Russian Withdrawal from Syria: Preamble to a New Cold War Era?

An Exchange

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Part 1 of an exchange.  See the response by Andrei Kortunov.

Since he became president in 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had the ambition of changing the unilateral order of the international world to a new bilateral one. Russia’s enormous territory, nuclear arsenal, and economic potential have led Putin to seek the status of a world power. To achieve his ambition, Putin has contemplated several strategies: creating an anti-NATO Eurasian integration campaign, strengthening the structural framework of the BRICS, expanding Russian influence over the Middle East, and preventing the United States from stretching its foothold in that region. However, as he works to fulfill his ambition, Putin has faced an outsize obstacle that has undermined the capacity of Russia to become a world superpower. According to a preliminary estimate, Russia’s economy contracted 3.7 percent in 2015 and living standards have been challenged by a deep recession that has engulfed Russia for years. The poverty rate keeps growing? consumer demand has decreased significantly, and due to a sharp contraction in real wages, Russian households have been under enormous pressure. Additionally, the ruble has fallen to less than half its former value against the dollar. Suffering from international sanctions, low oil and gas prices, and geopolitical tensions, President Putin has been struggling to find a new way to alleviate the recession and pave the way towards Russian global hegemony. The sanctions that were imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union due to Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis were extended to July 31, 2016 because Russia did not fully implement the Minsk agreement. Despite Russia’s position as the world’s largest crude producer along with Saudi Arabia (10 million barrels per day), selling cheap oil and gas has generated an overall problem for the economy of Russia, which entirely depends on its hydrocarbons trade.

The decline of the price of oil is the result of a price war that the Saudis started in June 2014 in order to hurt Iran’s economy and downgrade the position of Iran in the Middle East. By oversupplying the oil market, Saudi Arabia caused a 65 percent decrease in the oil price compared with its peak before June 24, 2014. On January 20th 2016, Brent, the international crude oil benchmark, traded for $26 per barrel. The price war initiated by the Saudis has brought enormous negative effects on the economy of both OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers including its initiator: Saudi Arabia. For fiscal year 2016, Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in its expensive war in Yemen, has a huge hole in its budget. To address this problem, the oil producers have started to build a consensus among them to support oil prices. There have been several meetings between OPEC and non-OPEC countries since the beginning of this year. The ultimate goal for all of the producers, including Saudi Arabia, is to boost oil prices. To reach this goal, the producers need to cut output, and the best way to have a systematic global oil policy to implement this activity is to build an alliance — even though Saudi Arabia and Russia are usually regarded as “right” and “left” on the political spectrum.

In addition to the problem of low oil prices, Russia has also struggled with another problem: its military intervention in Syria. Russia’s military presence in Syria costs an estimated $2.4 to $4 million to, which along with low oil prices has lessened Russia’s capability to expand its global influence. The question is: how can Russia overcome or at least alleviate these obstacles in order to be known as a world superpower and to move towards a new Cold War era?

The withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria is one of the answers for the above question. The issue is complicated and to have a better understanding of the issue, one should put all the pieces together. After the Russian intervention in Syria, which has revealed Russia’s capacity to deploy its forces outside of its borders, President Putin has now withdrawn his forces from Syria to alter the situation in favor of him, both internally and internationally.

By this move, Putin stabilized his position among the Russia’s public, convincing them that he is not willing to take back Russia to the 10 year Soviet war in Afghanistan.

One of the desirable outcomes of Putin’s decision to move his forces out of Syria is to please the Arab monarchies, which have been upset about the presence of Russia in Syria and Russians’ unconditional support of Bashar al Assad. Satisfaction of the Arab Gulf states, which are large oil producers, will enable Russia to strengthen its position in a prospective new oil producers’ alliance in order to revive oil markets. Being the major player in building an oil consensus creates a suitable ground for Russia to launch a revolution new political alliance with the conservative Arabs in the Middle East.  The Gulf States are not satisfied with the United States’ decision to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, which will expand the influence of Iran in the region.

In February 2016, a meeting between Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, and Venezuela was held in the capital of Qatar, Doha. In the meeting, in order to boost oil prices, parties proposed a global oil deal to freeze oil production at the January 2016 levels. Following the last month meeting, the President of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Mohammed al Sada announced that OPEC and non-OPEC producers will meet on April 17th 2016 in Doha, Qatar. According to OPEC, all the OPEC and non-OPEC producers except Iran have agreed to halt their crude production in order to increase the prices as long as other producers follow suit. OPEC believes that making an exception for Iran is not a deal breaker. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, in his latest visit to Iran on March 14, 2016 stated that Iran can to be excluded from this deal and increase its output because sanctions on it effectively were lifted only in January 2016. By supporting a sustainable balance between supply and demand, the Iranian Minister of Petroleum, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, said that Iran is in a special situation and needs to restore its production volumes. Zangeneh mentioned that Iran is open to an oil output freeze in future. On March 17th 2016, OPEC President Mohammed al Sada visited Tehran, the capital of Iran, to encourage Iranian officials to join the alliance to halt oil production at the January levels. This agreement will have a definite positive outcome for all the producers, including Russia and Iran.

Additionally, by withdrawing from Syria, Russia will save its daily $2.4 million to $4 million military expense, which helps to recover its crippled economy. The discontinuation of Russian presence in Syria also will create a vacuum, which could be filled by Iran and its proxy militia Hezbollah. The strong presence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria will decrease the influence of the U.S. and its allies in Syria, and help Assad to overcome his opponents and empower the Shiite triangle of Iran, Iraq, and Syria in the Middle East. To sustain this presence in Syria, Iran will need an enormous amount of military equipment. It could be the reason the Iranian Defense Minister, Hossein Dehghan, planned a trip to Moscow in mid-March. In Moscow, Dehghan signed a new $8 billion arms contract with Russia. Dehghan mentioned that Iran handed a shopping list to Moscow.

With its withdrawal from Syria, Putin could create a new political alignment with the conservative Arab states. He could empower the Shiite populated states and groups who have a strong tendency towards Russia and are resisting the U.S. presence in the region. He could improve Russia’s budget deficit through reviving the price of oil, eliminating the Syria expenses, and selling military machinery and equipment to Iran which it may use in Syria.

Is it relevant enough to call Putin a smart politician and call the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria a step towards a return to the Cold War era?

Rashin Khosravibavandpouri is an Iranian-born journalist.  She recently received a M.S. in International Relations from Suffolk University. Rashin is a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s Middle East Working Group.