On the Navalny effect, the new China-Iran agreements, and Russian entrenchment in Lebanon
By Ksenia Svetlova | April, 2021
Are U.S.-Russia relations heading toward a powerful blowup in coming months? After an exchange of hostile messages in the media (President Biden was asked by an ABC reporter whether President Putin was a murderer and his answer was affirmative), imposing of further sanctions on Moscow, issuing of a special intelligence report on Russian intervention in the 2020 elections, and return of Russian ambassador to the United States, such a blowup seems inevitable. The new U.S. administration has assumed power with the determination to take action against the Russian impact in various areas – from intervention in the elections, through cyberattacks, to human rights violation – assertively and forcefully.Between Navalny and the Donbas
Two significant developments may add more fuel to the fire. The first is the deteriorating health of Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was imprisoned upon his return from Germany, where he underwent medical treatment. Navalny has been on huger strike for the past two weeks, which poses a direct threat to his health. Between the attempted poisoning he has escaped by the skin of his teeth, the tough prison conditions, and life-threatening hunger strike, Alexey Navalny – who exposed multiple incidents of government corruption, and continues to do so while in prison – has become a powerful symbol of opposition to Putin's regime. In fact, the Kremlin has created a new hero who is constantly being covered by world media, and is garnering tremendous support across Russia. The Russian government is now trapped – releasing Navalny or improving his prison conditions may be interpreted as succumbing to American and European pressure. However, if any harm should come to him, if he should fall ill or die, Russia would undoubtedly have to face further sanctions, perhaps even more painful than the current ones, whereas Navalny's status and popularity would grow even further.
The second significant development was another round of tension between Russia and the Ukraine. The former continues to bolster its forces on the Ukrainian border (In the meantime, Russia has announced it was withdrawing its forces), and threatening to wage a war that will "end the Ukraine", while the United States is sending battleships to the Black Sea, and the Ukraine is demanding to become a member of NATO. Is Russia really preparing for war or simply conveying a message to the U.S. administration? It's possible that, when Putin moves his forces to the Ukrainian border, he is actually attempting to force President Zelensky to accepts Russia's terms to the peace accord, i.e., complete surrender, before Biden manages to piece together his own policy on this matter. It is highly unlikely that Russia is actually interested in war at present, but its forceful step is designed to deter and trouble not only the Ukraine, but other countries in the post-Soviet sphere, as well as signal to the west that it is capable of exacerbating the situation on many fronts. Perhaps Israel, whose ties with Russia in recent years have been positive and close, should prepare accordingly.
Why is Russia concerned about the new Iran-China agreement?
The Kremlin has welcomed the new economic and security partnership agreement between China and Iran, expected to pave the way for multi-billion Dollar Chinese investments in Iran, announcing the "beginning of a new era"; however, Moscow is also voicing its concern that the new agreement would breathe life into Iran's crushed economy. Whereas many in the west write about "the new power triangle" that will challenge the United States and pose a problem for Israel, Russia foresees other potentially negative aspects. The new deal between China and Iran also has a military component, and China could ask to expand its activity to Iranian soil. Russia is also planning to use the Iranian ports at Bandar e-Bushehr and Chabahar as its front bases. Chinese activity in the same areas could turn into a bone of contention between the two countries, and challenge ties between Moscow and Tehran.
Iran's economic strengthening may even impact its activity in Syria. Iran and Russia view Syria's future very differently, and are competing for clout in its various areas. Thus, although Russia stands to gain from the new alliance forged between Iran and China, its own relations with the two countries are quite complex, laced with suspiciousness and wariness. Even if the western sanctions are pushing all these partners into each other's arms, the current conflicts and adversary between the parties to the Russian-Chinese-Iranian axis in the Middle East are not expected to vanish in the near future.
Hizballah's embassy in Moscow and Russian entrenchment in Lebanon
A Hizballah delegation visited Moscow several weeks ago, and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The visit took place at the same time as that of Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabi Ashkenazi, and this was probably no coincidence. Moscow's relations with both Israel and Hizballah are good, despite what may seem as a contradiction. When Hizballah announced its intention to set up an independent representation in Moscow, the Russians did not officially deny it. Russia also fought alongside Hizballah to save Bashar Assad in Syria, but now views the Lebanese organization as an important key to increasing its impact in Lebanon. Russian companies are expressing their interest in the Lebanese gas reserves in the Mediterranean, Russian diplomats are frequently visiting Beirut, and, over the past 12 months, have even offered to mediate between the various Lebanese factions. Russia does not only view Lebanon as a strategic extension of Syria; it regards it as a strategic country along the Mediterranean coastline, and utilizes its weakness to take it under its wing. In recent years, Russia has enhanced its activities in Christian centers, positioning itself as the protector of local Christians, but, at the same time, has also become much closer to Hizballah. Undoubtedly, if Israel and Hizballah were to renew their hostilities, Russia would be in the perfect position to act as intermediator, whether or not the Hizballah embassy would ultimately open in Moscow.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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