By Baria Alamuddin
December 16, 2019
Donald Trump’s punitive policies are having the unexpected consequence of creating a tactical marriage of convenience between Russia, China and Iran. Traditional rivals Moscow and Beijing have just inaugurated a $55bn joint gas pipeline project and the three states are about to embark on joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean. During his summer visit to Moscow, President Xi Jinping hailed Putin as his “best friend,” and set the goal of bilateral trade reaching $200 billion in 2024.
“Iran, Russia, Turkey, and China have something in common in that they have been facing pressure from the Americans,” explained one Iran expert. “As much as the unilateral approach of Donald Trump is a danger to Iran, it’s a danger to Russia, China and other countries.”
Russia and China regard Iran as a testing ground for neutralizing the impact of international sanctions. China’s government has quietly counselled its companies (heavily invested in Iran’s oil sector) to remain in the Iranian marketplace, while the US recently imposed sanctions on Chinese entities for illegally facilitating the transport of Iranian oil. Moscow has pledged to ignore US sanctions against Iran’s banking sector: Iran’s Central Bank governor announced that Moscow and Tehran had aligned their banking systems, circumventing the internationally scrutinized SWIFT network. Russia recently agreed $5 billion in additional loans to cushion Tehran from sanctions and domestic unrest.
After Iran’s attacks in September on GCC oil infrastructure, President Hassan Rouhani travelled to Ankara for a meeting at which he, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin provocatively mocked US defense systems, while Putin touted the benefits of purchasing military equipment from Moscow. This coincided with Iranian armed forces commander Mohammad Bagheri touring Chinese military installations, and an Iranian delegation discussing major trade deals for integrating Iran into Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
These are furthermore the three most aggressive states in waging cyberwarfare, while also building walls between their citizens and global internet content. Beijing has ordered officials to remove Western technology from their offices, mirroring US punitive measures against companies such as Huawei and moving us toward a technological “cold war.”
Putin is a ruthless repressor of human rights; China has incarcerated over a million Uighur citizens and seeks to undermine democracy in Hong Kong; Iran has again murdered hundreds of its own citizens in a bloody crackdown. Turkey, meanwhile, has embarked on a vicious program of ethnic cleansing against Syria’s Kurds. China and Russia’s UN Security Council seats allow them to shield themselves and other rogue regimes from international justice.
When Trump announced that he would surrender northern Syria to Turkey, it was Moscow that brokered understandings between Erdogan and Assad about how key segments of Syria would be carved up between them; consolidating Putin as the broker of choice in Middle Eastern conflicts. His payoffs come in the form of new military bases and monopolies over natural resources concessions.
Russia has signed contracts to sell sophisticated radar systems to unidentified Middle Eastern countries, thought to include Syria and Iraq. It would be bitterly ironic if the impact of Israeli airstrikes on paramilitary bases in these states was to drive Damascus and Baghdad more closely into Moscow and Tehran’s defensive embrace.
While China has embarked on massive infrastructure projects across Africa, Russia is the continent’s largest weapons supplier. Putin hosted 43 African heads of state at Sochi in October. In Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sudan and elsewhere Russian mercenaries have been operating in exchange for lucrative mineral and oil concessions.
Ankara last month signed a maritime borders and defense agreement with the Tripoli regime in Libya, and indicated readiness to send troops. Meanwhile Moscow provides mercenaries and equipment for the rival forces of Khalifa Haftar — yet another example of the tortuous relationship between strongmen Putin and Erdogan as they carve out respective zones of influence.
Russian meddling remains a hot-button issue in the UK; the Conservative government refused to publish a report on Russian interference in UK democracy until last week’s election was over. Russian entities are major Conservative donors (about £3.5 million over the past decade) and billions of dollars have been laundered through the UK economy for Russian organized crime. A parliamentary inquiry was warned about Russia’s cultivation of networks of pliable British diplomats, lawyers and parliamentarians. In the context of Moscow’s backing for extreme-right parties across Europe, far-right politicians in Italy and Austria have been caught out expressing readiness to accept dirty Russian money.
Can Putin cling on to power after 2024, when he is constitutionally obliged to step down? One possible loophole is through a mooted revival of the neglected 20-year-old political union between Belarus and Russia, with Putin as supreme leader of the “union state.” In Belarus last weekend there were anti-Putin protests, coinciding with talks between the two leaders about such an enhanced alliance. Talks in France last week failed to move the sides significantly closer to addressing Russian aggression in Ukraine.
With Russia meddling across the Middle East and dozens of other African, Asian and Latin American states, Putin is obviously punching above his weight in a manner that is neither politically nor financially sustainable. Russia has twice the land mass of Europe, but less than a tenth of its GDP. However, a tactical alliance between these three nations of 1.6 billion people, straddling more than 27 million sq. km., affords Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei the opportunity to run rings around the West.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that NATO was “brain dead” is uncomfortably accurate, evidenced by Trump’s angry summit walkout after the alliance’s other leaders ridiculed him. The prognosis for other multilateral institutions such as the UN Security Council is arguably even worse. The international community is crying out for a new generation of far-sighted and energetic leaders who can work together to remodel the international system in response to contemporary challenges.
If hopelessly divided Western nations fail to rediscover their common ground in defense of democratic values and the rule of law, they risk being subsumed by a rival emerging global bloc and its repressive model of governance.