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Crimea’s Impact on Syria and Iran

Russian president Vladimir Putin has some decisions to make. (Photo:

Russian president Vladimir Putin has some decisions to make. (Photo:

There has been a lot of speculation lately about the impact of the Crimean Crisis on the situations in Syria and Iran. The current negotiations regarding these countries involve cooperation between Russia, the United States, and other countries now directly and indirectly involved on opposites sides of the Crimean question. Naturally, that bodes ill for the negotiations, especially if the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation heats up further, but we may be jumping the gun if we simply assume that these other matters will now come to a screeching halt. Russia may milk the West’s nervousness for all it’s worth, recently suggesting, for instance, that it might change its stance on the Iranian nuclear negotiations because of Crimea, but whether it actually does is another question. Let’s look at the issues individually in a bit more detail.


Syria is actually two issues, the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva and the chemical-weapons disarmament program that is already under way. As for the peace negotiations, Russia is unlikely to be helpful, but it was not particularly helpful before either. Moscow did get the Assad regime to show up at the negotiating table, as promised, but I have not heard that it has done much beyond that. Frankly, I do not expect them to, and my near-term expectations for the peace talks are not optimistic in any event. Negotiations will most likely depend on the course of events on the ground. So nothing is gained here, but, barring any major surge in arms deliveries, neither is anything lost.

The chemical disarmament program is another matter. First, remember that it was Putin’s idea (even if it came in the form of a response to an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary Kerry), not a request from Obama, although Obama gladly agreed to it. It is something that both sides want. As I see it, Putin had two factors motivating him on this. The pressure has eased on one of them, but the other remains as pertinent as ever.

First, at the time, Sep. 2013, Putin wanted to prevent the bombing of Syria. We tend to tell ourselves that the bombing of Syria was not going to happen because Congress was against it, and we tell ourselves that Putin knew it was not going to happen because, well, we decided it was not going to happen and Putin would have to know such an obvious truth. That impression is further reinforced for many Americans who see Obama as soft on defense and assume that Putin sees him that way, too. This, however, is not necessarily the case. First, despite the journalistic consensus, not all political scientists were sure that Congress could not be persuaded to bomb Syria if Obama really wanted to. Second, Russian hard-liners do not view the United States the way that U.S. hard-liners do. Where some Americans see the United States standing by while Russia has its way with its neighbors, Russians see the United States bombing Russian friends and clients—Serbia, Iraq, Libya—with impunity while Russia can do nothing to stop it. Russians see U.S. and European intrigue behind the removal of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. As for Congress, Putin is not particularly constrained by his legislature, and he saw Obama bomb Libya without so much as asking. Thus he took advantage of a perceived pause in the rush to war to offer Obama an alternative. Obama took it because removing Syria’s chemical weapons would be a serious accomplishment and, frankly, while gratifying to some, the bombing would have achieved neither chemical disarmament nor an end to the war.

Second, Putin most likely viewed the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal as a worthy objective In itself. Chemical weapons are not necessarily vital to the survival of the client state, and their presence in the war zone presents a wider threat. As long as they are there, the chance exists that they could be seized by rebel forces and used by them, either inside Syria or elsewhere. Among the foreign volunteers in the most radical Islamist rebel forces are a number of Chechens (from Russia, neighboring Georgia, and the émigré community in Europe) and possibly members of other Russian minorities. The last thing that Putin wants is a chemical stockpile going off in the North Caucasus or in Moscow itself.

If Russia has its own reasons for supporting Syria’s disarmament, then it may want to see that program continue despite the disruptions in other aspects of East-West relations. One encouraging sign has been a sharp increase in March in the pace of Syria’s delivery of chemicals for destruction. Once again, the fact that Syria’s chemical disarmament may benefit Russia does not make it a bad idea.


Iran is engaged in negotiations over the fate of its nuclear program and the fate of the international economic sanctions that have been imposed on it. The negotiations involve all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (and therefore Russia) as well as Germany. Iran, however, is not negotiating because of pressure from Russia. Iran is there because it wants to be. The new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister are pushing this, and they seem to have convinced Ayatollah Khamenei. The main threats to success, it appears, are not the Russians but spoilers within the Iranian regime and the U.S. Congress.

Could Russia disrupt the negotiations if it wanted to? Possibly. Iran’s main motivation is to remove the sanctions under which it has been suffering. Russia could break with the sanctions and offer Iran an out, but I think there are limits to that. Iran appears to be seeking a broader re-engagement with the outside world. Not only is it engaged in the nuclear negotiations, but President has recently visited Oman and, according to reports from the Middle East, he has sent an envoy to pursue a possible opening with its archrival Saudi Arabia. Moving closer to Russia does not further the broader goal. Beyond that, there are limits to what Russia can offer. After all, its principal exports, petroleum and natural gas, are not the items in shortest supply in Iran.

As I noted above, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov did raise the specter of a shift in Russian policy toward Iran as a result of the Crimean issue. The very next day, however, he was pressing Iran to modify its position on the Arak reactor, one of the key issues under negotiation, to “take international concerns into consideration.”

The Russian Economy

So, Russia was never likely to be too helpful in pressing Syria in the peace talks but wants the disarmament for reasons of its own. And Russia may not have that much influence over the Iran negotiations. Beyond that, Russia may not seek to expand conflict with the West because it cannot afford it. Today’s Russia is tied to the international economy much more than the Soviet Union was, and that has created vulnerabilities. People like to point out that much of Europe (especially Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and several other Eastern European countries) are dependent on Russian gas deliveries. That is true, but it is also true that Russia is dependent on the revenues. For both sides, the fact that gas travels by pipeline rather than ship makes it extremely difficult to switch suppliers—or customers—in the near term.

Moreover, the Russian economy is not in a strong position at the moment. It weathered the crash of 2008 fairly well because of large cash reserves, but lately it has been slowing. The GDP growth rate fell from 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 1.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013. With the crisis in Crimea, it could easily sink into recession even without sanctions. The newly imposed sanctions, dismissed as insignificant by so many pundits, have already shaken Russia’s currency and its stock markets. Russian bonds have been downgraded. Capital is fleeing the country. The credit outlook of the country’s biggest energy companies, state-owned and private, has been lowered. Moreover, the sanctions list targets a number of oligarchs who are close to Putin. Many international companies will now think twice before becoming involved in dealings with any of these convoluted corporate conglomerates. Last but not least, freezing foreign bank accounts may be a big deal for those politicians who went into politics mainly for the graft, and they are numerous in the Putin administration.

Do these factors mean that Putin will withdraw Russian forces from Crimea? That is not likely. He did not invade and annex the peninsula just to give it back the next day — which, by the way, does not mean that the United States cannot support Ukraine in other ways. That, however, suggests that Putin may look for other areas in which to offset the tensions he has created in Crimea. A sudden upsurge in violence in Ukraine or some other unexpected crisis could still change the overall calculation. Barring that, however, this could be encouraging for the issues surrounding Syria and Iran.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.