Tag Archives: Dmitry Medvedev

A Strait Explanation For Russia’s Interest In Tartus (Part 1)

Why is Russia so interested in preventing Western intervention in Syria? The first of a two part feature examining the reasons behind Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 


Syria protestor


To the West, Russian actions towards Syria can seem inexplicable, untrustworthy and trapped in the era of great power politics. In October 1939 Winston Churchill famously quipped ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…’. It seems things have not changed. Churchill offered a potential solution to his own concerns, however. ‘But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests’.[1] It is apparent that in the last 73 years nothing has changed.

Russian national interests motivate Moscow’s support of Bashar al-Assad, and they are numerous. They include the prospect of future arms sales to the regime and Syrian debt to the Russian state and businesses, debt which might not be honoured if Assad falls. They also include Russian influence in the Middle East and in the wider world, influence that may be bolstered by Russia’s ability to prevent Western intervention at will in the Middle East. Finally, Moscow has an interest in maintaining the international norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, an already weakened norm that would be further degraded by Western intervention in Syria.[2] One major interest – an enduring one for Russia – has nevertheless been ignored in media coverage of Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis.[3]

That interest is in maintaining control over the Black Sea. For as long as Russia has existed, it has had an interest in the Black Sea and the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits which control access to it. By extension, it has always had an interest in Anatolia, which straddles this maritime chokepoint. Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought thirteen separate wars from 1568 to 1918, many over control of the Black Sea, as Russia sought to assert its dominance over its southern neighbour. In 1695, Peter the Great used his newly created fleet to attack Ottoman positions and establish his dominance of the Sea of Azov on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Catherine the Great conducted several wars against the Ottomans in the 18th century, securing the Crimea and gaining a further foothold on the Black Sea. In 1827, a combined Anglo-French-Russian fleet decimated the Ottoman fleet at Navarino and in 1828-29 Nicholas I went to war against the Ottoman Empire after it closed the Dardanelles to Russian traffic.

In 1833 he again intervened in Ottoman affairs, this time to protect the Sultan’s government against internal rebellion and thereby secured the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, which provided for closure of the straits in the event of a European war. This secured the Russian coastline in the event of a war against the British and their allies. From 1853-1857, the Crimean War was fought in part because of Nicholas I’s attempts to secure influence over the Ottoman Empire, at expense of the British and French, by becoming the guarantor of all its Orthodox Christian residents. Another war occurred in 1877-1878 as Russia sought to reclaim its access to the Black Sea, severely limited by the treaty ending the Crimean War.  Finally, the First World War saw the last war between the two states, but not the end of Russian interest in Anatolia.

When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, however, the ability of Russia to directly manipulate it by force diminished.  Russia turned to other methods to guarantee its access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. It found the means to influence Turkey via Syria.[4] Syria and Turkey had strained relations for much of the 20th century resulting from such things as water rights, Syrian support for Kurdish rebels and the secular nature of the Turkish government, and the USSR sought to exploit this for its own benefit. Aid to Syria, already an associate of Moscow, increased significantly in the mid- to late-1950s.[5] Significant aid flows continued for the duration of the Cold War, even as regimes in Syria changed.

In 1971, the same year of Hafez al-Assad’s first visit to Moscow, the Soviet Union concluded a deal with Syria to establish a naval base at Tartus, in direct challenge to the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s dominance of the Mediterranean. By establishing a presence in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union pushed a potential battlefield with the United States further from its borders. With the end of the Cold War, the naval rivalry which prompted such manoeuvres disappeared, but Russia’s attempts to influence its neighbours did not; Syrian aid continued to flow unabated.[6]

In 2009, by decree of then President Medvedev, Russia established its National Security Strategy to 2020.  The main objectives of this strategy are the ‘sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and likewise the preservation of civil peace, political and social stability’.[7] To achieve these objectives Russia must guarantee the security of its borders, which requires a degree of influence over its neighbours, either through cooperative measures or otherwise.[8] In that vein, arms sales and economic assistance to Syria have continued to this day. These provide Russia some influence over the Assad regime and, it is hoped, some indirectly over Turkey.  This influence, and the control it helps give Russia over the Black Sea, is a key factor explaining Russia’s actions in the Syrian crisis. Its actions regarding Syria fit into a broader pattern of manoeuvres designed to secure Russian control over the Black Sea, and thereby guarantee the security of Russia’s borders.

Read the second part here.

[toggle title=”Citations”]

[1] Robert Heinl (1966), Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, (U.S. Naval Institute), p. 283.

[2] Andrej Kreutz (2007), ‘Russia and the Mediterranean Countries of the Arab East’, In Russia in the Middle East: Friend or Foe?, (Praeger Security International), http://psi.praeger.com/doc.aspx?d=/books/gpg/C9328/C9328-62.xml (accessed 16 July 2012); Dmitri Trenin, ‘Why Russia Supports Assad’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/opinion/why-russia-supports-assad.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed 16 July 2012).

[3] Mark Katz mentions the relationship between the Tartus base and the Dardanelles and Bosporus, but argues that the base is designed to facilitate Russian power projection, rather than secure control of the Straits as an end in and of itself. See http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/10/moscows_marines_head_for_syria?page=full (accessed 16 July 2012).

[4] Kreutz (2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://rustrans.wikidot.com/russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020. See paragraph 35 (accessed 16 July 2012)

Obama & Nuclear Weapons

Obama put the nuclear issue on a pedestal three years ago, has he made any progress in his pledge to eradicate them from the world?



Three years ago this month in Prague Barack Obama outlined his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. The US President, in his first major speech on the issue of nuclear security since being elected in November 2008, called for urgent action to reduce and eventually eradicate the role that such “catastrophic weapons” play in the security considerations of the world’s nation states, to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years.

Obama was under no illusions as to the difficulties of making such a vision a reality, stating that “this goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence” however went on to outline his determination to insist “Yes we can”. There was a marked difference between Obama’s lofty rhetoric during his campaign speech on the issue in 2008, and the concrete proposals for action he outlined in Prague.

So three years on from Prague, what can be said of the progress Obama has made? Firstly, on the issue of reducing the number of nuclear weapons, there are some grounds for optimism. A year after the Prague speech, Obama signed an arms treaty with Russia, known as the New START treaty, limiting both countries to 800 deployed nuclear warhead delivery systems, representing a reduction of approximately 50%, and 1550 warheads, 30% lower than both sides were meant to have under the predecessor to New START.

New START on its own is obviously not sufficient in moving the world decisively in the direction of zero (nuclear weapons) but it does send a clear message to the international community – that the world’s two biggest nuclear powers are serious in their commitment to getting rid of such weapons. Analysts were keen to stress in the aftermath of the treaty being ratified that although it only commits the US and Russia to modest reductions in their nuclear arsenals, it is a necessary step in showing countries such as Iran, who often accuse the major nuclear powers of not fulfilling their side of the NPT bargain (the NPT commits those states with nuclear weapons to take steps towards their eventual abolition and non-nuclear states to not obtaining them) that in reality they have stuck to their side of the NPT deal. So whilst new START represents only the first step towards a world without nuclear weapons, credit must be given to both Obama and outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev for signalling their intention to lead the way.

Unfortunately though there are more than enough reasons to be pessimistic as to whether Obama can deliver on his Prague agenda. Efforts to secure the world’s loose and vulnerable nuclear materials by 2013 have been made, but it looks like this goal will be missed. The fact that since 2009 six countries have removed all highly enriched uranium (HEU) from their territories signals that a concerted effort by the US as well as those countries in possession of HEU can lead to progress, however getting Iran to return its HEU to the United States and North Korea to submit its plutonium stocks to international monitoring has so far proven impossible. Engaging these states in dialogue is the only peaceful way likely to lead to progress, but such dialogue has been rare in the last few years. Keeping the issue of nuclear security on the international agenda by persuading more countries that it is of vital importance to their own national security is a further obstacle that Obama will face should he secure re-election later this year. At present, too many see the threat of nuclear terrorism as being America’s problem.

Not only does Obama face considerable challenges on the international front, but the domestic opposition to his Prague agenda has also been hampering. His aspiration to seek US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been hindered by opposition from Republicans in Congress, something which has damaged Obama’s international standing as the leader of the global push towards zero. To add to this a Carnegie report in 2010 noted that Obama and Vice President Biden “seem to be the only leaders in the US government personally animated by the vision of a world without nuclear weapons”. Reflecting these domestic concerns, Obama was forced in the Nuclear Posture Review in 2010 to water down his proposals to limit the role that nuclear weapons play in US security strategy, settling in the end for a “negative security assurance” applicable only to states that are party to and in compliance with the NPT (therefore excluding Iran and North Korea) and which could be reviewed if the threat of a biological attack grows. This conditional assurance states that the US will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state even if that state were to use biological or chemical weapons against the US. Whilst this goes further than the Bush administration did in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy, it clearly doesn’t represent a major shift in US policy.

What cannot be denied is that with Obama’s leadership the nuclear issue has been given greater attention in the US as well as internationally. Notable progress has been made in reducing US and Russian stockpiles and in securing vast amounts of loose nuclear material. However should he win a second term, Obama will face numerous challenges, not least keeping the issue of nuclear security on the international agenda, and persuading Congress that it is in the US’s interest to ratify the CTBT. Firmer action to reduce the role nuclear weapons play in US security doctrines, more concrete commitments to strengthen the NPT and engaging in more dialogue with North Korea and Iran will be essential steps Obama will need to take if he is to move closer to the aspirations he outlined in Prague.

Romney & Obama’s ‘Flexibility’

This latest microphone mishap has revealed more about Romney’s views on international affairs than about Obama’s post-election intentions.




[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring talks on missile defence in Seoul, South Korea last week, United States President Barack Obama was picked up by a microphone telling the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have ‘more flexibility’ to negotiate the issue of missiles after the US presidential elections this November.

Opponents of the Obama administration were quick to express their concern over the remark. In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney described the president’s remarks as ‘revealing’ and ‘alarming’, while fellow candidate Newt Gingrich asked in an interview with CNN: ‘how many other countries has the president promised that he will have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?’ However, while there may be genuine debate to be had over the extent to which Obama can expect more political freedom should he retain the presidency in November, these remarks are aimed more at generating a degree of anxiety and uncertainty.

While the White House maintained that progress on the issue of missile defence would be unlikely in an election year, the implications of Obama’s comments also sparked heated correspondence between Romney’s advisers and those of the Obama administration. In an open letter, foreign policy advisers to Romney suggested that Obama’s remarks were indicative of ‘weakness and inconstancy’, and asked the president to elaborate on what he had meant by the term ‘flexibility’. Despite this request, the letter appeared to rely on the ambiguity of the word in order to imply the president’s misleading policies and the uncertainty he would unleash were he to be re-elected. The letter provided numerous criticisms of the administration’s handling of various foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran’s nuclear programme and the defence budget, applying the menacing and mysterious notion of post-election ‘flexibility’ to each instance. The following day, however, national security advisers within Obama’s re-election campaign wrote back, addressing Romney directly. In their response, the team addressed each of the issues raised by Romney’s advisers in detail, and posed a few critical questions of their own. They pointed out Romney’s lack of policy on Afghanistan, for example, and attacked his views on the United States’ relationship with Russia.

The latter criticism stems from Romney’s repeatedly hostile comments towards Russia, which he described as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in an interview with CNN. He reinforced this view in his article for Foreign Policy, stating that Moscow ‘has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America’s national security.’ Romney has faced heat in this area not only from the Obama administration but also from Russia. President Medvedev has commented that this attitude ‘smells of Hollywood’, adding that ‘we are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.’ While Romney’s historical interests appear to lie in the 1980s, as demonstrated by his recent enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ foreign policy, Medvedev’s assessment correctly identifies a considerable amount of animosity towards Russia expressed by Romney that has not characterised the Obama administration. In their letter, for example, Obama’s national security experts reiterated that ‘strategic cooperation with Russia is essential for countering the Iranian nuclear threat’, while the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said that the US relationship with Russia allows differences to be discussed ‘candidly and openly’.

Both Romney’s campaign team and the Obama administration will undoubtedly continue to express their disagreement over this and other foreign policy issues as the presidential election draws closer. However, it appears that this latest microphone mishap has revealed more about Romney’s views on international affairs than about Obama’s post-election intentions.