Russia and NATO’s relationship on the rocks; can a coalition be formed against the Islamic State (ISIS)?; Iran not likely to join Shanghai Cooperation Organization any time soon

RBTH presents its weekly analytical program TROIKA REPORT, featuring a look at three of the most high-profile recent developments in international affairs.


1. Engaging the West

NATO and Russia cooperation breaks down

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter looks at pictures of a maneuvers during his visit to the I. German-Dutch Brigade in Muenster, Germany, Monday, June 22, 2015. The troops are part of NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. Source: AP

NATO-Russia cooperation has largely ceased after the twin decision concerning the most substantial Western military build-up since the end of Cold war. NATO claimed it was a response to Russia's “aggressive actions” and in order to reassure some of Russia’s neighbours, including those in the Baltic States. Moscow reacted with disappointment warning that there would be an adequate response to these measures, yet left the door open for the resumption of dialogue in the future.

The first of the two decisions was the announcement by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during a week-long tour of Europe that the United States would place 250 tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzer tanks and other military equipment in Eastern and Central Europe.

Secondly, ministers of defense of the alliance approved the decision to triple rapid reaction forces and create six coordinating headquarters in Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria at a meeting in Brussels by the end of 2015.

What impact could the military build-up in Eastern Europe have on US-Russia relations? William Dunkerley, a media business analyst that specializes in working with Russia and post-communist countries, and principal at William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, and whose thinking tends to align with the Kremlin’s version of events in Ukraine, explained his point of view to Troika Report:

“ The U.S. view is that it sends weapons like tanks and howitzers into the bordering areas at the request of the countries there. They are responding to fears of an invasion from Russia. There are politicians in the United States who have been stoking these fears and reinforced the idea that Russia is a threatening nation and that it is a potentially existential threat for these countries. The basis for all of that, as far as I can see, has been fabricated.”

Earlier, Carter sent a strong signal that the U.S. would not abandon its allies, implying it would go to any length in providing arms, in particular, to Poland and the Baltic States. Will it lead to lowering the threshold of an outbreak of hostilities in Europe? Not necessarily. This view is shared by Sergei Oznobishev, director of the Institute of Strategic Assessment, a Moscow-based independent think tank, who made the following comment for Troika Report:

“The problem is that we seem to be living in different dimensions. We fear each other and do not trust each other.

“What we see now is the demonstration of the decisiveness of NATO and the United States to render massive support if something happens. This is a kind of a deterrence aimed at Russia. It is a signal but nothing more. Another signal was the telephone call by President Putin to President Obama which came after a long pause. The Kremlin demonstrates the geopolitical character of the crisis in Ukraine and shows a willingness to work together with Washington to find a peaceful settlement. Hopefully, this will modernize the system of security in Europe and globally.”

The term “deterrence” was also used by Russia's Permanent Representative to NATO, Alexander Grushko, who said that “NATO is switching from partnership to deterrence in relations with Russia.”

As such, deterrence is not necessarily a bellicose stance. The more sensitive issue is the planned expansion of the powers of the military chief of NATO forces in Europe who will be able to put troops on full alert without waiting for approval from the political leadership. Basically, it means that NATO military command assumes the right of a decision-maker that can choose between war and peace. NATO has stated that the new measures are purely defensive and were taken in order to speed up its response to crises.

On the sidelines of the Brussels’ meeting, NATO ministers dismissed assumptions they were against cooperative relations with Russia. However, they stated that they could see no possible way to increase joint actions in the context of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The Russian Ambassador to NATO also admitted that there is still a chance of cooperation with the alliance if it reviews its role in international relations. 


2. Globally speaking

The Islamic State (ISIS): the year that shook the world

A tourist reacts after paying tribute at a makeshift memorial at the beachside of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 29, 2015. Source: Reuters

One year ago the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — at that time a poorly understood terrorist group — unveiled its ambitious global project of the restoration of a Caliphate state. What looked like sheer religious madness turned into a sinister reality: the robust growth of ISIS across the globe, from Bangladesh to France and Britain shows that the real divisive line is not between East and West but between ISIS and the rest of the world.

This has been proved by recent violent attacks by ISIS on Westerners and new territorial gains (fighting in the suburbs of Damascus), with Russia and the West failing to form a united front.

The slaughter of Western citizens in Tunisia, the beheading of a French executive, the bomb attack on a mosque in Kuwait with 27 killed and 200 injured, were followed by another series of assaults. This week the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on two Huthi rebel leaders in Sanaa in Yemen, killing 28 people including eight women. The next day, ISIS beheaded two women in Syria: it was the first time that this group has decapitated female civilians.

Actually, the whole year was marked by an unprecedented onslaught by this well-organized and ideologically motivated religious extremist group that slaughters “unbelievers” in the hope of earning a one-way ticket to an exclusive paradise for the truly faithful.

ISIS is the new ominous threat overlapping all existing divisive lines. Alexander Rytov, an expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) and the deputy head of the Black Sea–Mediterranean Research Institute at the Institute of Europe, assessed the level of alarm that should ring across the continents for the Troika Report:

“No doubt the Islamic State is a great danger for the whole world, and first of all, for the Islamic world. The Islamic State represents a radical form of Islam, which is rejected by traditional Islam. What is going on in Iraq and Syria is a return to medieval Islamic radicalism.

“It is a danger not only for the Westerners, for the ‘crusaders,’ and for the ‘Big Satan,’ but for the apostates as well, which in the gradation of Islamic enemies are the local ‘traitors’ that have betrayed the ‘authentic’ Islam. The real Islam, the real Quran are based on tolerance and have nothing to do with the violence spread by the Islamic State.” 

— What then makes ISIS so attractive to new recruits coming from both impoverished Bangladesh and much wealthier France?

“The revolutionary movement, the revolutionary mentality is part of our world. It is rooted in the principle of equality. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no hierarchy in its nature. Islam looks like a democratic religion that has about one billion followers. This kind of radicalism attracts people who want to fight inequality and that is a repetition, a reproduction of the passionate revolutionary mood that existed 100 years ago. It is infectious for young minds, for the young people that want justice and see their chance in the actions of the radicals to make the world simpler. History seems to repeat itself.”

This opinion is shared by Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Security at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, who sees ISIS as a global phenomenon:

“I had a feeling after the recent almost simultaneous terrorist attacks in the three countries, which left about 100 people dead and several hundred wounded, that the world is now divided into two parts: the Islamic State and everybody else. This is the gravest danger for global security. It should be a high priority for Russia and the U.S. to put aside their differences over the Ukrainian crisis and unite their efforts to fight the Islamic State and rally other allies to this fight.”

Moscow’s official position is that it sees no alternative but to unite all stakeholders in combating terrorism. The Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have been banned in Russia by a court ruling.

The ISIS factor was high on the agenda during the recent visit to Moscow by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who met with President Putin. This was probably the first time that Moscow has made such a clear call to forge a united front to fight ISIS.

Putin was quoted as saying that his contacts with the leaders of Turkey and Saudi Arabia “show that everyone wants to contribute to fight this evil.” He also linked the fate of the crumbling regime in Damascus with further deterioration in the region. “If the Assad regime falls, then the Islamic State’s next goal will be Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states,” said Putin.

There is no point in simply stating out loud that ISIS is a “cult,” because only an immediate and coordinated effort could curtail the spread and expansion of these violent militants. After the 9/11 tragedy President Putin was the first to call President Bush. Today, it does not matter who picks up the telephone first. The most important thing is that this long overdue call is made.


3. Going Eastward

Iran and the SCO: uneasy bedfellows

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, June 30, 2015. Kerry and Zarif held a "productive" meeting in Vienna on Tuesday, the State Department said, as negotiations on curbing Iran's nuclear program were extended. Source: Reuters

Hopes to strike a nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers before the June 30 deadline faded away with all negotiators in Vienna claiming that more time is needed to resolve contentious issues over the country’s nuclear program.

In the meantime, the impasse could have an unexpected negative impact on Iran’s relations with Russia, which traditionally played the role of “good cop” in the Big Six grouping. Troika sources close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry suggest that Tehran is getting increasingly weary over the decision to shelve Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) until sanctions are lifted.

Initially, Tehran expected to be formally welcomed at the upcoming SCO summit in the Russian city of Ufa on July 8-9. Now, according to Troika Report sources, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s presence at the Ufa summit is very questionable.

Moscow has de facto frozen Iran’s full membership bid, setting the reaching of the Vienna agreement on its controversial nuclear program, as a precondition for joining. Iran’s nuclear program is suspected of either already having or is in a position to soon acquire a military component. Until the issue is resolved, Russia and its allies are unwilling to upgrade Iran’s status.

Tehran considers this approach obsolete and that SCO membership should not be held hostage to the outcome of the Vienna talks. Tehran seems to want their membership card now with no preconditions.

It is not surprising that the delay has been likened to “humiliation” by the pro-Tehran Moscow-based website. A recent editorial stated that, “in the Iranian expert community the view dominates that until a final decision on membership in the SCO is made, the presence of President Hassan Rouhani in the activities of the organization are not appropriate and could even cause damage to the credibility of the country.”

Should President Rouhani shun the SCO summit, “the domestic anti-Iranian lobby would have an excellent opportunity to expand the awareness campaign, focusing on the ‘cunning and unpredictability of the Iranian side’” the media outlet states.

Will Iran’s prolonged stay on the “waiting list” cast a shadow over bilateral relations? Is it an artificial obstacle or a natural impediment when it comes to relations with Iran because it is an almost self-sufficient and introverted civilization in its own right? Professor Vladimir Sazhin, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, provided his view to the Troika Report:

“First of all, make no mistake, the SCO is not a Russia-led organization. A number of member states were against elevating the status of Iran to full membership. Back in 2009 a decision was made not to accept countries subject to international sanctions. Second, the internal politics in Iran are complicated. President Rouhani is a liberal by local standards and his team is pursuing a policy to lift sanctions, which is a priority, on many fronts, targeting Moscow, Brussels and Washington. Actually, Tehran is quite successful in this respect given the declared intention of many European nations to restart business dealings with Iran.”

— After sanctions are eventually lifted, will Russia find Iran to be a difficult and often disagreeable partner?

“Iran is using the SCO as a tool to achieve its primary goal, which is the cancellation of the sanction regime. If the sanctions were lifted [it would hope] to get access to foreign investments and high-tech [infrastructure]. Iran will most probably become a SCO member, but not at the expense of its restored relations with the European Union. Iran is a like a ‘Cat That Walked by Himself.’ Iran never had close friends and allies.

“For the moment, Iran is pursuing a political game and the SCO is part of it. The public displeasure of not being admitted to full membership at the Ufa Summit is aimed partially at a domestic audience.”

Professor Sazhinis echoed by Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Security at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations. Here is his assessment of the intricacies in dealing with Iran:

 “Iran is not an easy partner for Russia. It is both a possible strategic partner and a problematic partner.

“There was one case in 2006 when Russia almost persuaded Iran in relation to its nuclear program. President Putin suggested to the Iranian leadership to send its enriched uranium to a nuclear plant in the Russian city of Angarsk. The agreement was about to be inked but at the very last minute the Iranians changed their mind. Iranian diplomacy skillfully plays on the differences between Russia and its Western counterparts. In that sense, they are very skillful.”

To sum up, Iran is flexing muscles virtually to signal its dissatisfaction of being kept on the threshold of SCO for 11 years. It could be simply an emotional reaction or a sign of hard times lying ahead for Moscow in terms of dealing with this new emerging power broker in the wider Middle East.


The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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