To many observers, Russia often appears to be dragging its feet in international condemnation of Iran.
Last month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quick to say that after military attack on Iran the “consequences will be truly catastrophic, their real scope impossible to imagine.”
Russia has also frequently pushed against the use of sanctions on Iran. This week it called for sanctions to be dropped when Iran agreed to talks, and it has repeatedly criticized the sanctions imposed by individual nations or other bodies that go outside of those agreed by the UN.
It’s easy to dismiss the Russian position as anti-West, or, worse, cynically pro-despotic — Paul Bonicelli at Foreign Policy certainly makes a convincing case for viewing the Syrian relationship in such terms.
Of course, there’s self interest involved. “Putin and the entire foreign policy establishment placed a premium on setting an independent strategic course, and really playing up differences with the West,” Sarah Michaels of Oxford Analytica says. “One of those differences is Iran, where Russia has compelling and lucrative interests in the defence-industrial and energy sectors.”
But the Russian elite isn’t stupid, and their concerns over sanctions, or worse, a military attack in Iran are supported by 3 main concepts, all of which bear consideration.
1. Oil uncertainty is good for no-one
Much of the authority of the Russian government rests on the economy, and much of that economy rests on oil.
Stefan Wagstyl of the FT wrote earlier this week that some economists foresee a need for oil prices to keep above a minimum of $90 a barrel to keep their budget balanced. Less sympathetic viewpoints say that that price may in fact be $110. The Russian federal budget, with all its ambitious spending projects, calls for a $120.
Problems in the Middle East have driven oil prices high, so its easy to see this as a boon for Putin. Yuri Y. Mamchur of the Discovery Institute told us that the problems in Iran and Syria are “wonderful for the Russian economy”.
However, at best this is a short-term fix.
“As economists, we should always try to ascertain why the oil prices might have risen,” Ivan Tchakarov of Renaissance Capital says. “We have only two options — either the demand for oil has increased or its supply has fallen. In my view, if the former, then this is great for Russia as it means that world is doing very well. However, if the former, then probably bad for Russia as supply disruptions created by such conflicts like Iran/Israel usually mean heightened global uncertainty and a risk-off environment. Russia does not do well under such circumstances as it is a high-beta place, so investors usually flee in a risk-off backdrop.”
Ultimately, while a high oil price may help Russia in the short term, they suffer as much as anyone from volatility — something an economy as un-diversified as Russia’s cannot handle.
2. A disrupted Middle East could be a very bad thing
Russia’s relations with the Middle East are strategically important — the country is itself racked with Islamic separatist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan which genuinely strike fear into the heart of Russian people.
“Russia is the last country that wants Iran to have nuclear weapons”, Mamchur says “Russia has its own problems with Muslims and Iran is much closer to Russia than the West.”
There’s no way Putin wants an angry, belligerent Iran hugging its Southern border — a curious WikiLeaks reference in 2010 alleged that Putin considered Iran Russia’s “biggest threat”, and historically Iran and Russia have had a troubled relationship.
By maintaining relatively friendly relations with Iran, Russia is able to keep at least some influence in the Middle East, and prevent a relationship forming between rebels in Chechnya and Dagestan and a powerful Middle Eastern client state.
3. They just don’t think military action would work
Russia’s has taken a hard-line position on military action — the basic feeling being that “if Iran wanted to develop a nuclear weapon, they could do it,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, a Senior Analyst at CNA Strategic Studies. “Air strikes might delay it a bit, but on the other hand it would only make Iran more firm in its commitment to develop a nuclear weapon so that in the future they could never be attacked again.”
Russia has generally opposed unilateral attacks against countries — pushing for UN involvement in Libya for example.
Russia’s motivations may be hypocritical (they did attack Georgia unilaterally themselves) and perhaps cynical (“They themselves maybe at the receiving end of that one day, so they instinctively react against it,” says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies) – but they are really doing things the way the UN system is supposed to work.
Given that Russia itself has faced decades (if not centuries) of isolation from Western governments, Putin and his allies may actually have a useful perspective here.