Photo: AP/Mikhail Klementiev
On Tuesday, Russia and Iraq agreed on a $4.2 billion arms deal, making Russia the second-largest arms dealer to the Middle Eastern nation behind the United States.30 years ago, the decision would have been seen in the United States as a grave defeat, a Russian move in the zero-sum, ideological battle for spheres of influence that defined the Cold War. Even today, Russia seen by many a major world influence and geopolitical counterweight to the United States, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But what’s the modern reality?
The U.S. response to the Iraq deal seems relatively aloof at its most negative, and implicitly encouraging at its most positive.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could comment on the military sale deal with – between Iraq and Russia. Because last week I asked about the – what kind of sales are in the pipeline and why they are taking so long. I’m talking about the FMF – the military sales to Iraq program, the American military sale. But it seems that they are taking a step ahead and concluding a deal with Russia.
[State Department Spokesperson Victoria] Nuland: Well, first of all, with regard to U.S.-Iraqi military support, Iraq overall has initiated some 467 foreign military sales cases with the United States. If all of these go forward, it will be worth over $12.3 billion, so obviously our own military support relationship with Iraq is very broad and very deep.
The U.S. embassy in Iraq has thrown its support behind, “efforts to purchase equipment to meet [Iraq’s] legitimate defence needs.” However, the aforementioned quote was in reference to U.S. arms sales.
When asked about the agreement by Business Insider Deputy Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Matthew Rojansky said he wasn’t initially surprised, classifying Russia’s strategy towards the Middle East “opportunistic, at best:”
“I think Putin himself is realistic — he’s a businessman, first and foremost. And I regard him much more as a Russian CEO than a soviet-style party leader.”
He added (emphasis is ours):
“[Putin’s] interest in spheres of influence, if you use that term, is much closer to home — it’s about the near-abroad and the former Soviet countries that are on Russia’s borders. It’s very much not about playing geopolitical chess in the Middle East. He sees that as a losing proposition.”
That position appears to extent towards other Middle Eastern nations too. With regards to Syria, Russia’s stance towards the Assad regime is not as unwavering as it seems.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted in March:
“We are not defending Assad or his family or his clan or even his regime, which certainly needs to be reformed. Rather we are defending a philosophy of international relations and the Syrian people’s right to solve their own problems. Russia is ready to mediate the peace process. We support national dialogue and a diplomatic solution.”
It’s not that Russia is standing in the way of the United States — it is that Russia is in some ways more careful about picking sides with the United States.
“What they’ve done with Assad,” according to Rojansky, “is they’ve picked a clear red line. But even that line may waver and change as opportunities arise — it’s very opportunistic I think is the key.”
Well, Russia has an interest in keeping the quarrel going between the United States and Iran. The Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour notes that the tension between the two states “is expedient for Russia in that it inhibits Iran, which has the second-largest reserves of natural gas after Russia, from competing in European gas markets,” even if they privately fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iranian public opinion of Russia is not as overwhelming as one might think in light of the strategic cooperation between the two states. During the 2009 uprisings in Tehran, Friday prayer leaders were encouraging people to chant “Death to America; death to Israel.”
“Death to China, death to Russia.”
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