Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator
US-Russia relations are at a new low. The US has slapped new sanctions on Russia in response to accusations of cyberattack and election meddling. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service was accused of being behind the SolarWinds hack. Russia has asked to expel 10 American diplomates in a ‘tit for tat response’. US President Biden has suggested a summit with Russian President Putin, which would be the first of its kind since 2018.
In an effort to understand the issues behind today’s headlines, Steven Sahiounie of MidEastDiscourse interviewed Shahzada Rahim, a geopolitical analyst based in Islamabad with specialization in Eurasian politics, Middle East and Russian Foreign Policy. He is the founder and CEO of think Tank and news website the Eurasian Post. He is also a close confidante of the former special representative to Kremlin, Professor Alexander Dugin.
#1. Steven Sahiounie (SS): The tension between Moscow and Washington has been increasing since President Biden came into office. Where do you see the relationship going?
Shahzada Rahim (SR): First of all, thank you for having me for this interview on Middle East Discourse.
Well, since the beginning of the cold war, the relationship between the United States and Russia has been an interesting topic on the global stage. Nothing has changed since then the pattern of diplomatic relations between the two global powers remained the same. Before answering your question, let me make one fact clear first. Although the disintegration of soviet Russia brought humiliation and major geopolitical challenges for Post-Soviet Russia but one thing remained clear despite the rise of other global powers such as China and India, the US establishment still considers Russia as the number one enemy. In my opinion, it is cold war anti-Russia hysteria, which still dominates the minds of American political and military elites. To cut it short, though, under the Donald Trump administration, the US-Russia relations remained calmed compared to the previous regimes but since Biden came to office, the pattern of diplomatic relations between the two countries is again unfolding.
In my opinion, under the Biden administration, the relationship between the two countries is going to remain stagnant for three major reasons. First, the anti-Putin hysteria, about his alleged involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, which still dominates the American mainstream media. Though Trump left the White House three months ago, but the so-called Russian alleged disinformation campaign hysteria is still popular in the United States, which will remain one of the major hurdles in bridging US-Russia relations. Second, Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and Crimean annexation are still a major reason behind the stagnant relationship between the two countries. In my opinion, under the Biden administration, the Ukrainian dilemma will further ensnare the already stagnant relationship between the two countries. Lastly, the NATO militarism near the Russian border, which is one of the major reasons behind the ongoing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Very recently, the Russian Air force intercepted the NATO airplane in the Arctic Sea. Hence, by taking into account the latter three major scenarios, I will say that the relationship between the United States and Russia is not going revive anytime soon, especially not under the Biden administration.
#2. SS: The US and EU have put new sanctions on Russia. What measures can Russia take to deal with the situation?
SR: For decades, imposing economic sanctions has remained one major tools of American foreign policy to pressure and threaten other nations. But I want to make one thing clear here, Russia is not an ordinary nation, it is a global power rich in natural resources. Hence, imposing so-called economic sanctions on Russia is not going to work instead the US and its European allies should focus on the diplomatic engagement with Russia. Only diplomatic engagement with Russia will lead to the resolution of major global issues such as the nuclear arms race, regional conflicts and more importantly the issue of climate change.
On the contrary, the fact cannot be denied that the western sanctions on Russia have always ended up in retaliation. For instance, according to the United Nations report, due to sanctions, Russia loses 50-60 billion dollars annually but if we look on the other side, the US and its allies lose 100 billion dollars annually. Thus, the so-called sanction strategy of the western nations is not only hurting Russia rather it is affecting them too. In addition, Russia is one of the largest exporter of hydrocarbons in the world and the West is dependent on Russia to stabilize the hydrocarbon prices in the energy market. Moreover, in the last decade and a half, Russia has diversified its economy by investing in other domestic sectors such as manufacturing and heavy engineering in order to protect Russia’s key economic sectors from the western sanctions. In my opinion, the US sanctions on Russia in a time of complex geopolitics will end in vain and are simply futile.
#3. SS: Russia has a working relationship with both Israel and Iran. Currently, the tension between Israel and Iran are at a high level. What role could Russia play in diffusing the tension?
SR: Since the cold war, Russia has played a vibrant strategic role to promote peace and stability in the Middle East. Moreover, it was the only region during the cold war, where Russia refrained from intervening militarily but on the diplomatic side, Russia has actively participated in establishing strategic balancing in the region. For decades, the immortal rivalry between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East has remained a major foreign challenge for Russia. However, the recent escalation between Israel and Iran has further complicated the situation for the Russian foreign policymakers in the following way.
First, Iran is a strategic ally of the Russian Federation in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and hence, any military standoff between Iran and Israel will directly drag Russia into the situation. In this respect, the first major strategy of Russia would be to deescalate the soaring tension between Israel and Iran. The Russian foreign ministry is closely monitoring the situation and they are in contact with both the Iranian and Israeli governments to deescalate the situation through the diplomatic channel. Unlike the United States, which is attempting to pressurize the Iranian regime, Russian Federation is keen to keep the war-case scenario at bay. Two days, ago when Israeli Mossad in collaboration with the American CIA attacked Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Iran, where he urged both sides to deescalate the situation.
#4. SS: the tensions between Russia and Ukraine are high. Could the situation turn into a military conflict?
SR: Since, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the diplomatic relations between Russia and its strategic neighbor Ukraine are stagnant. During the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian military elites openly told the Americans and her European allies that Ukraine is Russia’s lifeline and therefore, NATO should stay away from Russia’s strategic western border. But, over the span of a decade and half this promise was broken, even in his famous 2008 Munich Conference speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned and reiterated America and her allies about Russia’s red line. Hence, it was the American-sponsored Euro-maiden uprisings in Ukraine, which compelled Russia to respond harshly. But as far as Ukraine is concerned, Russia considers it as a potential country when it comes to its Eurasian Union project. In my opinion, Russia will not take the risk of war with Ukraine because it has never been the priority of the Russian government at all.
#5. SS: President Biden is interested in meeting President Putin for a summit. Do you think it will happen, and will it decrease the tension? What do you see as the main topics of discussion?
SR: I think for a long time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been saying in his public talks and interviews that he is open to any diplomatic engagement with the United States. According to the Russian President in order to initiate fruitful diplomatic talks, the US must stop the fake mainstream propaganda against the Russian federation. Nonetheless, the fact cannot be denied that as far as Russia’s strategic and geopolitical interests are concerned, Russia will do everything to protect them. Thus, the US must treat first Russia as a potential strategic and geopolitical competitor, not a second-rated global power. Perhaps, President Putin himself reiterated this fact in his various exclusive interviews with the US journalists like Megan Kelly.
In my opinion, in the face of complex international relations, the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US president Biden seems possible for three major reasons. First, the United States wants to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and the Biden administration has set the deadline of September 11. Hence as a potential actor in the Eurasian region, Russia will play a strategic role in the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. To cut it short, America badly needs Russia to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan after the US military departure.
Second, Russia is a potential stakeholder in the Syrian war, and thus, without the support of Russia, America will not be able to secure its geopolitical interests in the Middle East especially when it comes to regional and strategic balancing. Last but not least, the New Start Treaty is going to expire in 2022, in case of the failure of its renewal, America and Russia will fling into a new nuclear arms race. Hence, in my opinion, if the meeting happened, the above-mentioned key issues will remain central to the high-level discussion.