor at all. First off, it depends on waht you call corruption, there are cases where gifts are given for certain cervices, that exists as part of the Russian culture. Bribes, extortion and theft in the government is actually very closely watched by Putin, and he's have been highly successful in that matter.
      To have a different perspective on the so called corruption, take a look at lobbyists, they actually pay large sums of money for corporate favors, where both parties agree on a deal mainly influenced by money and not it's cause.

      June 11, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        You are right Dom: It would be nice to see Americans to live what they preach for once! Probably in the next life!

        June 11, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  6. Dom

    Overall power analysis is missing Russia's extensive military complex, which lets it export large amounts of weapons. Russia exports almost as much weapons as the U.S. and both are top weapons exporters by a long range than any other country. With that said, this article's conclusion that Russia wont go head to head against Western allies is erroneous – this is backed up by the fact that Russians will export S300 anti-air systems to Syria if West intervenes. Like in Cuba, Egypt or Korea, they may be manned by Russians, and have full backing from the rest of Russian forces. Dont forget that right now, Russians have a large combat force already in Syria, including a battle fleet off the coast of Syria. It's ready to defend what it may call as it's "interests" with even the slightest excuse.
    But on the other hand, there is a chance that it may not be ready to intervene if it continues the same policy of minimal international intervention after dissolution of S.U, but highly unlikely since it already crossed that threshold when it invaded Georgia.

    The "wild cards", China and India, dont have the capabilities to intervene anywhere besides their borders, they also lack the experience. China is a Russians first strategic partner, thus without Russia, China will not be taking any bigger bites than Russia does. India is leaning towards this camp too and is unlikely to act independently, even if stays independent strategically, it just has no history or experience in such matters.

    June 11, 2013 at 4:39 am | Reply
    • YoungNiceGuy

      Actually Russia and China aren't partners in the slightest. The two nations barely trust one another. Russia's demographic based inferiority complex toward China and China's rising influence in the East actually might curb Russia's influence and make it a regional power rather than a World Power.

      June 11, 2013 at 5:02 am | Reply
      • Dom

        Yea... you really have no idea whats going on in that region in terms of geopolitics. Both are largest partners to each other in overall combined relationships. Dont take my word over your own agenda though, read the transcripts from the recent meeting of Putin and China's new president.

        June 11, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Andrey

      "Russia exports almost as much weapons as the U.S. and both are top weapons exporters by a long range than any other country." – Do you have actual data to support that claim or you make it up as you go?

      June 11, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply
      • Dom

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arms_industry

        June 12, 2013 at 3:03 am |
      • Andrey

        Thanks for the link Dom! And sorry for not believing you! That actually explains a lot!
        I did not really expect Russia to do so well in weapons sales, particularly lately. So no wonder US hates Russia so much and want Putin out! American Military-Industrial Complex probably wishes all and every Russian dead!

        June 12, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • Ben

      I don't understand why so many people think Russia is so weak, I'm american and I don't believe that. And Russia and China being partners espeacially when both are having issues with the west (Russia with Syria and China being isolated because of its annex of pacific islands.) sounds to be a perfect defensive menuver. As americans we have this arrogance about certain things but you should never underestimate an advisary/rival and allies can become enemies very quickly in war and vice-versa.

      June 13, 2013 at 10:58 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        I can only say that I do not believe current situation in the world is sustainable in any way. And West lack of strategic vision, with governments navigating their countries by public popularity rating ( i.e. manipulated by "free" mass media) will run them into the wall! Or at least I like to think that: because stupidity does not pay!

        June 13, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Ben

      I don't know how legitimate RT is but I've seen Russian officials several times saying " we will not let what happened in Iraq and Afganistan happen in Syria" and "now the west is entering OUR sphere of influence." I just don't think people are taking this seriously enough .

      June 13, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply
  7. Stellar17

    Interesting nobody at CNN is interested in the Report today "Russian lawmakers pass anti-gay bill in
    436-0 vote". The Washington Post and many other news groups are carrying it and CNN gives us this?

    June 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      You are right: I was actually expecting this liberal mouthpiece to rise hell today!
      Probably the thing is that nobody in Russia minded that bill: as you said 436 for it with 0 against and just one upstanding! You can not really put it on Putin again! So it all may just come down to Russians not giving a phuck about Western liberal values: and you do not expect CNN reporting THAT!

      June 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  8. Rick

    Why are we allowing this Muslim sympathizer have his own propaganda section on CNN ? This guys clueless, his opinions are so far off base, he should be writing for the likes of aljazeera and RT news.

    June 11, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      CNN is 25% owned by the Saudis, so the articles reflect that idealogy.

      June 14, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
      • vilkus

        Wow. I will check that out.Thanks!!!

        June 14, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  9. pnm9pnm

    ya that putin has a meen mean meen styed,.pnm,.

    June 14, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  10. Rick

    The only hopeless cause is the Obama and EU backing of islamist terrorists to try and overthrow Syria, which will fail miserably.

    June 14, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  11. vilkus

    Well lets recount some of Russia's recent actions.
    During Obamas State of the Union speech Putin sent bombers to Guam to test our defenses.
    This week Finland reported last month Putin sent bombers to test their defenses.
    In the same article it mentioned a few weeks prior Putin sent some bombers to test Sweden's defenses.
    A few months ago Putin had a surprise war games he did not announce as is usually done under international code.
    Putin responded you only have to notify if your wargame is over 7000 troops and he only used 7000 troops.
    Putin is ready for battle.
    Dont Fool Yourself.
    If you find a contradiction check your premise.
    Obama has left us in a very bad place with his do the opposite of "The Art of War" philosophy.

    June 14, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  12. wjw33

    okay, back in the sun...so how does the USA extend a handshake and a smile, saying "let's do something good."

    June 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  13. Bubba Butchroy

    Czar Putin will be the ruler of Europe by decade's end.

    Too bad Cameron and Obama are pantywaist pansies, like Merkel.

    June 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  14. Bill S.

    The Russians aren't making friends among the Sunni Muslim states by siding with the Shiite side – a minority of Islam. Russia and China are being condemned in sermons inside mosques throughout the Sunni Arab world.

    June 17, 2013 at 2:04 am | Reply

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