Amir Taheri suggests that Vladimir Putin wants to reach out to the United States to reduce tension and consolidate his gains. Taheri says this desire is based on Andrei Gromyko’s “duopoly” theory — the idea that only the USSR and the United States counted as powers that could truly affect things.
The relevance of duopoly theory to today’s world, in which China is more important than Russia, seems dubious. Moreover, at their best during Gromyko’s time as minister of foreign affairs (1957-1985), U.S.-Soviet relations were rarely better (or less worse) than they are now. We signed some treaties with the Soviets but never viewed them as a strategic partner or co-hegemon.
Duopoly aside, what of Taheri’s claim that Russia intends to moderate (and already is moderating) its behavior in the hope of pleasing President Trump? Almost all of the evidence Taheri adduces pertains to Syria and Iran:
In Syria, Putin canceled the promised delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft systems that could have made Israeli and American strikes against Iranian and Bashar al-Assad bases riskier.
More importantly, perhaps, Putin played host to Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who came to inform Russia of Israel’s intention to force Iranian forces and their Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries away from areas touching on the Golan Heights and the Israeli frontier. Pressure by Putin seems to have been effective, as Tehran stopped sending new “volunteers for martyrdom” to Syria almost 8 weeks ago. In fact, recruitment of new Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries seems to have been halted altogether. . . .
Tehran wanted a “regional coalition” which would also include Iraq and Lebanon, the governments of which Iran believes it controls. Moscow was not interested. . . .
To make it clear that he intended to reduce Tehran’s role in Syria, Putin also excluded Iran from his “consultation” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad. More importantly, Putin has made it clear that he wants Iran to prepare for the withdrawal of all its forces, including the non-Iranian mercenaries, from Syria. Putin sent his special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev to Tehran to tell the ruling mullahs that Russia wanted both Iran and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah out as part of a bigger plan to have all foreign forces, except Russians, out of Syria.
A Syria dominated by Assad and Russia would be a great outcome for Putin. Though it wouldn’t be a good outcome for the U.S., it would be better than a Syria in which Iran plays a major role. Thus, if Putin is willing and able to force Iran out, we should welcome the effort — and I’m sure President Trump would.
However, Russia has plenty of incentive to oust Iran, if possible. It doesn’t want to share power in Syria and it doesn’t want a confrontation with Israel, much less with the U.S. Rapprochement with Russia should not be necessary to induce Putin to advance his interests in Syria. Nor should Putin doing so be sufficient for rapprochement.
Taheri notes that weak oil prices and sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union are beginning to affect Russian living standards. In addition, Russian oligarchs are making less money and finding it more difficult to obtain Western visas and to secure opportunities for putting their money in Western banks.
If we are to alter this state of affairs, it must be in exchange for far more than Russia merely advancing its interests in Syria.