Streetwise Professor

February 16, 2019

The Idiotic Freak Out Over Putin’s Middle East Diplomacy

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:59 pm

There has been a steady chorus of wailing about how the US “retreat” from the Middle East (which is at present limited to an announced intention to draw down in Syria) is empowering Russia, and that Putin is exploiting the “vacuum” left by Trump.* This WSJ oped is representative of the genre. Which is to say it is incoherent to the point of idiocy.

For one thing, this piece, and the entire genre, mirrors one of Putin’s most glaring intellectual failings: zero sum thinking. If Russia gains, the US must lose, right?

Wrong. The US has global interests, and does not have unlimited means to pursue them. Strategic prioritization–most notably, focusing on China–and redeploying resources to focus on the new priorities is vital and beneficial and advances US interests. Perhaps Russia gains in some ways from this, but those gains do not come anywhere near erasing the benefits accruing to the US of downplaying peripheral theaters and focusing on more important ones. Further, any local gains Russia may achieve in, say, Syria are almost certainly to be more than offset by the disadvantages of competing with a United States that has its strategic priorities straight. Putin–and other American adversaries/enemies, notably Iran–have exploited US misadventures in the Middle East. Focusing efforts and husbanding resources makes the US stronger, not weaker, both absolutely and relative to would be competitors–including Russia.

I have yet to see anyone make a remotely plausible case of why an enduring US role in Syria makes any strategic sense. As I’ve said from the very day that Putin put troops there–if he wants the shithole, let him have it. It has no strategic importance to the US, especially in its utterly wrecked current condition. We have far more important issues to deal with, China foremost among them.

The WSJ piece also provides room for considerable doubt about Putin’s prospects. Specifically, it inadvertently demonstrates the inherent contradictions in Putin’s policy. The author, Angela Stent, spends much of the piece fretting about the warming relationship between Russia and Israel. She also frets about the cooperation between Iran and Russia. Well, those policies are utterly incompatible, given that Israel and Iran view each other as existential enemies. The rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia is similarly incompatible with a strong cooperative relationship between Russia and Iran. Something has to give.

I also fail to see why having Russia and Israel on good terms is a bad thing, especially in light of the fact that the Soviet Union was Israel’s arch-enemy (except for a brief, historically miraculous moment in which Stalin thought supporting Israel–and arming it–advanced Soviet interests), and armed its enemies (including Syria) throughout the Cold War. This was a major reason why the US had to take substantial risks to defend Israel in the Cold War–and why some said this risk wasn’t worth it, and that the US should jettison its support for Israel. Indeed, Soviet support for Arab states waging war on Israel brought the USSR and the US to the nuclear brink in 1973. A Russia that values its relationship with Israel is more likely to put a brake on Israel’s enemies with whom it has influence (notably Iran and Syria). That reduces the likelihood of conflict in the Middle East, and reduces a source of friction between the US and Russia.

Tell me why this is a bad thing.

And don’t forget–it takes two to canoodle. Here Putin is canoodling with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is (a) extremely hawkish, and (b) recognizes that Israel’s security depends crucially on the US. If Netanyahu believes there are gains to trade to be realized from dealing with with Putin, it is likely that the US is a gainer too.

Having Russia on friendly terms with Israel enhances the Jewish state’s security, and thereby advances American interests. And if in the end Russia chooses Iran and Syria over Israel, the pearl clutching about a budding Russian friendship with Israel will look rather foolish, no?

The friendliness between Russia and KSA can be analyzed similarly. The contrast with the Cold War again deserves comment. The inflection point in US involvement in the Middle East generally, and KSA in particular–the Carter Doctrine–was a response to the perceived Soviet threat to seize the Arabian Peninsula. Although the military threat ebbed with the collapse of the USSR, a KSA with fewer enemies and threats requires less US protection.

Here it should be added that the main reason for KSA and Russia to cooperate now is oil. But this in many respects is a confession of weakness, not strength. The resurgence of US as a major oil producer has undercut the market power of the Saudis and Russia, and their cooperation is largely defensive, rather than offensive.

Those who are paying attention, moreover, realize that there is considerable disagreement within Russia about the desirability of cooperating with OPEC (which, in effect, means with KSA) on oil output. In particular, my old buddy Igor Sechin is lobbying hard against continued cooperation, claiming it is a strategic threat to Russia:

“The participants of the OPEC+ agreement have actually created a preferential advantage for the USA – that sees raising its own market share and the seizure of target markets as its primary task – which has become a strategic threat to Russia’s oil industry development,” the letter [from Sechin to Putin] seen by Reuters says.


“The key strategic challenge which the domestic oil industry is faced with today is the further decline in Russia’s market share, despite the availability of quality recoverable oil reserves, necessary infrastructure and personnel,” it said.

Here Sechin is actually expressing some economic reality. Given its market share, Russia’s–and Rosneft’s–demand elasticity is substantially greater than one, and restricting its output reduces its revenues/income. Russia/Rosneft would likely be better off with a lower price and higher output–which is precisely why for years it abstained from cooperating with OPEC.

This internal discontent among extremely powerful players–and Sechin is arguably the most powerful player in Russia after Putin–sharply limits the potential for enduring cooperation between Russia and the KSA. Again, the fears are vastly overblown.

In sum, freaking out over greater Russian diplomatic efforts in the Middle East is totally unjustified. Russia’s gains are not America’s losses–the world is not zero sum. There are inherent contradictions in Russian efforts that will inevitably force them to make choices that limit their influence. And some Russian initiatives could actually serve to reduce the likelihood of major conflicts that would harm US interests.

I can’t write about this subject without mentioning today’s remarks by the most annoying leader in the world today. And no, I don’t mean Putin–I mean Angela Merkel. At the annual security conference in Munich, Frau Merkel chastised the United States for its plans to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that a hasty U.S. pullout from Syria runs the risk of strengthening the roles of Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 16, Merkel questioned whether the planned U.S. withdrawal was “a good idea.”
“Will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?” she asked.
She also cautioned against a premature U.S. withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, saying that NATO’s Resolute Support mission in that country was dependent on the U.S. military’s commitment.

Well, for starters, lady, if you are so convinced of the need for military engagement in Syria and Afghanistan, why don’t you order your pathetic military to pick up its broomsticks and take the lead in the fights there? Oh. I forgot. You are the leader of the biggest free rider in Nato, who constantly lectures everybody else about global responsibilities, but who never puts her money–or the lives of German soldiers (assuming they still have any) where her fat mouth is. Until you do, you can kindly STFU.

The outrageousness of Merkel’s bloviation is even more remarkable given that in the very same speech called Russia a “partner” and “made a robust defense of Germany’s foreign trade relations and ties with Russia during her speech.”

Why, some might call that collusion!

So which is it? Russian influence is something to be contested, or embraced?

Merkel has also been a robust defender of the nuclear deal with Iran, and critical of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it. German has led efforts to circumvent US sanctions on Iran–which are intended precisely to limit Iranian influence. But then she tells us we have to garrison Syria to fight Iranian influence.

Square that circle for me.

Angela cannot go away soon enough. But alas, no doubt she will be replaced by someone equally annoying. Germany is not America’s friend. But it is probably too much to expect that those who are demented by Trump hatred will understand that, just as it is too much to expect that said demented people will recognize that some modest Russian diplomatic achievements in the Middle East do little harm to the US, and indeed, may actually redound to our benefit.

*The whole idea of a US “retreat” in the Middle East is so completely unmoored from reality that anyone who uses this term, or similar expressions, should be ignored and mocked. The US is still in Iraq. It has actually increased its involvement in the Persian Gulf, most notably in its confrontation in Iran. It supports the Saudi’s fiasco in Yemen. It periodically bombs Libya. Support for Israel is at unprecedented levels. Egypt’s military government is getting military and political assistance from the US. If this is retreat, I’d hate to see an advance. Reducing involvement in what is arguably the least important country in the region–Syria–when its whole reason for being there (the presence of ISIS as a territorial entity) is strategic rationality, not a retreat.

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4 Comments »

  1. “Will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?” asks Frau Merkel.

    Dunno – but it probably helps Russia less than buying $5Bn of NordStream2 natural gas every year!

    Comment by dcardno — February 16, 2019 @ 10:37 pm

  2. The US’s policy of driving China and Russia into alliance is perhaps its stupidest since the Iraqattack. Possibly it’s the stupidest since Vietnam.

    Comment by dearieme — February 17, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

  3. Given its market share, Russia’s–and Rosneft’s–demand elasticity is substantially greater than one, and restricting its output reduces its revenues/income.

    Facing a major price decline, only a small price-taking producer with a huge (relative to output) spare capacity can prop up its revenues by pumping more. If the price falls 20%, it has to produce 25% more oil. Russia’s short-term spare capacity is at most 5% of its current output anyway, and the market may not painlessly absorb the extra 500,000+ kbpd.

    Russia/Rosneft would likely be better off with a lower price and higher output–which is precisely why for years it abstained from cooperating with OPEC.

    Historically, Russia preferred to free-ride on OPEC’s cuts; even under OPEC+, it’s been able to cut much less than Saudi Arabia. Besides, Russian oil producers believed that abrupt cuts would be technically challenging because of the large number of producing wells (which is why Russia insisted on being allowed to decrease output gradually, via natural decline). Actually, Rosneft – as opposed to “Russia” – may want to raise output if it has a large portfolio of greenfield projects ready to start producing within months, and if these projects are eligible for reduced taxes for some time after the startup. The way oil revenues are split between the oil producers and the state is a major factor that gets overlooked sometimes.

    Comment by Alex K. — February 17, 2019 @ 4:53 pm

  4. Perhaps I’m not entitled to make such a statement, but on behalf of most of Europe (or at least I’d like to think so), we can also see that Germany is totally hypocritical on Russia.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 4, 2019 @ 6:05 pm

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