Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 August 2008

The military and political leaders of the United States and Europe could be forgiven in August 2008 for recalling the English phrase "it never rains, but it pours". For they are currently faced by a series of security problems in relation to Russia, Afghanistan and Iran, each of which is testing in its own right but which together strain their resources (and perhaps nerves) to the limit. These are only part of a chain of problems for strategists of the "west" (a category that analysts are notably feeling more and more obliged to qualify or clarify) that is highlighted in this period alone by events in Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Poland.

The most high-profile security issue of the month has been the Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August, whose unsettled and violent aftermath includes the continuing presence of Russian troops on the territory of what analysts are starting to call "Georgia proper" - that is, excluding the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This issue was a source of anguished debate at the emergency meeting of Nato in Brussels on 19 August, whose outcome was the formation of a new Nato-Georgia commission (under the rubric of the North Atlantic Council) which will focus on post-conflict reconstruction (see Vladimir Socor, "Nato's Ministerial Meeting...", Eurasia Daily Monitor, 20 August 2008)

The nature of this decision and the degree of Nato's support for Georgia at the meeting are already in dispute, however (see Julian Borger & Ian Traynor, "Russia: Miliband backs Georgia and widens Nato split", Guardian, 21 August 2008). The question of whether the formation of the commission was linked in any way to the "membership action plan" (Map) that Tbilisi is already involved in was answered differently by the Nato secretary-general (Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) and the British foreign secretary (David Miliband). This reflects a wider tension within the alliance over policy towards Georgia and, more generally, of establishing a coherent strategy in relation to what it perceives as an increasingly bold and abrasive Russia.

The armed reality

The sudden outbreak of the war over South Ossetia provoked confusion in many western capitals. Russia's quick and heavy military operation after Georgia's initial assault on Tskhinvali meant that Georgia had effectively lost the war before Washington or Brussels had formed a coherent view about what was happening. Since those early days, there has been a striking vehemence in the criticism of Russia from the George W Bush administration - Georgia's main ally and military backer since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power there in January 2004. Indeed, Washington's rhetoric suggests a consistent effort to depict Russia in ways that echo the confrontation with the Soviet Union during the cold war: as a militarily powerful and expansionist state that presents a formidable threat to the west.

The Georgia crisis, in this understanding, is part of a broader and emergent geopolitical confrontation. A number of writers on openDemocracy have subjected this view to scrutiny, at least insofar as they emphasise the conflict's local roots and regional, Caucasian dimensions (see Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation", 13 August 2008) and George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution", 18 August 2008); others have addressed the issue of Russian strategy, but questioned whether the conflict can be understood in terms of a return to the cold war (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008). But to assess the thinking behind the combative American line that Russia's military campaign in Georgia is evidence of its revived aggressive intent, it is necessary also to look in more detail at its actual military performance in South Ossetia/Georgia and the resources it has mobilised in the short, brutal war and lingering occupation.

In order to occupy South Ossetia and some cognate parts of Georgia proper, the Russian army deployed some of its best-equipped elite forces - including the 76th air assault division (based in St Petersburg) and the 96th airborne division and 45th intelligence regiment (both stationed near Moscow). Its armoured forces included some of the relatively small numbers of modern T-80 and T-90 tanks Russia currently has available.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy
since 26 September 2001.

The significance of this deployment is that the Russian army had effectively to use some of its key units for a small-scale operation against a diminutive neighbouring country (see David A Fulghum, “Russian Assault Reveals Weaknesses”, Aviation Week, 20 August 2008). True, the Georgian army has been extensively equipped by the United States in 2004-08 (see Vicken Cheterian, “Georgia’s arms race”, 4 July 2007). But during the cold war, no small country on the Soviet Union's borders - such as Czechoslovakia, invaded on 20-21 August 1968, had its forces chosen to fight - could have hoped to match almost any of the divisions of the old Red Army. The Russian army today is barely a shadow of that force.

Moreover, the five-day war produced outcomes that must have surprised the Russians and were certainly unexpected among western military analysts. For example, the Georgians shot down several SU-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft and even one of the Russian air force's frontline Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers (see David A Fulghum et al, "Georgian Military Folds Under Russian Attack", Aviation Week, 15 August 2008). That plane - and almost certainly others - was piloted by a flying instructor; the Russian air force is so short of resources that instructors and test-pilots are often the only crew with enough experience to be sent into combat.

The victory of the Russian side in the war in narrow military terms is clear, even if the longer-term implications are - as Ivan Krastev writes - far less certain. But such details suggest that the impression conveyed by much of the language and commentary in Washington in particular - of a revanchist superpower eager to bully its way to restored domination of its "near abroad" - is unsupported by evidence of its real military capacity.

Indeed, the very importance for the Russian leadership of securing a victory over Georgia - not least in terms of bolstering national self-perceptions and ensuring a boost in its domestic popularity - can be seen as a further indication of the country's relative weakness rather than strength: the opposite of the image Washington seems determined to attach to Russia.

The restoration project

The calculations that have informed the Russian campaign in Georgia are more complex than may be allowed for in any one-sided view. The decade of economic chaos and impoverishment that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was an acutely painful period for millions of Russians - and the pain was compounded for many by what was experienced as the humiliatingly "superior" attitudes of many western politicians, advisers, and economic know-it-alls.

Vladimir Putin's presidency (2000-08) responded to and refocused this sentiment in politically very skilful ways. He accompanied the re-establishment of political authority at the centre with the resourceful use of a Russian nationalism that long predated the Soviet period and indeed could be anchored as or even more legitimately in the centuries-long experience of imperial Russia (see Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims", 26 June 2006). Putin was - and is, in his new guise as prime minister and his successor Dmitri Medvedev's overseer - both clever and lucky: for his project has been indispensably aided by the bonanza Russia has accrued as a result of a long period of rising world energy prices (especially from natural-gas exports to western and central Europe).

Putin also played on Russian fears of Nato expansion and of the countervailing image of a United States determined to develop a ballistic-missile defence system. Here, the cold-war precedent is relevant in explaining Russian antagonism to such a capability (even though this is missed by most western observers). The "balance of terror" during the cold war was believed to be stable as long as both sides possessed substantial but "only" adequate strategic nuclear forces. The ability of either side also to develop defences even as offensive forces were maintained would upset the balance. Indeed, that was why the Soviet Union agreed to the bilateral anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty in 1972 and why the George W Bush administration's withdrawal from the treaty in June 2002 had such a bad effect.

No one pretends that United States missile-defence capacity will be able to counter Russia's nuclear forces any time between now and around 2020 (see "Behind America's shield", Economist, 21 August 2008). But that is less relevant to an assessment of the current situation than two current facts: that the US's still sees itself as the world's only great power and is determined to remain so; and that in securing this reality it is pursuing "full-spectrum dominance" (a project that has a crucial symbolic aspect as well as one of outright military capacity). Both grate on Moscow in ways that feed in to the violent and excessive conflict, and the hard rhetoric, over South Ossetia/Georgia.

But it is in more than the military sphere that the image of a resurgent and powerful Russia is less grounded in reality than its projectors often allow. Russia's economic performance is crucially (and dysfunctionally in the longer run) dependent on its energy resources, and there is a critical need for heavy investment in the oil-and-gas sector if current revenues are even to be maintained. The country also has great social problems (which are felt inside the military and have the potential to damage its standards and performance): among them a declining and aging population, rampant alcoholism, and low male life-expectancy for men (see Rebecca Kay, "'Being a man' in contemporary Russia", 7 March 2008). These factors must be part of an overall judgment of the true face of Russian power today; and taken together they suggest that Russia has far less capacity to undertake a unilateral drive to restore its great-power status than it might appear.

The trial and the test

In the same week that Georgia has continued to cause much anxiety among western leaders, events in Afghanistan have provoked even more sleepless nights. The seriousness of the escalating conflict between the forces of Nato / Isaf and the Taliban was evident again in an intense engagement between French paratroops and Taliban paramilitaries on 19 August in which ten Frenchmen were killed. The lightning visit to the country of Nicolas Sarkozy in the aftermath reflects the extent of political concern in western capitals about the endemic violence as well as the French president's hyperactive style - for high-level worries over the course of the Afghan war as it nears its eighth year include how far western publics will continue to support their countries' involvement.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.

It never rains, indeed: for if Georgia and Afghanistan were not enough, attentive policy-makers or advisers in the United States and Europe might have noticed three significant actions in recent days by Iran's government - all of which nominally concern civil rather than military programmes, yet all with implication for Tehran's tense relations with the United States in particular.

The first was on 17 August 2008, when Iran's news media reported the launch of a Safir-e Omid ("ambassador of peace") two-stage rocket with sufficient power to put a satellite into orbit. This may have been an attempt to actually launch a satellite, or it may have carried a dummy; in any case, the rocket veered off-course at the second stage. This, plus the fact that the firing had already been delayed by a couple of months, indicates that it may have been less than an unqualified success (see William J Broad, “Iran reports test of craft able to carry a satellite”, International Herald Tribune, 18 August 2008). Washington responded by both calling the launch a failure and condemning it on the familiar grounds that an ostensibly civil programme could easily be diverted into an offensive missile with a substantial range.But whatever the precise circumstances and fallout, for Iran to get this far was a further demonstration of the country's technical capabilities.

The second action arrived a day later, when the Tehran authorities revealed a plan to develop a satellite-launch facility that would be made available to other Muslim countries. The third, also on 18 August, was an announcement by Iran's atomic organisation confirming that Iran was planning to build six more nuclear-power plants (in addition to the one that has long been under construction at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf). It is reported that contracts have been made with companies to begin site-surveys for the new sites, with the intention is to complete the reactors by 2021 (see "Iran plans to build six more nuclear plants", 20 August 2008).

The Bushehr reactor, which is being built with Russian help, has been much delayed; it is by no means certain that the additional reactors will be built; and the satellite rocket-test may well have been a failure. At the same time, these developments may matter less in the context of Iranian perceptions of their national status than that in general nuclear-power and space research are seen as strong indicators of modernity that light the way to better future for Iran. The offer of satellite-launch facilities for other Muslim countries reflects a similar impulse, reflecting the fact that Iran is intent on affirm a confident stance in the international arena. In pursuing its strategic course, Iran's leadership is drawing on a mix of available elements - including the sense of a long civilisational history, modern Iranian nationalism and the Islamist ideological solidarities of the 1979 revolution.

Iran's search for status is fuelled by its very large reserves of oil and (even more) of natural-gas, though an over-dependence here too entails a neglect of the serious economic problems facing the country. These include high inflation and unemployment (and under-employment), as well as the need for huge investment in oil-and-gas production if Iran's resources are to be used effectively to support the country's development.

The economic imperatives create reinforce internal political pressures on Iran's current leadership. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces an election in mid-2009 in which he will face a difficult challenge from rival candidates - including Mohammad Baqer-Ghalibaf, who aspires to replicate the same journey Ahmadinejad himself made from the mayoralty of Tehran to the presidency of Iran. The current project to upgrade Iran's technical prowess is a key part of the leadership's attempt to bolster its domestic popularity as well as its international standing - though whoever is elected in Iran will have the defence of perceived national interests as a primary concern.

The defiant other

To understand Iran's policy and outlook in this way is quite compatible with a recognition of potential dangers in an Iran that seeks nuclear weapons, or overreaches itself as a regional power. What is important, though, is that western diplomats have to understand that much of what Iran is doing derives from the country's perception of its millennial history and current standing in the world. A part of this national sentiment that is close to the surface is the memory of Iran's dependence on or subjugation by Russia, Britain and the United States for much of the 20th century. In its broad contours, moreover, this momentum of Iranian action is comparable to that which underpins the Russian leadership's political project as it has developed in the 2000s.

This context for Iranian (as for Russian) action may be more readily appreciated in some European capitals circles than it is in Washington (with an emphasis on the "may" and the "some"). What is more emphatically clear is that the rebarbative language directed by United States officials at Tehran and Moscow can sound strikingly similar.

The similarity of language reveals one of the core realities of the complex and shifting landscape of early 21st-century global security: that the United States is responding to the "rise of the rest" with strenuous efforts to protect its own hegemonic role. This, coupled with Washington's predilection for tough talking and even (in the case of Iran) direct threats are likely to be both ineffective and counterproductive. In relation to both Moscow and Tehran, classical diplomacy - supplemented by understanding (including historical understanding) of the other - offer a far better prospect of progress. Such a path might also prevent the August downpour becoming a November hard rain.

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