How Russia Views Newest Mideast Tensions As the Middle East deals with increased tensions with Iran and Iraq, NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute about Russia's influence in the region.
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How Russia Views Newest Mideast Tensions

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How Russia Views Newest Mideast Tensions

How Russia Views Newest Mideast Tensions

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani has stirred up the geopolitical and military dynamics of the region. One of the major players, of course, is Russia. Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, and she's here to tell us how Russia, a U.S. adversary, is viewing these developments.

Welcome to the program.

ANNA BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Thanks very much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote a post after the U.S. killed Soleimani, quoting a journalist who described the Kremlin's reaction to it as a, quote, "mixture of satisfaction, envy and admiration." Can you explain that? Why was there glee and envy?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: So according to this journalist, the envy comes from the fact that this act of killing Soleimani is interpreted as the fact that the United States still has primacy in world affairs. And then the complexity comes from the fact that there's so many other issues to talk about here. Russia and Iran have a very complicated partnership in the Middle East. And on the one hand, a weakened Iran could be an advantage for Russia. But at the same time, if Iran is too weak, that also presents a problem because then Russia cannot rely on Iran to do a lot of the heavy lifting in Syria that it's been doing up until this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain why a slightly weakened Iran would be a good thing for Russia - because they're allies, aren't they?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: They don't have a formal treaty, but as far as their behavior goes, absolutely. Russia always leaned closer on the Iran-Assad bloc in the Middle East. And the complexity here comes from a fact that ultimately, Russia doesn't want anyone stronger than itself. And in the Middle East specifically, Putin cultivated an image of somebody that can be a power broker. And so an Iran that's too strong could theoretically undermine that narrative, but at the same time, an Iran that's too weak can also be a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Iraqi parliament voted to work towards removing foreign troops from the country after that U.S. strike. The Trump administration insists that U.S. troops aren't yet planning to leave. But what would it mean for Russian influence in Iraq specifically if they did?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Yeah, that's a really important issue. Russia has been working very hard to return to Iraq. First of all, Russia opposed the U.S.-led intervention. And ever since, Russia has been working to return to Iraq, first of all, through energy deals, both with Baghdad and with Iraqi Kurdistan, through arms sales, also through soft power projection. So Russia has been trying to fill that space. Increasingly so, you - there have been more and more steps. And what I would also predict as another possibility - you could see Russian PMCs, private military contractors, coming to Iraq as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So maybe even having a presence in Iraq themselves, taking over that space militarily.

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: That's right. We've certainly seen that in Libya. And under Putin, Russia increasingly relies on this PMC model in its foreign policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about Syria briefly. Putin visited Assad shortly after Soleimani's assassination. Russia has a big presence in Syria, where, along with Iran, it's been supporting the Syrian regime in the civil war there. What do you see happening in the wake of this assassination in terms of that relationship?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Yeah. So I think the Kremlin's first worry with the killing of Soleimani was, who's the United States coming after next? Kremlin thinking is colored by a very paranoid fear that the U.S. sponsors regime change throughout the world and that ultimately, they themselves may be next. So I think Putin wanted to project strength. He wanted to project power at a time when he's worried. In specific links here, this goes back to the issue of, how stable is Assad? Will Russia have to commit more resources than necessary if Iran is too weak? Those are the issues that may be worrying him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do you think the U.S. is acting to sort of stop Russia from its own ambitions? I mean, Russia is trying to stop the U.S. Is the U.S. actively trying to stop Russia in the Middle East from its ambitions? Do you see that as a counterpoint, a counterpush (ph)?

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: No, unfortunately not. And this is - frankly, this is not new at all. This began under the Obama administration, and we're seeing a continuation of that under Trump. The United States has been very ambivalent about its position in the Middle East, and it's been a great opportunity for Russia to take advantage of. So we've named Russia as an adversary in our national security strategy, but we're not really competing with Russia in the Middle East.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anna Borshchevskaya, senior fellow at the Washington Institute. Thank you so much.

BORSHCHEVSKAYA: Thank you.

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