Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained that Russia’s foreign policy when it came to Iran was “schizophrenic.” I would argue that it is less a case of schizophrenia, and more a reflection of the fact that Russia does not have a singular foreign policy, but multiple foreign policies.
Even if we think that the current Russian government is more autocratic than democratic, it is still a pluralistic entity when it comes to policymaking. In the old tsarist system, the emperor might have been the supreme autocrat, but he was often pulled between different, competing policy choices backed by different power centers. Eugene Schuyler, an American diplomat posted to Russia in the nineteenth century, observed:
Each minister being independent and responsible only to the Emperor, there . . . can be no united policy. The councils of ministers do not so much discuss questions of policy as questions of detail, the solution of which depends on two or three ministers jointly. . . . it is possible for a measure to be put into operation although it may be contrary to the ideas and desires of the Foreign Office.
In the present Russian system, the president is formally in charge and sits at the apex of the policymaking pyramid, but he is often a reconciler and balancer of diverging interests rather than being in a position to implement his “autocratic will” through the ranks of the bureaucracy. Since 2008, the situation has been muddied by the emergence of two coequal power centers around the president (Dmitry Medvedev) and the prime minister (Vladimir Putin). As Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders noted, both Putin and Medvedev “routinely [act] to blur the [constitutional] lines; Medvedev summons ministers who report to Putin to issue public instructions on the economy, while Putin often takes a visible role on security and foreign-policy issues.”
Analyst Kirill Rogov, in looking at the current situation in Russia, commented in Novaya Gazeta that is not that Russia lacks a government, but that “we have at least three Governments”—each grouped around different clans and with different institutional power bases. At the center, Putin (and Medvedev) must find policy approaches that address the needs and concerns of these different blocs, in order to avoid any sort of destructive rivalries that pull apart the entire governing structure.
When it comes to Iran policy, there are a number of different actors at play. The modernizers—those who argue that Russia needs the active support (and investment) of the West in order to develop its economy and society—have pushed for the Kremlin to accommodate U.S. concerns about Iran. In order to facilitate a “modernization alliance” with the United States, particularly in the sphere of high technology, the Obama “reset” needed to be supported. As a result, I feel that it is no accident that the Obama administration submitted the 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with Russia for approval as the Kremlin moved to back stronger sanctions at the United Nations (and also failed to provide diplomatic backing for the Turkish-Brazilian initiative with Iran). Moreover, Russian companies with significant interests in the United States—such as LUKOIL—have begun to terminate operations in Iran, in order to be in compliance with additional sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress on Iran.
But while the promise of closer cooperation with the United States is one factor driving Moscow nearer to the U.S. position, there is a long-established series of commercial relations between Tehran and Moscow that are vitally important to a number of sectors of the Russian economy—and which provide orders for Russian companies, particularly in the defense sector. Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko concluded a “road map” with his Iranian counterparts to lay out the parameters for “long-term cooperation in oil, gas and petrochemicals” that would deepen the partnership “in transportation, swaps and marketing of natural gas, as well as sales of petroleum products and petrochemicals,” including the construction of a liquefied-natural-gas plant in Iran and the possible creation of a joint Russian-Iranian bank to finance these projects. Moreover, the deal to supply the S-300 air defense system appears not to have been cancelled outright, but only suspended.
Andranik Migranyan has argued that for all of these different stakeholders in the Russian-Iranian relationship to acquiesce to a major shift in Russian policy toward Iran (in favor of the U.S. position): “the United States has to come up with something that would outweigh everything that the current Russian-Iranian relations have to offer.” But this also means that the Russian side would be able to produce a coherent list and enforce it across all of its stakeholders. But since Washington cannot offer everything, and because those parties inside the Kremlin that support continued Russian-Iranian ties cannot be pushed out of the policymaking process, we will have what journalist Vladimir Radyuhin has called a “zig-zag approach.”
This is not schizophrenia; instead, we appear to have a compromise in place: acquiescence to UN sanctions on the part of the pro-Iranian constituencies—and accepting the limitations they place on Russia’s interactions with Iran, including prohibiting further military-technical cooperation, in return for not accepting the expanded list of sanctions adopted by the U.S. unilaterally—leaving further cooperation in the energy field open. After all, as Shmatko himself emphasized last week, “No sanctions will hinder our cooperation in hydrocarbons. It does not contradict either the U.N. Security Council sanctions or international law.” The modernizers gave Obama the diplomatic victory he needed to demonstrate that his “reset” has borne fruit; the statist factions, which have tended to support the “bird in the hand” of existing Iranian contracts instead of a hypothetical “bird in the bush” of unspecified future investments from the United States, still keep some of their business opportunities in Tehran.
This “balanced approach” (from the Russian perspective) can and will continue until one of several things happen: Iran could itself terminate its contracts with Russia because of the steps taken by the Kremlin to accommodate the U.S. position. The U.S. Congress could block the Obama administration’s efforts to facilitate closer ties with Russia. Or Iran could cross the nuclear threshold and thus force Moscow to explicitly choose whether to support confrontation or accommodation.
This is why the outcome of the September talks restarting dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 is so important to Moscow. If those talks can produce an agreement on a fuel swap for the Tehran research reactor—and in so doing, start a longer-term, viable diplomatic process—then the compromise reached within the Kremlin can continue.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.