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.
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.