June 5, un.org. Quoting Reuters, “Several Western council members noted that the unanimously adopted statement had the backing of Russia, which has strongly supported the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”
Russian foreign policy exemplifies the practice of realpolitik, well summarized by the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article as
“Realpolitik (from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) is politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term Realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian.”
That Russian foreign policy adheres to realpolitik does not imply that the Russian principals are themselves without conscience. They rationalize, as well all do, by subordination of their personal feelings to what they consider the Greater Good. Those of us who dislike Russian realpolitik feel their conception of the Greater Good is flawed. It is also likely that Russian policy makers allow themselves to offer the milk of human kindness as a secondary gesture, provided that the objectives of realpolitik are met.
The few exceptions to the rigorous practice of realpolitik occur with respect to foreign countries with large representations of the Russian diaspora. So many Russians live in Israel that relations are better than one would expect with a staunch ally of the U.S. And pairing of Russian men and Syrian women, extensive for many years, has influenced Moscow’s affection for Assad . (Ironically, the largest contingent of the diaspora is in the U.S. Russian is the 12th most spoken language in the U.S.)
But personal affection is not a gear in the machine of realpolitik, so its influence is beyond calculation. In contrast to the moral agony of U.S. foreign policy, realpolitik is a simple machine, with just a few well oiled deterministic gears. The messy moral component is missing, so it is remarkably easy to simulate. The loyalty of Russia to the Assad regime now shows a crack. Since realpolitik admits no consideration of human suffering, the “increasing brutality” of the Assad regime is not a factor in Russian assent to the June 5 statement of the Security Council. Russian assent to this particular statement cloaks what realpolitik would offer as the real reason.
Diplomacy has back channels that do not show in open source media. In some situations of diplomacy, particularly where the U.S. is not involved, there are also “dark channels”, widely used by states where lines of communication are not restrained by the apparent formal structure of government. Russia is such a state. Saudi Arabia, ruled mostly by an extended family, is another. So it does not rise to the level of conspiratorial thinking to assume that they know more of what their opposites want than we do.
Russia wants a security landscape in the Middle East, that minimizes, to Russian eyes, spillover to the Caucasus of militancy and unrest typified by ISIS. The Russian view of Sunni Islam is that it is a wellspring of stateless terrorism. By contrast, Shi’ism, with a hierarchical religious structure, is inhospitable to stateless terrorism. And so goes Iran, which is Shi’ite theocracy. So it is in the interest of Russia to practice balance-of-power by alliance with the Shi’ite powers in the area.
A Shiite alliance also solves part of the map-coloring problem. Since Islam in the Russian (northern) Caucasus is predominantly Sunni, the map-line of Iranian part of the border is reinforced by religious distinction. This may sound silly, but the reasoning goes way back, when historically a state would adopt a state religion contrasting with others in the area, making of each village priest or pastor a border cop.
Since Iran actually has historical claims on Russian parts of the Caucasus, the Russian attitude must be something of the nature, “We’ll worry about that when it happens.” Russia, unlike the U.S., does not enjoy the luxury of uncontested borders.
Saudi Arabia has three concerns:
- Iranian expansion, via Houthi proxies, onto the Arabian peninsula.
- Assad’s casual atrocities targeting the Sunni majority of Syria.
- An alleged interest in derailing the fracking business in the U.S. Skeptically, the Saudis, with their business experience and intimate knowledge of oil, must have known that fracking is an impossible target for their oil weapon, impossible because the capital needs of fracking are far smaller than the cost of their weapon.
Formerly, the Russians could play with realpolitik and balance-of-power without compunction. But now, the house is on fire. The realpolitik board game has changed. Adjustments must be made. The Russian economy desperately needs higher oil prices, and the Assad regime is doomed. Since realpolitik admits no sentimentality, it’s time to sell them out. Avoiding a sheriff’s sale, or taking of the Assad Property by ISIS “eminent domain” seizure, is the next job of Russian diplomacy.
The Assad Property is due for redevelopment. The bidders are Iran, through their Hezbollah proxy, and Saudi Group. Both bidders bring unique assets to the table. Hezbollah is a strong builder but short on dough, contrasting with Saudi Group, who have weak builders but lots of dough.
The two groups have different aesthetic tastes, so the Assad Property will be split into a patchwork of subdivisions, so each can build in their own style of religious motifs. But the Assad Property is in a very rough area of town, dominated by the ISIS Boys. In an adjoining area, Iraq Town, rival developer U.S. Properties tried community-based development for years, but the place is still a dump.
Can the parties bridge their differences enough to clean the place up?