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.

Transcript

Robert Reilly:

Our speaker, Ilan Berman, is the Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, a great organization with which some of you may be acquainted. I’m very well acquainted with it since I had the privilege of being Ilan’s colleague on and off over the years when I’ve been a senior fellow there and we’re happy to have Herman Pirchner, who is the president of long standing of 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 Ukrainian and Russian named Russian and Ukraine no it was Russian okay. Well, he goes to Ukraine a lot, so I got confused on that one.

He consults frequently for different parts of the government, including the agency to wit with which some of you worked, and the Department of Defense is a frequent presence on Capitol Hill where he is asked to testify.

He’s the author of a number of books infused me, Tehran Rising: Iran’s challenge to the United States, Winning the Long War, Retaking the Offensive against the Radical Islam, two of the books which are for sale outside, which I’m sure Ilan will be happy to sign for you after his talk, Implosion the End of Russia and What it Means for America. If you have any timing on that the under and, excuse me, most recently, Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power. Ilan has edited a number of other books to which he’s contributed. He’s on the faculty of various places he’s a frequent presence and the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages and elsewhere without further ado join me in welcoming Ilan Berman, who’s speaking on “Russia, Islam, 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’s 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’s 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 sort of give you a little bit of a sense, sort of the area that I tried intellectually.

I work historically. Thanks to Herman and sort of 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’m a native Russian speaker and where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. I work on the Middle East sort of broadly in Iran and I work on radical Islamism or transnational Islamism. These used to be separate items. These are now all one big item, right. in the sort of 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 sort of 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’s 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 sort of this expansion impulse.

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

So without further ado, let me 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 when, 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 of a sort of 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 formula to 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’m not here to give you a lecture on the sources of Russian conduct but sort of in the short time that we have I wanted to talk about a few things that sort of, 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 sort of how it is propelling Moscow’s engagements.

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