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memri
April 24, 2018 No.
156

Let's Make A Deal – But Do The Russians Want One?

In recent days, German media[1] have reported that the SPD and the CDU are discussing the possibility of offering Russia a deal on Syria, indirectly addressing Iran, which is the hardest nut to crack in the Syria crisis, even more so than President Bashar Al-Assad. MEMRI research on Russian media over the past two and a half years suggests that Russia might be interested.

According to details provided by the German media, the West is dangling three prizes before Putin:

    1. Political-ideological recognition of Russia's global status – a status that Putin's Russia is striving to regain (after it was last conferred during the Nixon-Brezhnev era.)

    2. Recognition of Russia's continued presence in Syria, which is of military-strategic importance for Russia.

    3. Western and Gulf state capital injections for rehabilitating Syria, in a manner that will make Russia the prime contractor, with all the financial benefit that that entails for Mother Russia's economy.

The West finds many advantages in the plan, both for Russia and for itself:

    - Cooperation with Russia in Syria can solve the protracted international crisis that has caused chaos (for example, the wave of refugees, though this is not attributable entirely to Syria), and has grave security consequences for Europe.

    - It completely bypasses the problem of canceling the sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Surely no one would oppose the humanitarian effort of rehabilitation, that is also perceived as vital for curbing terror at its roots.

    - Russia's recognized presence in Syria lays the infrastructure for massive pressure on Iran, that could even trigger a violent Russia-Iran clash for control of Syria. Even if such a clash is avoided, the end of Russian support of Iran's policies in the region could significantly impact Iran's expansionist capabilities.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether Russia would be willing to enter into such a deal even if it confers benefits and costs it nearly nothing.

MEMRI's monitoring and research on Russian media since January 2017 shows that there have been numerous Russian signals to the Trump administration that Russia is interested in a deal. The following are three out of numerous examples:

    - Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov assessed that Iran has become a bartering chip in the Russia-U.S. bargaining. Russia, he wrote, is tempted by a deal with the U.S. because "rapprochement and interaction with Iran... are not intrinsically valuable for Russia but are [merely] a tool, a means to influence the West or send it some message." He added: "As soon as the Kremlin manages to attract the serious attention of its European, and especially American, partners, they are immediately given priority over the non-Western countries."[2]

    - Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) think tank, also stressed that Russia's alliance with Iran is not a strategic one, but one that can be defined as a "cautious partnership." He observed: "Having a common enemy or suffering a severe regional crisis are by no means a guarantee that a strategic partnership will be formed."[3]

    - Maxim Yusin emphasized, in his column in the Russian daily Kommersant, that the Kremlin considers Iran a "capricious" and "unpredictable" partner, and that this could open a window of opportunity for President Trump's diplomacy.[4]

Indeed, the Russian opinion makers did not define the contours of a deal that could interest the Kremlin. But one can venture an educated guess that Russia is mainly interested in the lifting of the sanctions and recognition of its 2014 Crimea annexation. The West cannot give such recognition, but lifting the sanctions – either directly or indirectly – is tantamount to de facto recognition of the Crimea annexation.

Although these ideas were broached in media outlets influenced by and loyal to the Kremlin, the possibility that they were merely tactics designed to weaken Western resolve regarding the sanctions cannot be ruled out. Russia may not be willing to enter into even a deal so beneficial to it with the West unless and until it is offered a full-fledged official lifting of the sanctions. The recent U.S.-European proposals provide an opportunity to test Russia's concrete interest in such a deal.

* Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/angela-merkel-und-wladimir-putin-sprechen-ueber-lage-und-entwicklungen-in-syrien-15553725.html, April 22, 2018.