The Drivers of Russian Strategy in the Middle East

The Drivers of Russian Strategy in the Middle East
(Ilan Berman, July 12, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. An expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices. He has been called one of America’s “leading experts on the Middle East and Iran” by CNN.

Mr. Berman is a member of the Associated Faculty at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. A frequent writer and commentator, he has written for the Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the New York TimesForeign Policy, the Washington Post and USA Today, among many other publications.

Mr. Berman is the editor of four books – Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), co-edited with J. Michael Waller Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America (Lexington Books, 2015), co-edited with Joseph Humire, and most recently, The Logic of Irregular War: Asymmetry and America’s Adversaries (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) – and the author of four others: Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America (Regnery Publishing, 2013), and Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power (Encounter Books, 2015).

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of Iran’s Global Ambition, The Future of the War on Terror – ISIS and After, and Russia in the Middle East.


Robert Reilly:

Our speaker, Ilan Berman, is the Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), a great organization with which some of you may be acquainted. I am very well acquainted with it since I had the privilege of being Ilan’s colleague on and off over the years when I have been a Senior Fellow there. And we are happy to have Herman Pirchner, who is the President of longstanding of the American Foreign Policy Council, with us tonight, along with his lovely wife Liz.

Now, Ilan is an expert in a number of foreign policy and national security areas to include the Middle East, Central Asia, and certainly Russia. I think his first language was Russian, okay. He consults frequently for different parts of the government, including the agency with which some of you worked, and the Department of Defense. He is a frequent presence on Capitol Hill where he is asked to testify.

He is the author of a number of books, [including] Tehran Rising: Iran’s challenge to the United States [and] Winning the Long War, Retaking the Offensive against the Radical Islam. Two of the books which are for sale outside, which I am sure Ilan will be happy to sign for you after his talk: Implosion the End of Russia and What it Means for America. Do you have any timing on that, the end of Russia? And most recently, [he wrote] Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power. Ilan has edited a number of other books to which he has contributed. He is on the faculty of various places. He is a frequent presence in the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages and elsewhere. Without further ado, join me in welcoming Ilan Berman, who is speaking on “Russia, Islamism, and the Middle East.”

Ilan Berman:

Thanks very much, Bob, and so since you brought it up, I have to talk about the title of my book, my 2013 book on Russia called, Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America. I chalked that title up to an overzealous marketing department because the real thrust of the book is how Russia is changing, changing in terms of demographics, changing in terms of population, changing in terms of ideology, and my contention was that this may spell the end of Putin’s Russia, eventually. That is a little bit of a different thing but as we know, certain marketers are not known for nuance and therefore, what you have is what you get. But I promise you it holds up, mostly, I think, in the reading.

So, this is lovely. The last time I was here was a couple years ago when I regaled you all about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear deal and how it is going to empower a resurgence of Iranian influence throughout the greater Middle East. I am delighted to see that I was totally wrong, that the deal was the greatest thing that the Obama administration accomplished. We have nothing to worry about. But it does give you a little bit of a sense of the area that I tried intellectually.

I work, historically, thanks to Herman and the freedom I have at the American Foreign Policy Council, I have the ability to work in three areas. I work on Russia, where I am a native Russian speaker and where I have spent a fair amount of time. I work on the Middle East, broadly on Iran, and I work on radical Islamism or transnational Islamism. These used to be separate items. These are now all one big item in the Syria-Iraq space, so it actually makes my job both easier and much, much harder.

So, Bob and I talked a couple months back about me returning and coming to do a talk here at Westminster and the thing that I think really caught his fancy was this idea of how what is happening within Russia itself is having a profound impact on the way Russia sees the world, why Russia wants to be involved in the Middle East. A lot of it is what you would expect, imperialism and this expansionist impulse.

But a lot of it is driven by things that most Americans do not see, this ongoing demographic transformation, the rise of a radicalizing Muslim underclass in Russia. All of these have a profound impact on how Russia sees the Middle East, and how Russia is likely to behave in places like Syria, with countries like Iran, and how that is going to shape things.

So, without further ado, let me start by talking about codes and ciphers because I know some of you worked on codes and ciphers in a past life. I would say that the most important code and cipher that we had during the Cold War was something known as the Long Telegram. In 1946, George Kennan, who was then a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, wrote a cable back to George Marshall, talking about from his vantage point in Moscow what he saw as the drivers of Soviet foreign policy, what makes the Soviets tick, what do they want, what do they care about, what are they likely to do, and what can we hold at risk in response, right? There is really no overstating the importance of the Long Telegram.

The following year in 1947, it was published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym Mr. X because Kennan was still a government employee, but it was public under the title of, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” that was the official title of the article, and every single graduate student below a certain age and above a certain age has read this as part of their core curriculum because it really was the Rosetta Stone for understanding Soviet intentions. It was also the sort of – because knowledge is power – is also the formative intellectual document that allowed the creation of national strategies like NSC 68 because you need to understand your enemy to know how to fight the most effectively.

The reason I bring up Kennan and I bring up the Long Telegram is because there is currently no contemporary analog. We talk a lot about Russia. We talk very little about what Russia wants and what are the things that are propelling it to behave in certain ways, so I am not here to give you a lecture on the sources of Russian conduct, but in the short time that we have I wanted to talk about a few things that, from my vantage point, from our institutional vantage point, we think are having a fairly profound impact on shaping Russian behaviors, the Russian behavior broadly throughout the world but also specifically towards the Middle East and how it is propelling Moscow’s engagements.

So, the first driver I ever talked about would be this surface pervasive sense of imperial nostalgia. Back in 2007, Vladimir Putin, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, described the demise of the USSR as the, quote, “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Now, we may differ as to what the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century is. My parents lived in the Soviet Union. They would not term the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. But from Putin’s vantage point, it was that, it was the loss of status, the loss of territory, the loss of influence that accompanied the Soviet collapse. And so, it is not surprising that since then, his government under his control has made the reconstitution of a neo-Soviet sphere a top priority politically, in terms of foreign policy, in terms of national security.

What does it look like?

Well, politically it looks like arrangements such as the Russia-Belarus Union, which the Russians hammered out in the late 1990s to create a condominium approach towards the country of Belarus, which used to be a Republic of the USSR. It looks like the very broadly described policy on protecting compatriots, Slavs or ethnic Russian speakers, that exist both on the territory of the former Soviet Union and even beyond, even in the United States, that the Russians have claimed some strategic interest in.

In economic terms, this looks like the creation of this construct that Putin has championed with limited success, to be fair, called the Eurasian Economic Union, which he has tried to bind the countries of the post-Soviet space into an economic construct that is different from the European Union, and because you have to belong somewhere, but it is very hard to belong to multiple things at once, so you would much rather tether these countries to Moscow than to Brussels.

In security terms, this looks like the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or several other security blocs that all share the common feature of having Moscow or jointly Moscow and Beijing as being the driving forces behind what they do. The result is what a friend of mine sitting in Moscow with me a few years ago described, I think in the best way that I have ever heard, which is that this is a postmodern empire. It is an empire of dependency, not of actual territorial control. Unless you are in Ukraine, the Russian tanks are not necessarily coming over the transit. In Ukraine, they are, and in other places people fear that they will be soon, but in many other places the Russian influence is felt in economics, in politics, in culture rather than in actual territorial control, but it is a political connection, is a strategic connection, and it is vital, nonetheless.

And the reason this is so pervasive and the reason this is so popular is because it is not a Putin project. There is this concept for those of you that speak Russian of Держава (derzhava), the idea of Russia as a great power. It is really hard [to translate to a] direct analog into English, but it is a pervasive sense of Russia and Russia’s destiny as a great state, and that is why there is support for imperial expansion across the Russian political spectrum, right, all from the Russian Left to the progressive Russian Left, folks like Anatoly Chubais, right, the architect of Russia’s shock therapy reform, economic reforms in the 1990s, all the way to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great thinker and laureate, who gave a speech on the floor of the Russian Duma, the lower house of the Parliament, in the mid 1990s, which Herman has written about extensively, talking about the need to reconstitute a greater Slavic state. Right, so, put bluntly the reason Putin is successful at what he does is because the people support him, right? He is hewing that path in a fairly broad and settled continuum of Russian strategic aspirations that both the Left and the Right can aspire to.

The second driver of Russian policy both generally and in the Middle East is ideology. As a ten second tangent, I am a firm believer in the fact that many societies have canaries in the coal mine, individuals who are larger than life and if you follow their careers, you get a sense of the larger trajectory of the country itself. There is someone like that in Russia. There are many people like that in Russia, but there is a political thinker, an ideologue, a philosopher, although that is a little bit of a charitable term, named Alexander Dugin, who had the most important ideologue of empire that you have never heard of.

Alexander Dugin used to be a KGB archivist. He rose to power, became a consultant for the Kremlin for all the force ministries. This was the case about twelve years ago, and then he receded from view. He went into academia as Russian normalized its position, as Russia’s economy slowed down, as Russia became a little bit more pragmatic. Alexander Dugan is now back in his role as a consultant for Russian officials for – I do not know for a fact that he is a consultant for Putin, but certainly for that circle of Russian leadership. The things that he says, the things that he writes, and he writes a lot, let me tell you, as someone who has had the misfortune of having to read a lot of his stuff, he writes a lot and not altogether lucidly, by the way.

But the ideas that he encapsulates, that he captures, it is all about that, it is all about Russia’s destiny as a great power, as a great nation, and Russia’s destiny to be in conflict with the West. So, in his 927-page magnum opus, which he published in 1997, called Основы геополитики (Osnovy Geopolitiki), The Foundations of Geopolitics, he talks about the fact that Russia cannot exist, cannot exist, outside of its essence as an empire because of its geography, because of its historical disposition, because of its relations with its neighbors, and also because of its essence, because of its strategic culture as an empire, Russia is destined to be in conflict with the West, namely with the United States.

This is a pretty powerful message, and it is a message that resonates among people who chafe at that the idea that Russia has receded as a global power, and Russia is has been forced to assume a diminished status. It is also one that it is fed enormously by opportunism. Over the last eight years you have seen a fairly systematic retraction of American influence in the Middle East under President Obama.

Russia has, consistent with the old Russian phrase that Свято место пусто не бывает (Svyato mesto pusto ne byvayet) ‘a sacred space does not remain empty’ for long, Russia has rushed to fill that vacuum. And what that looks like is arms sales to the Egyptian government, it looks like military basing in Syria, and a myriad of other things that the Russians have done, not so much because it is part of a grand construct of Russian strategy, but because they want to be there because we are not, and that is, I think, part of a pretty large part of the equation because they think that they are destined to be.

The third driver is I think very natural to all of us here, right, we are in Washington. When he was House Speaker, Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics are local, and I think it is absolutely true, and I think it is true not only for us, but it is also true for Russia, as well. And so, what you see is this dyad of internal drivers that are really propelling Russia into the Middle East in a pretty significant way.

The first is economics.

The Russian economy has over the last couple of years weathered the one-two punch of Western sanctions imposed as a result of [the Russian invasion of] Ukraine and low oil prices, which have really wreaked havoc on their economy. Institutions like the World Bank and the IMF have now given them a – I would not say a clean bill of health, but a cleaner bill of health. They said they are slowly turning the corner, but if you talk to any Russians, any Russian officials, any Russians who understand the way the government works, they will tell you that there are serious systemic problems, structural problems in the Russian economy that are going to prevent real prosperity.

The consequences of this are that as Russia seeks to widen the pie, the economic pie, it naturally looks elsewhere. It does not look at grassroots, domestic prosperity, it looks at the rapacious acquisition of resources from abroad. It looks at defense contracts that are hammered out with international rogues like Iran. It looks at all sorts of arrangements that reinforce that imperial impulse that the Russians have anyway.

Herman and I had the dubious privilege, I think, of being in a fairly senior meeting in Moscow a few years ago. And I, you know, being young and stupid, I had the temerity to tell a senior Russian official, I think you guys are making a mistake in the Middle East because you have a pretty sizable Muslim minority and 98% of them are Sunni, and you are pursuing an accidentally Shiite policy in the Middle East. You are supporting Iran, you are supporting the Alawites in Syria who are almost Shiites in the Shiite conception, right? This is not going to end well for you. And I got the nice pat on the back, you know, silly boy, we are – to quote the official – controlling through investments, right? And that has been the traditional Russian way to think about it.

Pragmatically, at the end of the day, there are a lot of things that Russian money can do and that is how they have thought about it. And this I think goes to at least part of the way toward shaping why the Russians are so panicked about the rise of Islamism, about what they see as fundamentally irrational actors that they cannot control through investments, that it is harder for them to shape their behavior.

But the second trend in the basket of internal factors is demographics, and demography is a historically, chronically underserved topic in graduate schools, right? It is much sexier to talk about the nuclear triad than it is to talk about fertility rates and things like that. But demography is destiny, right? You cannot escape your geography, where your country is, and it is very hard to escape the cycle, the pace of your population, to change the pace of your population. And so, Russia is undergoing this very profound, far-reaching population transformation.

Russia does not have the worst fertility rate in the world, right? For those of you that do not understand demographics, the magic number for all demographers is 2.1. A woman during her fertile lifespan is supposed to have 2.1 children, one to replace yourself, one to replace your husband who cannot have any children, and 0.1 for on average for accidents, earthquakes and what have you, and there are countries in the world that are (in particularly the Muslim world) that are doing much better than 2.1, and there are countries that are doing much worse. Russia is not the worst. Russia is about on a par with Europe at about 1.7. The country that holds the dubious distinction of being the worst in the world is Japan, which is that 1.39, which is a long way of saying that the Japanese are rapidly going out of business, rapidly going out of it, but Russia is on a negative decline in terms of its population.

And remember when we think about Russia, this is an enormous landmass. This is a country that expands 9 separate time zones, and it has a population of less than half the size of the United States, right, which is why you get provinces and regions and Oblasts in the Far East, where the population density is less than that of Wyoming, less than 6 Russians per square kilometer, right, so the question really becomes a strategic one. How do you hold that territory if there are no people? And the answer is with a lot of difficulty.

But Russia’s demography may be bad, and there are all sorts of reasons for this, right? Russians continue to have this pervasive culture of abortion. Russia has not really invested [its] post-Cold War peace dividend on things like healthcare and the social safety net, which is why empirically, the life expectancy of a Russian male today is only slightly higher than that of a male from North Korea. Yeah, so what would you separately have is a country with third world demographic trends, but first world great power energy, right? And this has a profound impact for the health of the population as a whole.

But the population is not declining uniformly. In fact, there are segments of the Russian population that are doing comparatively much better. Russia’s Muslims are doing comparatively much better. Why? Because they drink less, they divorce less, and they on average have more children, right? There are all sorts of factors that feed into this, but the aggregate result is that Russia’s Muslims, who were roughly 16% of the overall national population just a few years ago, are on track to be 20% in the next few years. And then, beyond that it is all speculative, but there are trend lines that say that, you know, by the middle of the century every other Russian may be Muslim. I think that is a little bit severe, but there are projections like that out there.

But they do get you into the mode of thinking about, you know, this wholesale transformation of the Russian state. It is becoming something different than what we have historically expected it to be, but all this would be fine, right? All countries change. America is changing, right, where we are relying more and more on immigration from Latin America, and we all have our opinions about that. But like it could be a healthy thing, right, if you have a good integrationist policy, but the Russians do not, and so what you have seen is even as Russia’s Muslims become a larger and larger cohort in the national polity, they are increasingly systematically shut out of national politics because Vladimir Putin has built this hierarchical, rigid, ultranationalist identity that does not really have a lot of room for Russia’s Muslims. But you have to belong somewhere, which is why even as Russia’s Muslim underclass has grown, they have also radicalized because they have looked for different modes of identification, including, most conspicuously, first Al-Qaida and other Islamist movements, and now, the Islamic State, for the moment.

This, I think, needs three things, right? The imperial nostalgia and the strategic culture, and the demographics, and the economics sets you up for thinking about how Russia sees the Middle East, and because I think it is fair to say that the Middle East is not a core area of strategic importance for the Russians. They want to be there, but it is not indispensable for them to be there, right? If you talk to Russians, they will tell you that the territory of the former Soviet Union and slightly beyond are the areas that they consider their geopolitical backyards. The Middle East is a little further afield, but all of these drivers are propelling Russia further and further into the Middle East in a way that has profound implications for American policy and for whether or not we can cooperate with the Russians.

So, I will just give you two examples. The first is Syria, right, where the Russians since September of 2015 have entrenched themselves and they do not look like they are going anywhere, and there is a lot of things that have been written about it, but there is actually very little that has been written about why the Russians are there. I would make the case that the Russians are there essentially for four reasons. First of all, they are there to secure a strategic foothold because if Russia conceives of itself as a great power, the sine qua non of being a great power is that you have to be able to project power globally.

Syria was and remains Russia’s principal outpost in the eastern Mediterranean, pursuant to a military agreement made between the Soviet Union and Hafez al Assad, Assad the Father, back in the early 1970s. Russia’s Mediterranean flotilla has been based out of the port city of Tartus since the mid-1970s, and when Syria started to go, as our British friends would say, pear-shaped, the Russians got really nervous about the idea that they would lose their foothold, their existing military foothold in Tartus, and that shaped at least some of their calculation about the necessity to go in.

Since then, if you will notice, what the Russians have done is not a national plan for reconquest of Syria, it is a plan almost exclusively for the solidification of a long-term military presence, which is why the Russian naval base on the western seaboard of Syria has been doubled up with a Russian air base in Latakia just north of the Alawite enclave, and they are doing no-fly zones in an area that is roughly analogous, not to the entirety of the country, but to the area needed to protect the people that will let them remain in Syria over the long-term and maintain the military presence, right? They are essentially providing air cover for the Assad regime.

But as a result of their Syrian engagement, they have managed to construct an open-ended naval presence, they have deployed their aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the eastern Mediterranean. They are doing long-range rotations. Their position, if you are a Russian military analyst, is qualitatively better now, militarily, than it was before and that is all they were going for, right?

The second reason is political. Remember, historically, in terms of when the Russians made the strategic decision to go into Syria, their situation in Ukraine, which they thought was going to be a slam-dunk, was not going so well, right? I mean you can make arguments about how they are situated, about how their position is going now, [but] I think it is far more modest in terms of gains than they expected initially, but there was, at that time in September of 2015, there was an imperative to change the political conversation because Putin had sold the Russian population this bill of goods, that ‘we are going out, we are going to reconquer lands that are historically ours, we are going to, you know, put points on the board.’ And if you get bogged down in Ukraine, your gains start looking meager indeed, and you need to change the political conversation.

The third trend, and this I think is the most profound one, is that the best defense is a good offense. [There] is [this] fantastic speech and if you have the time, look it up. Vladimir Putin gave this speech in April of this year in which he talked publicly for the first time about what his government thinks the size of the Slavic and Central Asian contingent in the Islamic State is, right? So, we all knew up until then that there was a pretty healthy representation of Central Asians and Russians in ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but Putin’s comments were something of a revelation because what he said was that of the roughly 30,000 foreign fighters that have come from abroad to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, 9,000 of them were either from Russia or from the FSU, right, so a third of the foreign fighter problem in the Islamic State is Russian, right?

So, if you were a Russian strategist, you would much rather go there and kill them there than wait for them to come home, and so that is why you see Russian security services, force ministries, essentially facilitating the exodus of jihadis out of Russia. I mean they are clamping down, they are abusing them, but they are also helping them leave because the idea is we want them to get as far away from Russia’s national borders as possible, and then we want to go and fight them there.

So, what does this tell you? So, first of all, it tells you that from the Russian conception, Syria is not only an aggressive imperial policy, it is also a defensive policy. They would much rather [they] be in Syria than wait for these guys to come home. The second is that Syria is not for the Russians. Syria is an open-ended conflict. The Russians cannot leave because if they leave, those guys are going to return, right, so what they are essentially doing is they are building a firewall. And the third is that in this broad construct, the Russians really do not care so much about personalities, they care about policies. They do not care so much about Assad, they care about having a government in place that will secure their equities, whether it is their military basing or allowing them freedom of action that allows them to carry out their counterterrorism operations in a way that secures their homeland.

So, you know, in other words, long way of saying that compromise may be possible politically in Syria, depending on these things, depending on what the White House, what levers the White House wants to bring to bear. The less savory news, I think, is Iran. Over the last half year, you have seen a pretty healthy attempt by or thought process by the new administration about the idea of flipping Russia on Iran, right? It had a lot to do with Syria, it had a lot to do with how many things can we give the Russians so that they will help us contain Iran, squeeze Iran, sanction Iran anew, and underlying all of the speculation was this idea that the Russian-Iranian strategic relationship was impermanent, that it was fragile, that, you know, the Russians could be bought off.

I would actually make the case that that is extremely unlikely, and it is more unlikely now than it was before for three reasons. First of all, Russia sees Iran as a force multiplier. If you go back and look at the writings of Alexander Dugin, who I mentioned in his magnum opus, Osnovy Geopolitiki, which, by the way, I swear to you, is all one sentence or that is what it felt like anyway, but in that long meandering sentence was a lot of conversation about how Russia as it reclaims its place as a great power, right, this is not an automatic process. There are interim steps in which Russia needs alliances with countries like Germany, with countries like Iran in order to have this condominium that allows them to expand power in those regions, right? The concept of a Russian-Iranian strategic partnership is not alien to the Russian leadership. They may have no love lost for Iran’s ayatollahs, but they see them as a very useful tool, and the more powerful that Eurasianist vision is, the more permanent the relationship becomes.

The second reason is that Iran is a source of revenue for Moscow, right, so there was a time when Iran was under international and U.S. sanctions in which Iran was clearly the junior partner in that strategic partnership. Iran was squeezed out of global markets. Iran was in no position to dictate terms, but over the last two years, a whole bunch of things have changed. Iran has received enormous economic windfall as a result of the 2015 JCPOA, right, equivalent to (I was telling somebody earlier) the Marshall Plan, right?

I made this comment in congressional testimony. No, you laugh, but I made this comment in congressional testimony a couple of summers ago after the deal was signed, and the opposition witness yelled at me and said, “Oh, you do not know what you are talking about historically,” so I did this really strange thing and I actually looked it up. And the Marshall Plan, the European recovery program, was launched in 1948, extended over four years, and it allocated what would today be one $130 billion dollars to seventeen separate countries in Europe, right, so what you are actually talking about is the JCPOA is not a Marshall Plan for Iran, it is many Marshall Plans for Iran because the scope of the windfall is so massive that it has transformative effects on the Iranian economy and also on the Russian economy because as Iran has stabilized economically, you now have the shoe on the other foot, a Russia that is meandering in fiscal terms, is in greater need of economic partners that are solvent, that are strong, and that want to buy Russian wares.

So, when you see news about dozens of billions of dollars of new arms contracts that the Iranian signed with the Russians, this is the reason. The reason is the Iranians have the money, and the Russians really want their business, but it also means that Iran, increasingly for the Russians, is an economic lifeline. They are not a dispensable partner that they can just get rid of, right? The cost of doing that for them would be prodigious, so that adds to the permanence of the relationship, as well.

And the third is that Iran is their guarantor of a long-term presence in Syria, so for those of you that follow Iran, you know that the Iranian leadership talks with alarming regularity about how the security of Syria is exactly the same as the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They really do not differentiate. They have deployed massive asymmetric assets in the form of the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah into Syria to secure the Assad regime. There is no sense of flagging resolve on the part of the Iranians.

On the part of the Russians, I mean I think the conventional wisdom is that they are going to be there for a long time, but I do not know that I would bet that they would be there indefinitely because Vladimir Putin is getting a lot of grief. He is getting a lot of grief for Ukraine, he is getting a lot of grief for Syria in terms of monies extended, in terms of casualties that have been created as a result.

So, it is not inconceivable that he will begin to rethink it, which means what? It means that ultimately the Russians are going to need to sue the Iranians for long term access in Syria, right? The Russians will remain in Syria at the sufferance of whatever political constellation comes to power through the auspices of the Iranians, right? So, if the Russians want to stay in Syria there and I would contend that they do, they probably do not want to tick off the Iranians all too much and therefore it becomes really, I think, speculative to think about the idea that we could buy them off based upon the very thing that we cannot guarantee but the Iranians can.

This all takes us to the large debate that is swirling around Washington, which is: is it possible to cooperate with the Russians? And I would make the case that I think it is entirely reasonable to talk about areas of tactical cooperation where Moscow and Washington can really talk and work in a constructive way, everything from space launch to resupply in Afghanistan to cyber security, although the latest round of tweets have muddied that a little bit, but there are maybe half a dozen or so concrete areas tactically where you could actually sit down with the Russians, you could hammer out a pretty livable modus vivendi, but that is tactically.

And here I would say even on a tactical level, the question really is not whether the Russians are going to cooperate on counterterrorism, for example. Of course, they are, the Russians are deathly afraid of ISIS. They are going to bomb ISIS even if we are not there. The barometer, I think, for success on a tactical level is: are the Russians willing to do things above and beyond what they would do if we were not there, right? That is how you judge if they are a constructive, tactical ally, right? Everything beyond that is, well, frankly I think it misses the boat.

But on a larger strategic level, Moscow and Washington have deeply divergent interests in the Middle East, right? They envision very different end-states, and Russia sees itself historically, and as a result of the fact that while we have had a fairly significant generational changeover in our officials, they have had a much less profound one, right? The prevailing view in Moscow is that Russia is still the historical balancer of the United States in various regions, including in the Middle East. And so, it is not a surprise that Russia is structuring its posture in the Middle East to take advantage of places where we are not active, and also to oppose those in places where we are, right?

And so, the bottom line here is that the president has asked in various ways, sometimes in 140 characters, sometimes in more, whether it is possible to have a more pacific relationship with the Russians, and I think it is clear that he would like one. The reality though is that it takes two to tango, and I do not think the evidence is present that the Russian leadership, beyond the tactical areas where we can cooperate, really has undergone the strategic sea change where all the drivers that animate their push into the Middle East have fallen away, and we can come up with an arrangement in the Middle East that is not zero-sum. I will stop there.


Audience member:

Thank you very much for your presentation this evening, sir. I think of Putin in my old-fashioned way of being a KGB Colonel who is retired (semi), and I am amazed at his current speeches, which seem to portray that he is proposing to increase the faith role within his culture and other cultures. And I think back to Reagan’s joke about the beat crop, where the man explains that the beats will reach up to God. The Commissar said, you know, there is no God in Russia, and the man said there are no beats, either. I think of that atheistic approach that was pressed during Khrushchev’s time and so forth, and that is what I thought was Putin’s heritage. Would you comment on that?

Ilan Berman:

Sure, and I think this is really interesting because I think there is, going back to Soviet times there is a very organic relationship that has existed between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian governments before that Soviet government, in which the church is a distinctly political enterprise, and it is one that has been progressively co-opted under Putin. But going back to the point that I made about the sacred space never being empty, you guys remember two-and-a-half years ago when Vladimir Putin wrote that op-ed in The New York Times, essentially styling himself as a defender of Western civilization, right? So there is a Russian word for this. In Yiddish, it is חוצפה (Chutzpah), in Russian, it is наглость (naglost), right?

But that is precisely what it was, it was him trying to capture a narrative that the United States was not currently occupying. I think that he does have legitimate religious leanings within his own frame of reference as a retired or not so retired intelligence official, but I do think that he thinks that this narrative, especially now, has enormous resonance when the U.S. appears to be disengaged from the Middle East writ large. The U.S. appears to be disengaged from the plight of Christians in the Middle East. There are gains to be made by saying this, whether or not he is authentic, he is honest about it, that is a different story.

Audience member:

Ilan, can I ask you a question, getting down into the weeds on Russia? Visit the role of Ramzan Kadyrov [and] this whole expression between Putin and his Muslim minority and what is going on in Syria, and the dynamics along with that between him and Kadyrov.

Ilan Berman:

I am glad you asked me an easy question. That has actually really evolved, lengthy conversation, but in the thirty seconds that I have: Kadyrov is the Kremlin-appointed strongman, Muslim strongman, who was in charge of Chechnya, the historically restive Republic. Kadyrov is there and he is still there because he has proven himself to be a loyal soldier. He is one that, despite his excesses and there are many, the Kremlin can count on more or less to carry out its policies. And the condominium that the Russians government has built with Russian non-Muslim citizens over the last 20 years has essentially been you are going to trade away some of your rights and some of your human rights in exchange for us keeping the terrorist problem at bay.

And as a result, and this has worked reasonably well so far, but it is increasingly a challenge as Russia’s Muslim underclass grows, as it expands, and given the fact that Russia is the world’s second largest importer of migrant labor, most of it from Central Asia and most of those people are Muslim, Russia is increasingly feeling the pressure. And in that frame of reference, Russia needs loyalists of that type and Kadyrov is a very good loyalist. He is enormously brutal. The latest scandal coming out of Chechnya is that they have created internment camps for homosexuals, to which Kadyrov has responded that that is impossible because there are no homosexuals in Chechnya, right, which gives you a little sense of how he thinks he is to move around in the Russian political sphere, but also what he thinks he is allowed to do as a result of this relationship.

But not all Chechens share Kadyrov’s views, which is why you have this really interesting dynamic where there are a lot of Chechens disaffected with Kremlin-managed rule, who have left Chechnya, have left the North Caucasus, have migrated to Syria and Iraq, and are a fairly healthy part of the Russian part of the jihadist contingent there. And these guys, if you listen to what they say, if you read what they write, they are planning to come home, and that tees up a pretty significant internal struggle both within Chechnya itself locally and also on a national level about the disposition of Chechens writ large.

Audience member:

My question is about the conflict between American exceptionalism and Muslim terrorism. I agree with you by default they are in conflict, but is that conflict based on a religious and cultural basis or a national basis? So, my question is [whether] there is conflict with Islamic terrorism based on religious or cultural foundation or based on a national foundation because if it is based on nationalism, then Russia is our enemy, too. Thanks.

Ilan Berman:

I am going to studiously avoid this question as much as I can for a very simple reason because I think it actually starts a much broader conversation that absolutely needs to be had, but it is a little bit off of what I am talking about. What I would add where I think it is germane is how Russia sees itself vis-á-vis the Muslim world and whether or not it sees that there is a conflict.

I always like to I come bearing gifts. I come bearing little known facts. You guys all know what the OIC is, right? It is the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It used to be known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Back in 2003, when it was still known as the Organization of Islamic Conference, they had their annual meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and Vladimir Putin petitioned to go and address the OIC plenary session, kind of like the General Assembly, and he delivered a speech in which he said that he understands that based upon prevailing demographic trends, Russia’s future is Muslim.

Think about that. That was 14 years ago. That is a pretty profound statement. That does not mean that the Russians will go quietly. I think any Russian military man will tell you that it will be the last Slav standing that is carrying the nuclear football. Nonetheless, the pull of demographics is a pretty powerful thing and so there is a real question here that we need to think about when we think about the permanence of our partnership in counterterrorism with the Russians. When you have a country that is heading in this direction demographically, sooner or later there will reach a tipping point where it may not be possible to think about them in such certain terms about being an erstwhile ally in the War on Terror.

And I would make the argument that based upon what the Russians are experiencing now, they are likely in the near future to become not a producer of security in this realm, but a consumer of security because if you look at what has happened in Russia over the last six months, they have had a series of sporadic terrorist incidents, Russian officials are very concerned that this is the start of something larger because every war must end and foreign jihadis, a third of whom are from the post-Soviet space, are going to try to make their way back.

How successful they are in returning remains to be seen, but if they return in anything resembling the numbers that followed the Afghan jihad into the early 1990s, Russia is in for a world of hurt. You are not going to see isolated incidents. You are going to see a much more systemic uptick in violence. Russia is going to turn inward. It is going to become enormously repressive because it is heading in that direction anyways. It is going to become more so, but over the long term we should be thinking not only about whether it is desirable or feasible to cooperate tactically with Russia in the War on Terror, I think you can make a very credible case that we should cooperate against ISIS, but beyond that what is Russia’s trajectory? What does that actually mean for the permanence of the West and for the permanence of that partnership?

Audience member:

There are two kinds of Slavic jihadists. One is the old jihadist, and one is the nationalist, and that is specific to Chechnya. The biggest source of jihadists who go to fight in Iraq and Syria come from western Siberia. The biggest number who go to Iraq and Syria today are Russian-speaking, self-educated, young people of Muslim origin in the Caucasus, in Tatarstan, in Dagestan, more or less controlled by the local ulema, by the local mullahs. Nationalists fight in the Caucasus, Islamists go from western Siberia, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Ilan Berman:

I think that is true historically, I think things are beginning to change a little bit. I have to tell you I have to answer the story with a story. My boss, Herman Pirchner, is a very soft-spoken gentleman, so sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake and it takes me a little while to figure out what he wants. I had been threatening to write a book about Russian demographics for years and he wanted get me to get off the stick and actually do it, so he comes to me one day and he says, Ilan, you and I are going to do a field study in Russia, in the middle of Russia, in December and January, at which point I realized that I am got to do this once and only once, and then I am going to write the book. But it was interesting because it was enormously cold and we were standing one of the central streets of Kazan, the historic seat of Russian Tatar Islam, and [I was] looking at the Islamic University of Tatarstan.

To back up a little bit: Muslims historically in the Russian Empire settled in two places. They settled in the North Caucasus and they settled in what is called the Volga region around the Volga River to the east of Moscow. We are in Tatarstan, which is in the Volga region, and we are standing there, we are about to go into a meeting at the Islamic University of Tatarstan, and we sit there. We sit down with the rector, and he looks across the street and he says those guys, and he points to this mosque, which had been built by the Turks a few years ago, he said those guys are different. I said what are you doing about it? He clearly meant that they are Salafi. What are you doing about it? He is like, we have no answer, and that is a very interesting dynamic that is happening within Russia itself.

Traditionally, the Russian state has successfully co-opted the Islamic narrative. They found Imams and Muftis who are essentially okay with a fair amount of autonomy as long as they do not challenge the legitimacy of the Russian state. They do not practice it as an insurgent religion, but increasingly, you see these external elements, whether they are Iranian or they are Turkish or they are Saudi, that are entering into the Russian Islamic space in a way that the Russian authorities cannot really combat. And a lot of that mobilization that takes place in the context of Russian Muslims stems from them.

A really interesting vignette; Tatarstan is the seat of traditional moderate Islam in Russia. The black flags of ISIS appeared first not in the Caucasus, they appeared first in the Volga region. Why? Because this is the place where the ideology has made greater inroads because there are differences, there are cultural differences. You have the legacy of the self-determination struggle, but nonetheless, this is a pretty fertile environment for alternative ideologies because, as I said, you have to belong somewhere, and if the Chechens increasingly believe that they do not belong in Chechnya because Chechnya is complying to the Kremlin, and you do not belong in Tatarstan because traditional Russian Islam is old and stale and kind of boring, you have got to belong somewhere. That goes at least part of the way towards explaining why groups like Islamic State, groups like Al-Qaeda are so appealing.

Audience member:

I find your insights very thought provoking. Unfortunately, one of the thoughts that is starting to form in the back of my mind is that based on what you have said, I am starting to think that the Russians will do anything to frustrate a truce or a ceasefire that would last and bring about some a stagnant situation because of the fear that with the lessening of hostilities, some of those guys are going to come home. Is that a valid observation?

Ilan Berman:

I think to a point it is. I think it is conceivable to think of a political condominium that emerges. Assad must go, as we have said, but maybe the structure of his government remains, and remains in a way that protects Russian equities, and it alleviates some of the other elements. And then what you are going to see is them lobbying for expanded military overflight rights to make sure that they can continue their aerial campaign. They have secured the political ground, they want to make sure that these guys do not come back, and what I actually think is a fairly significant future point of Russian attention is going to be securing the borders, making the Russian Federation as impermeable as possible.

It is impossible to make it totally impermeable because Russia relies a lot on migrant labor, so you have this dynamic in terms of [the] economy that works against essentially just keeping these guys at arm’s length, but nonetheless, within that milieu I think you are going to see a much sterner approach to border security, to intelligence sharing, to leaning on the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia to make sure that these [states] remain a buffer zone, so the foreign jihadists that Russia has exported do not become an import.

Audience member:

Ilan, how do you think President Trump’s speech in Poland has been received by the Russian authorities, in particular this reference to not allowing Eastern European nations to be held hostage over energy supplies?

Ilan Berman:

It is a great question. The Poland speech I found very refreshing, refreshing because it comes on the heels of all this speculation, a lot of heat, not a lot of light, about what the president actually thinks about Russia. Look, I think it was clear up until now that we have an administration that would like to entertain the idea that it is possible have a more pacific relationship with Russia, and I think he has made that very clear in his personal statements, the statements of his advisers, but personnel is policy, and so if you start looking at the people that he surrounded himself with, General McMaster, who literally wrote the Army’s playbook on confronting Russia in Eastern Europe. Literally like you can go get it on the Internet. Fiona Hill at the National Security Council, General Mattis at the Defense Department, and most recently, the appointee for the special envoy for Ukraine; what you are getting is a sense that there is a corpus of people who are able and willing to play the bad cop to Trump’s good cop in the approach to Russia.

I think Trump wants to be good cop as much as he can, but he is perfectly willing to staff up with people that can really have a countervailing strategy, and I think that is good news ,and I think it is good news that he said all the right things about reassuring alliance solidarity, about creating the necessary firewall to protect the integrity of Eastern Europe because I can tell you that in a lot of these places, the grand sweep of history is not so long, and so they understand that their independence, which was very hard-fought, is very fragile. And what they worry about in many places is the negative example of Ukraine, not that Ukraine is not going well for the Ukrainians.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was here a couple of weeks ago, and by all accounts from my Ukrainian friends, the visit was on balance very positive, but what countries that are not Ukraine are worried about is that if there is somehow a political settlement in Ukraine that leaves Russia in a better position than it was in September of 2014, then the lesson that is learned by the Kremlin is that you should take a maximalist position in other parts of the former Soviet Union because then you can sue for peace, and then you still end up in a better place than you started.

There is this old Russian saying, which I say, and Herman says all the time, ‘the appetite comes with the eating,’ and I think that is very true when you think about Russia’s approach to former holdings that it believes that it should still hold. In that context I found the speech enormously refreshing and heartening. Whether it is matched by concrete action is a different story entirely and I think that chapter has not been written yet.

Audience member:

Hello, hi, I wanted to ask you to come back to Tatarstan. [Looking at] a number of moves by Putin’s administration [toward] the new President of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, [can you comment on what] I would not call [the] autonomy, but the independence of his authority versus the previous president, Mintimer Shaimiev.

Ilan Berman:

I think it is an interesting question and I think you are much more versed in Tartar politics than I am. I confess I have not really kept current, but I can tell you that when I was writing my book a few years ago and I was looking at all these local publications, what struck me as a really pronounced trend was that this reintegration, this harmonization drive to lessen autonomy, to bring these local officials, local Imams more into the fold was prevalent even then. And I think the more the Russians are fearful of this external influx of jihadis to start to come back in and resettle in places where they used to live, and also the natural impulse to create what Putin has called the ‘power vertical,’ this vertical structure of power that leaches power away from the regions, into the federal center, into Moscow.

I think those things work hand in glove to suggest that if you are Putin and you are looking at Tatarstan, where you have had some religiously-based unrest, you want to keep a tighter hold on these guys than you would otherwise, autonomy be damned.

Audience member:

Okay, I would like to ask a question about your overall conclusion, which I thought was brilliantly argued and well-founded. Yes, we can only have pragmatic cooperation in specific areas. This has been true ever since 1991 in practice, but every time this happens [it] brings a reset, which every president and every new President of Russia has also undertaken, and it has been a very heavily ideological reset aimed at a broad change in relations, without which most of that pacific cooperation would not have occurred. Can we achieve the pragmatic corporation now and push into the background some of our recent confrontation without this broader reset even if it is likely to be doomed to fizzle? That is the immediate pragmatic question for you.

The broader question is [whether] there is a logic to this larger ideological reset, with communism gone, with both of our societies rooted in Christian heritage (I say that as unbelieving Jew, but nevertheless, the same civilizational origin mostly), facing similar threats from Islamic extremism, and many other things, and similar demographic challenges, broadly, given it is much worse in Europe and Russia than over here, similar interest vis-á-vis the third world. Is there a logic to the thought that we should be able to come to a reset that really does set and hold someday, whether or not it really works this day?

Ilan Berman:

I think that is a great question and I think there is, as I said, there is a basis for suspecting that you can absolutely do that on a tactical level if you can take the romance out of it. Identify areas where you can cooperate with the Russians, and also, by the way, as I said, set benchmarks in which you can actually see that the Russians are helping, they are not just bombing ISIS, they are doing constructive things.

But the larger, strategic reorientation, unfortunately, I think has been based around [bad assumptions about what motivates Russian behavior]. One of the reasons why I started with trying to explain a little bit about how the Russians see the Middle East, and how the Russian see the world is because we really do not do that. If we are Republicans, we look into Vladimir Putin’s soul. If we are Democrats, we think the Russians are just like us and we should be able to do a deal. But the reality is they are animated by very different considerations. [That] does not mean they are bad, and it does not mean that they are necessarily diametrically opposed, but I think you run into tremendous problems if you do not acknowledge what makes them tick, and you simply assume that the same things that make you tick are the things that make them tick because, frankly, that was the policy of the last eight years. We understand that we have moved backwards from the reset.

And I will end with this because I know Bob is going to give me the hook in a second, okay. In March of 2009, Hillary Clinton went to (I think it was Vienna) to do the reset with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. This was right when the Staples Corporation had their easy button campaign. You guys remember the red button, ‘easy?’ So, she thought it would be a swell idea to have a reset button, and so she did it, and so she asked whoever you know twenty-pound brain, linguistic brain in the State Department to- well, anyway that is a separate conversation.

There is no exact translation of reset in Russian. There is something called перезагрузка (perezagruzka), which is essentially a reloading, like a reloading of the operating system, and that would be fine. If the button had said perezagruzka, it would be great, but the button said перегрузка (peregruzka), which means overload, as in we are completely outmatched by the Russians, and we do not have a good idea of what to do, have a button. And that I think it is a very apocryphal story as to how we completely misunderstood how our overtures were perceived in Moscow, so I hope I have given you guys just a little bit of a taste about how to think a little bit differently.

Robert R. Reilly:

I am going to ask for the privilege of asking the last question. In the context of what Ira just asked you, what would they be willing to trade relief from the economic sanctions for, and would it involve anything in the Middle East? How much does it hurt them? It seems to be the principle of not the only weapon the West deploys against Russia regarding actions in Ukraine or anywhere else that we do not want.

I think that is a good question. I actually have you a causality problem with that question though because we, Americans, are the big guy on the block, and we assume that when we do something that is the causal reason for an effect to happen. So, we impose sanctions, and we assume that the Russian economy is floundering because of our sanctions. That is only partially true, I think. You can make a fairly credible economic argument that a much more powerful, centripetal force has been exerted by the low price of world oil, and the Russian dependence on oil and natural gas exports and things like that. It does not mean that our sanctions are irrelevant. By the way, also the Russians have also done all sorts of stupid things like they voluntarily imposed a ban, an internal ban on food stuffs from the European Union, and things like that because like, you know, I am going to spite you by biting off my nose and, you know, I think it is a great idea.

But nonetheless, I mean this is a multi-causal problem and what I worry about in that broad sweep is that the sanctions were imposed based upon a concrete response to a specific thing that the Russians did: Russian aggression in Ukraine, Russian annexation of Crimea, Russian ongoing destabilization in the Donbas. And if we disaggregate that, if we start offering them sanctions relief in exchange for their cooperation in the Middle East, the lesson might very well be that, well, you know if we wait this out long enough, the Americans lose focus and then we can do whatever we want in Ukraine, and that is probably not a constructive lesson.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you.

Ilan Berman:

Oh, by the way, I would be a terrible salesman if I did not say that this was spelled out much better in my book, which you can buy over there. Thank you.