Author: Irina KHALTURINA
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made the most important statements in his recent interview with Swedish SVT about the restart of the Cold War and ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council. "The U.S. and Russia do not control everybody like it was before... There are no two homogeneous well-controlled blocks," said Guterres. Indeed, there are no opposing blocks of states. Russia, which in fact has no allies, cannot be considered an equal rival to a group of Western countries. What kind of war is this then, if one of the rivals is obviously weaker?
It is clear that nothing is clear
After the American, British, and French offensives in Syria, the situation has become even more complicated. Nobody, including international organisations, could say whether there was a real chemical attack in the city of Douma. And if so, what exactly did the Syrian army want to achieve. The targets of missile strikes carried out recently by the coalition forces also remain unclear. Western politicians and media argue that Washington and its allies showed their strength, and Moscow could not respond as it did before. The Russians, on the contrary, insist that the coalition clearly avoided hitting the targets close to Russian and Iranian forces, and that the attack had no effect on the presence of government troops in Eastern Ghouta. Interestingly, Americans claim that on April 13 they hit all the targets as planned while Russians insisted that the Syrian air defence shot down most of the coalition missiles. Moreover, Moscow said that now the issue of deliveries of the S-300 Favorit missiles to Syria "is almost solved". It is planned to use these missiles for the development of a multi-layered system of Syrian air defence in the shortest possible time. It is rumoured in the social networks that the Favorits have already been delivered to the Tartous airbase. At the same time, neither the Kremlin nor the White House can make up their minds whether they want to stay in Syria further or not. After all, both Putin and Trump have repeatedly stated about such plans.
The Kremlin’s possible opportunities
Obviously, the reason of competition is not liberal or any other values but a desire to dominate. But in this game Washington has a big edge over its rivals in economic, military, and technological terms. American military bases are scattered all around the world and the U.S. has many allies such as the NATO Alliance, which has expanded to the borders of Russia. Even Ukraine and Georgia are dreaming to be a part of this organisation. Economic disparity between Russia and the West is self-evident. As to military, neither the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) can even be compared to NATO, as Moscow historically has never had reliable allies. For example, the Kremlin cannot rely entirely either on Iran or on Turkey in Syria. Each of these countries play their own game. Russia cannot even trust Bashar al-Assad, let alone anyone else who will come to replace him when it is time to start restoring this ruined country. Nevertheless, the U.S. treats Russia more seriously and underlines the significance of its opponent, for instance, by making statements that Moscow has successfully intervened in the election of the American president. Recently, Ciaran Martin, the head of the UK's National Cyber Security Centre, announced massive hacker attacks from Russia calling it the strongest opponent of UK in cyberspace.
Apparently, Moscow is not going to give up even in this situation and is perfectly using all the "possible opportunities" for response. Russia skilfully capitalises on contradictions among its opponents. After all, no one can clearly explain whether the Russians have actually been involved in the 2016 American election campaign or the last year’s events in Catalonia. Yet another example is the situation with the U.S. sanctions against Russia. The Trump administration was confident that the measures against the rich and influential citizens of Russia, who had made large fortunes back in the 1990s or 2000s after the collapse of the Soviet economy, would seriously undermine Putin's power. This is true if only Putin does not have his own plans in mind regarding his "friends" such as "voluntary nationalisation." On April 25, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich made it clear that this was an entirely possible option. Thus, the strategic industrial facilities of Russian economy may well be transferred to invisible and reliable hands while Putin raises his rating – just read the comments of ordinary Russians at forums to see what they think about Deripaska or other oligarchs. It seems the Kremlin has learned how to tread lightly among the different interests of countries implementing or trying to implement independent policies. Sometimes such ad hoc and undeclared alliances are more efficient than the massive NATO system.
Increasing Iranian influence
Going back to Syria, we can say that it will be called a testing ground one day, where a new style of international relations has developed; a swift and cruel style leaving no room for choice. Apparently, Iran will further increase its influence in Syria soon. Tehran uses the conflict to strengthen its regional influence, which Israel finds very unnerving after several years of silence. Concerned about Tehran's ties with Hezbollah, Tel-Aviv makes it clear that it is ready for any scenario. "It is the Russians who ‘outed’ Israel's April 9 attack against the Iranian T-4 base in central Syria. Israel’s practice has been to strike targets in Syria that are involved with, among other things, the Iranian transfer of qualitatively new weapons to Hezbollah – but never to acknowledge it. So long as the Israelis said nothing publicly, neither the Iranians nor Hezbollah had to retaliate to avoid losing face," explains Dennis Ross, a consultant to the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Policy, in The Wall Street Journal.
Washington joins in immediately and starts insisting on its intention to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015. French President Emmanuel Macron, after meeting with Trump, also said that he intended to work on a new agreement. In response, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Trump "a tradesman, merchant, and building constructor" who cannot "make judgments about international affairs," and warned of "serious consequences" if the U.S. decides to impose sanctions. If we reconsider the situation using the above logic, it is clear that Russia, which is eager to preserve its presence in Syria, is also interested in Iran’s presence there but is not interested in strong Iran, which, in parallel, is trying to normalise relations with the United States.
However, Donald Trump’s intention to replace American presence in Syria with the troops of the Gulf monarchies and Egypt can significantly complicate the situation for Russia and Iran. After all, Washington is also very good at using the potential of ‘positional friends’ for its own purposes. On April 16, 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that the new National Security Adviser John Bolton was negotiating with representatives of the Arab states to create a multinational force that will replace the U.S. military in Syria. At the same time, the Saudi Foreign Minister applied to Qatar with a proposal to deploy a military contingent in Syria. All this provokes a serious risk of clashes with pro-Iranian formations, which can lead to a big war in the region.
Antonio Guterres is probably right in thinking that the UN Security Council does not really have anything to do in this game. In this situation, each party defends its own interests using all practical means; ad hoc unions are fragile, while a weakness can turn into an advantage, and vice versa at any time. No rules, even formal ones...