A big argument, popular among the right, but also among serious foreign policy thinkers, is how effective Russia’s effective new foreign policy is. After all, they seem to be doing very well in Syria, bending the civil war to their will, and have all of Europe on high alert after annexing Crimea. Military exercises near the border are making people tense about the possibility of further assaults on Ukranian sovereignty. An alliance with Iran makes for a powerful new axis.
While it is clear there is serious danger in a belligerent and over-confident Russia, I argued last week that this was more a sign of weakness, a desperate attempt to project strength, because in international relations, if you’re perceived as strong, in a way you actually are strong. I argued, as have many others, that “(i)t’s a series of moves, not a coherent strategy to make the country stronger in the long term. It’ll catch up.” Here’s a few data points to back that up.
- Iran is already angry at Russia for announcing their use of Iranian air force bases, and now that privilege has been revoked. Russia is like the high schooler who brags about getting to second base with Suzy Cheerleader, the confusingly-named captain of the volleyball team, and so never gets to get near her again.
- Crimeans aren’t exactly happy with the lack of resources that Russia is putting into the region, as they are plagued with blackouts and a lack of infrastructure. Russia was more interested in taking it over to get that victory that in doing anything with it. This is how discontent forms. Russia “saved” the people of Crimea from a government that neglected them (which was a legitimate complaint), only to neglect them even more. This isn’t how a country that has its act together actually does things.
But the most telling sign comes from Yemen, where former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who hasn’t quite left the scene, and it still maneuvering, has said that he’d welcome Russian help in “fighting terrorism.”
A newly-formed governing council in Yemen could work with Russia to “fight terrorism” by allowing Moscow use of the war-torn country’s military bases, Yemen’s former president said on Sunday.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former counter-terrorism ally of the U.S. who was toppled by mass protests in 2011, told state-owned channel Russia 24 that Yemen was ready to grant Moscow access to air and naval bases.
“In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports… We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation,” Saleh said in an interview in Sanaa.
The ex-strongman may lack the clout to implement such an offer. But officials from the party he heads now run a political council that controls much of the country along with the Houthi movement allied to Iran.
This is actually pretty perfect. It’s a scary thought– that would put Russia directly against the Saudis, and in turn, the US– but it is a perfect wedding of like-minds. Saleh is the king of short-term strategy, playing sides to buy time, making a series of desperate moves to stave off the nearest enemy, kicking the can down the road and hoping to make things better then. By necessity, and by temperament, he’s always been a “live today no matter what, and deal with the ramifications of today’s actions some other time.” He’s a genius at it, and is genuinely talented at survival, but not at solving any problems except the ones immediately in front of him. He never seemed to grasp that doing so creates even bigger monsters.
So his seeming approval of Russian strategy and desire for their help kind of confirms that they are playing the same game.