Russia thrives on global chaos either of its own doing or when created by others. Historically, whenever there has been turmoil in the world, Russian political goals have flourished. Except when Russia itself was attacked by Napoleon or Hitler; Russian leaders have reveled in other countries’ upheaval. This was true in the era of the Tzars and under Communism. It is true today as well under Vladimir Putin.
Russia was driven by ideology under Lenin and Stalin as well as their successors. Creating political upheaval in Africa, Southeast Asia, and even South America has been viewed by all of Russia’s leaders as facilitating the global expanse and control of Mother Russia. This behavior has been consistently part of Russia’s modus operandi than in the Middle East as well. Events over the past ten days once again have affirmed the effectiveness of this strategy.
President Trump ordered the successful elimination of the Iranian military leader, Qasem Suleimani. His assassination has caused major disruption in both Iraq and Iran as well as in Washington; but it, no doubt, has delighted President Putin. The pending demand by the Iraqi Parliament that the U.S. remove its forces from Iraq may be one of the resounding consequences to the current confrontation.
Added to this situation, the renewal of the anti-regime protests in Iran suggests not only challenges ahead for the Iranian leaders but for the U.S. as well. While there are forces in the Trump Administration which support engaging actively in efforts to facilitate regime change in Iran, President Trump continues to be inclined to reduce America’s global presence.
Whatever was the real motivation behind President Trump’s decision to attack Suliemani as well as the U.S.’s failed attack on Addul Reza Shahlai, the leader of the Iran’s Quds Force in Yemen, the outcome has returned the region back exactly to where it started. There is, however, one exception. Russia has clearly moved into a focal point of strength. Iran and its surrogates continue to frustrate the Saudis. They are vying for control of the region’s Northern arc, and continue to encourage radical groups seeking to destabilize the region. The Russian Government, meanwhile, is actively supporting many of these very same forces militarily. Iran, Syria, and Shiite radicals are all beneficiaries of Russian support.
For President Trump this sets up a series of not only political-military questions but vital economic ones as well. While the U.S. no longer has the dependency that it had for decades on Middle East oil, much of the rest of the West still relies on petroleum from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The President and his family, on the other hand, still appear to have an especially cordial, personal relationship with the Saudis—among others—suggesting they may well have their reasons to maintain regional stability.
This raises serious strategic questions for the U.S. military. The President, on the one hand prefers to ignore Russian activity as he continues to blink at Putin’s geopolitical mischief-making. The potential consequences for a future U.S. role in creating stability in the region is being greatly challenged. Furthermore, President Trump is encouraging a very dangerous future for the Middle East rivalries. This permits the Russians to proceed with greater regional entrenchment with only minimal pushback from the U.S.