September 3, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1471

Russia Has No Allies

September 3, 2019 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci and A. Ungar*
Russia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1471

Official Russia insists that Russia, despite Western sanctions, is not isolated and enjoys a growing system of alliances. Russia's ties with Iran and Turkey have been showcased, and the recent sale of the S-400 air defense system to Turkey that opened a rift between Ankara and Washington has served as cause for exultation. With the collapse of the Soviet era arms control system, for example the mutual suspension of the INF treaty, Russian commentators have taken comfort in the thought that Russia is not facing the US alone, but its military power is augmented by China's economic and military power as part of a full-fledged military alliance.

Despite the self-congratulatory mood, Russian commentators have questioned whether it is possible to speak of alliances in the sense of NATO or the Warsaw Pact, where the partners shared political as well as strategic objectives. Therefore, alongside the triumphalist view of Russia increasingly adding new alliance partners, a more skeptical view has also found expression.

The Demon Seated, a 1890 symbolist piece by Russian artist Mikhail Vrubel.

Russia's 'Alliance' With Turkey

Turkey is considered a major prize, given its strategic position and its former role as a NATO mainstay. Russia has tried to detach Turkey from its traditional alliance with the United States, by exploiting irritants in that relationship. Turkey is wary of Kurdish influence in Syria while the United States is beholden to the Kurds due to their contribution in defeating ISIS. Turkey wants the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government accusing of orchestrating the abortive 2016 military coup. Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, in an article, titled "Russia–Turkey Relations Need a Stronger Foundation", argued that this should not be conflated with an alliance. He chided colleagues, who entertained great hopes of a strategic alliance between Turkey and Russia based on situational factors and advised them to come down to earth.

According to Kortunov, Turkey or Russia turning to each other, after being jilted by the United States or the EU, is an insecure foundation for good relations. "Russia is not an alternative to Turkey's cooperation with the European Union; neither Turkey is a substitute for Russia working harder to resolve its problems with the United States and Europe. Situational alliances based on shared frustrations and common complexes of inferiority usually do not last," Kortunov wrote.[1]

Anna Polyakova, columnist for the outlet, reached a similar conclusion in her analytical article: "When it comes to Russia, Erdogan looks forward to continuing close cooperation with Moscow, including joint diplomatic initiatives in Syria. Yet, it should be admitted, that a lot will be dependent on the state of Turkish-American relations – the Russia-Turkey alliance for Erdogan is more an ad hoc one. Turkey began 'making friends' with Russia only after its cooperation with the West deteriorated… [However,] Ankara has on more than one occasion demonstrated that it was an unreliable partner."[2]

The Russian media outlet also reported that Russian experts fear that the recent S-400 delivery to Turkey may cause classified Russian military technologies to leak to the West. warned that recent history proves that Turkey can suddenly turn from Russia's friend to Russia's foe.[3]

In the cartoon above, published before the Turkey-Russia rapprochement, Erdogan says: "You know, I'd love to visit Crimea - to look at the sunset and the seagulls. And for that reason I will conquer the whole world by using ISIS, which I rented." (, July 6, 2016)\

Russia's Alliance With Iran

Russia has combined with Iran and Turkey in the Astana process to stabilize Syria. However, alongside the articles voicing satisfaction in the relations, articles voicing suspicion of Iran, continue to appear. On January 22, 2017, the Russian media outlet published an analysis on Russia-Iran relations. According to the article's author, Dmitri Nersesov, Iran is a problem for Russian interests. "The Iranians want Moscow to clearly understand that they intend to control as strictly as possible the implementation of its strategy in Syria, and in the long term– in the Middle East generally. Tehran is able to create problems in fulfilling the combat tasks (by blocking access to the Hamadan airbase), in reaching ceasefire and humanitarian pauses (frequently the pro-Iran Shi'ite units have frustrated these initiatives), and renewing Russia-U.S. contacts on Syria," Nersesov wrote.[4]

The Russian daily Kommersant's columnist, Maxim Yusin, stressed that Iran has "consistently acted" as a Moscow's "situational ally," but this "situational alliance" between the two countries in Syria is not nearly "as firm as it seems." He added that Moscow considers Iran a "capricious" and "unpredictable" partner.[5]

Andrey Kortunov, in an article, titled "Iran, Russia and the West," argued whether the Russia-Iran relationship can be deservedly called a "strategic partnership." Kortunov opined that the term "strategic partnership" was suffering from overuse and reached the skeptical conclusion that Russia–Iran relations be more appropriately called a "cautious partnership," rather than the overoptimistic "strategic partnership".

A strategic relationship has to meet certain criteria which the Russia-Iran relationship failed to meet. According to Kortunov, having a common enemy did not ensure a strategic partnership as "a one-time enemy could easily become an ally in the future." This was especially true given both Russia and Iran's dependence on Western technology. In summation, Kortunov concluded: "There is little to suggest that current interaction between Russia and Iran qualifies as a full strategic partnership."[6]

Russia's former Ambassador to Iran (2001-2005) Alexander Maryasov wrote in an article, titled "Do Russian-Iranian Relations Constitute A Strategic Partnership?", that Russia and Iran are partners to a tactical alliance, but not a strategic one. The Russian diplomat explained that the two countries share overlapping positions on Syria, but diverge on a common strategic vision for the country's future.[7]

Russian expert Alexander Shumilin, in an interview with the Russian media outlet, said that Tehran's harsh policy in the Syrian conflict is increasingly at variance with the interests of Moscow in the region. The interview with Shumilin, director of the Center of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, followed a January 15, 2019 CNN interview with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. Asked whether Russia was an ally of Iran, Ryabkov replied: "I wouldn't use this type of words to describe where we are with Iran."[8]

It is worth noting, that on May 15, 2019, during a press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in response to a question on what Russia can do to salvage the JCPOA treaty, bluntly replied: "Russia is not a firefighting rescue crew. We cannot save things that are not fully under our control. We have played our part, and we are ready to continue to play the same positive role, but it does not depend solely on us. It depends on all our partners and all the parties, including the United States, the European countries and Iran."

Commenting on Putin's statement, Russian influential blogger El Murid explained that Russia cannot do anything to help Iran. He wrote that the US was the only guarantor of the JCPOA deal, while the other members of the agreement, Russia included, were and remained purely "furniture", i.e. nonessential actors.

El Murid also added that Russia's relationship with Iran is only situational and Putin will nor "get up" or "stand up" for Teheran's interests. The Russian blogger concluded stating that Iran is not Russia's ally, but merely a Kremlin bargaining chip.[9]

Russia's Alliance With China

Relations with China are also complex. An article in the Russian periodical Military Review, by military historian Ilya Polonsky, assessed that the American policy in the Asia-Pacific region is effectively impelling China and Russia towards the creation of a full-fledged military alliance. However, the Military Review warned Russia not to forget its own interests, which, even in the face of good partnership relations with Beijing, are by no means the same as Chinese interests, and sometimes even antithetical to them.

"For Beijing, the most important thing is the assertion of its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and Central Asia. And if in the South, the Chinese interests conflict with the interests of the US, which supports Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, in the North, China competes not only with the US and Japan, but also with Russia. Chinese ambitions in the Far East, in Transbaikalia and Altai, and in Eastern Siberia are no less substantial than in Southeast Asia. Russia should not forget about this either," the publication assessed.[10]

Military expert Konstantin Sivkov assessed that if the U.S. will deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia then they will target not only China but also Russian strategic nuclear forces in Kamchatka region. Yet, according to Sivkov, establishing a joint missile defense system with China would be counterproductive. "Moscow should use its own technology and capabilities, but there is absolutely no need to share it even with China. Today China is our friend, tomorrow it may be not," Sivkov stressed.[11]

Russia's Relations With The West

Russia's relations with the West have not recovered from the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the last five years, Russian commentators have debated the character of Russia's relationship with the West, with many postulating that a new Cold War is taking shape thus accentuating the need for alliances.

The former Kremlin foreign policy advisor, Sergey Karaganov in an article, titled "How To Win A Cold War," asserted that the West has started a new Cold War in an attempt to reverse "its disadvantageous position" in the "new global balance of power."[12]

In contrast, Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov assessed that we have not reached a stage where Russian diplomacy has written off the West and hence all Russia's "allies", specifically Iran and China, are merely "bartering coin" the Russian-American bargaining. Lukyanov wrote that Russia's interaction with Iran, and China, is not intrinsically valuable for Russia but is merely a tool, a means to influence the West or send it some message. In other words, Lukyanov explained: "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."[13]

Russian Uniqueness – A Barrier To Durable Alliances

In an article, titled "The Loneliness of the Half-Breed", Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, also known as the "Kremlin's Ideologist", explained how Russia tried throughout history to find allies in the West and in the East, but with no success.[14]

According to Surkov, Russia's fate is to remain alone, to have no allies, due to its peculiar identity of being both European and Asian, and at the same time of being none of them. He wrote:

"To cut a long story short, Russia had spent four centuries moving East and then another four centuries moving West. Attempts to take root failed in either case. Both roads were tried. These days the demand will be for third-way ideologies, third-type civilizations, a third world, a third Rome…

"And yet it is very unlikely we are destined to become a third civilization. A dual, two-fold one is a more probable option. A civilization that has absorbed the East and the West. European and Asian at the same time, and for this reason neither quite Asian and nor quite European.

"Our cultural and geopolitical identity is reminiscent of a volatile identity of the one born into a mixed-race family. He is everybody's relative and non-native at the same time wherever he goes. He is at home among strangers and a stranger at home. He understands everybody and is understood by no one. A half-blood, a cross-breed, a weird-looking guy.

"Russia is a Western-Eastern half-breed nation. With its double-headed statehood, hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history, it is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be."

Surkov then concluded that Russia's only choice is to be its own ally: "The wonderful phrase Emperor Alexander III [allegedly] uttered[15]— 'Russia has only two allies: its army and navy'—is possibly the best-worded description of geopolitical loneliness which should have long been accepted as our fate. Of course, the list of the allies can be expanded to taste to include: factory workers and teachers, oil and gas, the creative class and patriotically-minded Internet bots, General Frost and Archangel Michael… The meaning will remain the same—we are our own allies…"

*Anna Mahjar Barducci is Project Director of the Russian Media Studies Project; Amiel Ungar is Senior Analyst and Editor of the Russian Media Studies Project.



[8] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7877, Russian Expert Shumilin: 'Iran Is No Longer The Ally Of Russia', February 5, 2019.

[10] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8245, Russia This Week – Focus On Defense – August 27, 2019, August 27, 2019.

[11] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8245, Russia This Week – Focus On Defense – August 27, 2019, August 27, 2019.

[14], May 28, 2018.

[15] Vladimir Putin credits Czar Alexander III with actually saying this., April 16, 2019.

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