The text was originally published at Russia Direct
The Russian political class has been watching the United States reluctantly rolling towards a military intervention in Syria over the last few weeks with some perplexity. A series of reckless actions was anticipated, namely: (1) a short-timed military intervention into (2) an inter-ethnic and inter-confessional civil war (3) on the side of an amorphous coalition of extremist forces (4) in response to a dubious incident that seems to have been staged (5) with a view to discouraging those who allegedly used chemical weapons (6) and those who allegedly suffered from them from ever using them again.
Any two of these six conditions render the intervention meaningless, let alone all the six of them.
This obvious political stalemate, largely a result of misinterpreted interests, is relatively difficult to understand for the Russian political class. History has taught Russians pragmatism, especially the need to be fully aware of a nation’s own interests.
Politics is seen in Russia as a very complicated equation, rather than a simple one: there are lots of variables, many of them unknown, and the correlations between them are quite complex. This is one reason why the way the Russians think is often referred to in the West as ‘Byzantine.’
Russian common sense in the diplomatic realm is underpinned by the national experience. Russia is a country with a rich history of international conflicts. It has the longest land frontier in the world and the largest number of neighboring states. Russia and Turkey hold the dubious record for the number of wars between two countries. Since the 15th century, Russia has been a multi-ethnic country with an excellent track record of the peaceful coexistence of numerous ethnic groups. However, internal peace and security remain the key prerequisites for the very existence of the state.
Life in a multi-ethnic country calls for the development of particular intercultural competencies, specifically empathy – an ability to adopt another people’s point of view. This makes it easier for the Russian political elite to understand complex international situations, including those unfolding far away from Russia’s frontiers. At any rate, this collective national experience enables Russians to comprehend the conflict in Syria in another way and see the unknown variables.
Moscow is concerned that Washington's decision to cancel the military intervention was situational, made rather under pressure from the Russian initiative. The American public refers to president Obama as ‘Hamlet’, a hesitant state leader reflecting on choices and straddling between two camps.
However, it is typical of Russian incumbents to exercise a cautious and sensible approach to crises, yet they are often perceived as aggressive leaders. The West interprets the Russian initiative proposing a path to end the Syrian crisis as Moscow’s diplomatic victory, while Russia perceives it as the United States getting back to common sense in international relations.
The only factor, probably, that pushed the United States back to common sense might be Washington’s awareness that a military intervention would be senseless and bring about even more unpredictability. Perhaps, the U.S. took into account its own experience of military conflicts over the past twenty years. This progressive trend naturally brings the United States closer to Russia. In the future, it should help the U.S. administration take more reasonable decisions on its engagement in international conflicts.
Tensions within Saudi Arabia and on its borders keep worsening. In the meantime, the young Crown Prince, who holds power over most vital domestic and external policies, continues multiplying mistakes. As was expected, 2017 witnessed the two mutually reinforcing tendencies. First, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the current Saudi King, held on to his course of strengthening his positions in power. Second, tensions kept increasing within the royal family in the face of the upcoming change of the order of succession to the throne.
A number of major international summits were held last week, the most important ones being the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris and the OSCE meeting in Belgrade. In Russia, however, all eyes were on President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly, which traditionally contains important statements on the country's domestic and foreign policies.
Fresh intrigue is afoot in the Transnistrian 'frozen' conflict. On 21 May, Ukraine's parliament the Verkhovna Rada revoked the agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the movement of Russian troops through Ukrainian territory to Transnistria, the unrecognised republic that is, from a legal point of view, considered part of Moldova. Chișinău doesn't see the Operative Group as peacekeepers: it's an undesirable foreign presence. For Chișinău , the Russian military presence only impedes Moldova's 'European choice' and fosters separatist desires on the left bank of the Nistru (Dniester) River
While Russian military operations in Syria received all the headlines, there were other important foreign policy developments in both Ukraine and Turkey. This past week, Russian diplomacy was occupied with three main areas – the nation’s military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), developments in Ukraine, and increasingly contentious relations with Turkey.