When SUSRIS talked with Dr. Theodore Karasik last year about Saudi-Russo relations last year the first thing he had to say was that, “The Saudi-Russian relationship has really hit the rocks.” He continued:
Riyadh and Moscow do not see eye to eye on the Syrian issue, especially the U.N. veto by Russia and China, but also since the ending of the April 1st “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul, the rhetoric is reaching a new level of back and forth accusations.
Now you have both foreign ministries sniping at each other rather sharply, and accusing each other of meddling in Syria. They’re at opposing poles if you will about what is going to be the outcome. You have the Russians claiming that the Saudis are supporting the rebels who are really terrorists and they’re taking the Assad line, while the Saudis are accusing the Russians of maintaining the Assad regime and giving armaments to the Syrian military in order to continue to conduct crimes against humanity.
And what this is doing is they are setting back Saudi-Russian relations to a point equal to when Saudi and Russia were bickering over the war in Chechnya. So all of the advances that Russia had made in the last ten years, particularly in the wake of Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2007, have basically all been pushed aside.
Not much has changed in the positions of Riyadh and Moscow about Syria or about anything else in the year since that assessment was shared. So it was a surprise to see the news of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s visit to Moscow to meet with the Russian Federation President on July 31st. What was the motivation for the meeting and why was it put forward in such a public way? What issues are on the table for Riyadh-Moscow talks and what are the positions of each side? What understandings could come from a Bandar-Putin conversation? To provide you context and prospects that flow from conversations between the Kingdom and the Kremlin we called upon Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director of Research and Consultancy at Inegma, a Dubai-based strategic affairs think tank.
This interview and Karasik’s article on August 5th [The Kingdom and the Kremlin: The Strategic Significance of the Bandar-Putin Meeting] will help you understand the meaning of the meeting and the state of play between Saudi Arabia and Russia. We thank him for sharing his expertise on Russian and Middle East affairs with you here. Dr. Karasik was interviewed from Dubai via Skype on August 5, 2013.
The Kingdom and the Kremlin: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik
[SUSRIS] Saudi Arabia’s intelligence and national security chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a visit to Moscow last week. Why were observers surprised the two met? What is the back story for Riyadh-Moscow relations?
[Dr. Theodore Karasik] First, I think observers were surprised that Prince Bandar bin Sultan went to visit Putin at this juncture, and that is basically because of the problems in Saudi-Russian relations given the Syrian situation. And to have this event occur when it did – on July 31st – was significant because of the timing during Ramadan for Bandar to go to Moscow, as well as the day before the traditional Russian summer holiday begins in the Russian Federation. As we know, timing is everything in diplomacy.
In addition, there seemed to be some urgency by the Saudis to meet with Putin at this time in order to garner Russia’s views on how best to address the issues of Syria as well as other important developments in the Middle East including what’s happening in Egypt. I’m sure that the Iranian issue came up as well.
The backstory for Riyadh-Moscow relations is basically that the two countries seemed to have a reconciliation in the mid-2000s after the animosity of what would be seen as Saudi support for Chechen rebels in the Northern Caucasus during the 1990s. Russia presented evidence that Saudi citizens were sending money and weapons to Islamic extremists to support the separatist movement in the late ‘90s. As that situation calmed down in Chechnya, Riyadh and Moscow began to emerge from this dark period, if you will, and began to explore more meaningful relations in terms of economic cooperation as well as coordination on energy policy and discussions about arms transfers.
At that time, Prince Bandar bin Sultan was responsible for relations with Moscow. I might add that Bandar traveled frequently to Moscow to visit Putin during that period. Some of the visits were not announced, some were. The significance of those visits was the concept that Russia was seen by the Saudis as a backdoor to Iran from the mid-2000s to about 2010. We saw that Moscow was able to provide Riyadh the opportunity to talk to Tehran or help influence the Kremlin to speak to Iran about events involving the Islamic Republic regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.
[SUSRIS] The rapprochement. That was early 2000s under King Abdullah’s watch. What motivated the Saudis to move in that direction? They had decades without diplomatic relations with Moscow during the Soviet-era? What might have brought about the rapprochement?
[Karasik] I think the first item was geopolitical interests, since both countries seem to share concerns in the region even at that time, particularly around the issue of Al-Qaeda as a terrorist group. If we recall Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s suffered its own tragedies with Al-Qaeda in the Kingdom. I also think that the Russians were interested in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC at the time because of the concept of developing north-south relations between Russia and the GCC, in order to make an economic transit-zone where both countries could profit.
There was also a discussion of forming a so-called “gas OPEC,” but that seemed to stall out after a while in terms of creating an organization because the sides could not really agree on a structure. Nevertheless, Saudi, Qatar, Iran, and Russia do meet about pricing policy for LNG. So without making a formal organization, they’re still meeting to discuss trends and so forth.
[SUSRIS] So here we are ten years later, and the rapprochement has fallen apart. As you referred to when we talked last year, the relationship was on the rocks. So where are we now on convergence of key critical issues that Moscow and Riyadh see as necessary to have such an open public meeting?
[Karasik] The primary issue is, of course, Syria. Moscow and Tehran and Damascus are forming a strong triangular relationship that counters Saudi Arabia’s interests. Riyadh needs to deal with Moscow in order to get its point of view across about the future of Syria.
The second issue of concern between the two that warranted this meeting is the connectivity of Jihadist groups that exist in the Levant and across North Africa. A new development among these franchises is their ability to communicate with each other in terms of sharing their operational knowledge and intelligence. In addition, given the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan of international forces in 2014, Riyadh and Moscow are both interested in what happens in Central Asia. They are concerned about how to best prepare for what is probably going to become a Taliban government in Afghanistan, and the influence that this government will have in the region and beyond to the Northern Caucasus and the Levant especially as foreign fighters in the Afghan theater return home. Finally, the activity of Jihadist groups in Syria with anti-Saudi and anti-Russian agendas are a concern. Fighters from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus are making impressive gains such as the capture of the Syrian air base of Minakh south of Aleppo. Where these violent extremists turn to in the future is a significant security challenge for both countries.
Consequently, a trans-regional threat from violent extremists is emerging because of the commonalities among their minions. So basically you have Riyadh in the south, Moscow in the north, and they’re trying to see where they fit together in trying to prevent a greater spread of extremist activity.
[SUSRIS] You mentioned that Syria is the top issue on the agenda. Does this meeting at this point in time signal that either Russia or Saudi Arabia is seeing a new phase in the conflict in terms of how they manage their agenda regarding Syria, and in what ways might the positions be shifting?
[Karasik] I think Riyadh wants to show Moscow exactly where it stands on the Syrian question and possibly presenting some plans about what a new Syria might look like. Given that the West, in particular the U.S. and some European allies, are not taking action, combined with the successes of Assad’s military and their linkages to success with Iranian IRGC on the ground as well as Hezbollah, I think a strategic assessment in Riyadh may have led to this meeting about what a new Syria might look like.
The Saudis are smart enough to see that Moscow has a vested interest in Syria and are recognizing that the Russian Federation does see Syria as being part of its sphere, and that helps to reverse this trend of sniping at each other, that indeed a solution might be able to be found between Riyadh and Moscow if they can come to an agreement.
[SUSRIS] There has been some very sharp, public rhetoric from Riyadh aimed at Russia and China for their foot-dragging over Syria for a couple of years, so does this signal that Riyadh is becoming more pragmatic?
[Karasik] That’s absolutely correct. Riyadh wants to see Moscow’s position clearly with the understanding that both the Kingdom and the Kremlin want to move forward in rectifying the situation in Syria. That would satisfy both parties even if they’re meeting halfway.
What do I mean by halfway? As we know Riyadh is seeking and wants to ultimately have Assad out of power. And given that there are supposed to be elections in Syria next year it is possible that there might be some kind of backchannel negotiation about what that election will look like. Moscow wants to make sure that the Syrian government stays intact, but may capitulate on Assad still being the leader of Syria.
[SUSRIS] The case of Iran has been the premier regional challenge for Saudi policymaking up until two years ago when the Syrian crisis burst onto the scene. That doesn’t make the situation vis a vis Iran any less of a challenge for Riyadh. Can you talk about the equities Riyadh and Moscow hold relative to Iran?
[Karasik] The first important point here is no matter what the situation is regarding Iran’s pursuit of a potential nuclear weapon the issue of Syria and Iran is now intertwined. The two countries have a strategic agreement. The risk is that if an operation in Syria by the West and Arab allies occurs, the likelihood of this action spreading to a regional war that would involve Iran and other Arab states is very, very high. I think this is what Riyadh and Moscow are both interested in preventing.
[SUSRIS] Can you talk a little bit more about the prospects for Iran if the West intervenes more forcefully with Syria and it becoming a regional war? How would action in Syria trigger an Iranian reaction?
[Karasik] We already know that Iran is supplying weapons and training to Assad’s forces, along with the entry of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah to the battlefield. That makes the Assad government’s side a potent force. If there is military action by the West and Arab allies in Syria, Iran’s reaction will be to increase the level of support to Syria, but also to potentially use the al-Qud’s force around the region to launch terrorist attacks in order to send messages to the West and to the Gulf States that they have crossed a red line. That will, of course, lead to an escalation ladder. Moreover, in Fall 2013, we have another red line to be crossed on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the rhetoric concerning a military strike on Iran will start up again in earnest. Therefore, we can see that the issues are linked with Iran getting more involved in Levantine affairs because Tehran cannot accept the loss of Syria within the Islamic Republic’s strategic thinking, much like Moscow’s point of view.
[SUSRIS] What’s the red line in the nuclear issue this fall?
[Karasik] The red line in the nuclear issue surrounds the debate on whether or not Iran has actually reached breakout for its nuclear weapons program, and breakout of course means that Tehran is able to assemble a nuclear weapon. And that is a huge red line for both the West – especially the United States and Israel – which may prompt a military strike on Iran. That option is still in U.S. and Israeli military planning and forces to conduct such an operation are basically in place.
[SUSRIS] Before we move off Iran, what’s your assessment of where Riyadh would like to see the nuclear issue with Iran go? More sanctions? “Cut off the head of the snake”? There’s contrarian indicators from Riyadh. What’s your read?
[Karasik] My read on the Saudis’ position is that they do indeed want to cut off the head of the snake. Saudi Arabia would prefer to see Iran “get its nose bloodied” by the West on this issue, regardless of the outcome. At the same time Saudi Arabia is probably preparing for the inevitable, that Iran does become a nuclear power, because negotiations of the P5+1 will go nowhere. Already, Riyadh reportedly arranged with Pakistan for replacement of the older Chinese ballistic missiles with newer Pakistani missiles probably equipped with Pakistani warheads since Saudi Arabia bankrolled Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program. So overall Riyadh’s position is they’d like to see the West do something about Iran, but their backup plan is to join the proliferation race.
[SUSRIS] What’s all this mean for Washington and its equities in the region?
[Karasik] It’s important to recognize, first of all, that from the Saudi and GCC point of view they see the U.S. as not following through on promises made earlier in the year concerning some type of armed intervention into Syria. Consequently this failure to act has led to the declining victories and growing losses for the Free Syrian Army. It has also allowed a greater Al-Qaeda presence within Syria, which also is troublesome for the region and especially Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
The second point here is that Saudi Arabia and the GCC take Washington’s notion of the strategic pivot very seriously, and their inclination is that they’re being abandoned by Washington in favor of the Pacific theater. That’s their perception regardless of how much equipment is pre-positioned in the Gulf region or how many training programs and weapon sales are going on.
Finally, Saudi Arabia and the GCC are anxious with the possibility that under the new Iranian President Rouhani that there may be a strategic bargain made between Washington and Tehran that would cut out Saudi and GCC security interests. In other words, Saudi Arabia and the GCC feel that they are slowly being pushed aside on what concerns them in the region because of America’s self-interest.
[SUSRIS] So you think that when Washington – people like Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey said this Spring – say U.S. partners shouldn’t interpret the rhetoric about pivot and the reduction of forces in the theater, Iraq and Afghanistan, as abandonment the GCC doesn’t accept it?
[Karasik] No, the lowering of the U.S. intent in the region is giving Saudi Arabia and the GCC jitters about what will come next in the period from 2015 to 2020. Saudi Arabia and the GCC states are making plans to deal with a more unstable region where they’re going to have to protect themselves from not only state actor threats but also from non-state actor threats as well in robust ways.
[SUSRIS] What else about the Saudi-Russo relationship might be of significance to the United States?
[Karasik] Let me introduce another angle. We spoke earlier about a triangular relationship between Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, but there’s also the triangular relationship between Riyadh, Washington, and Moscow. And that construct is very interesting because one could argue that perhaps Bandar went to Moscow to deliver messages from the United States about what should happen in Syria.
In addition to that, Riyadh, who does sometimes act as a proxy for the U.S. in the region, could also go to Moscow in order to look at the grand picture of the future of the new order in the Middle East. That can be seen in the U.S. and Saudi approach to the new Egypt under General al Sisi. Riyadh, for example, is openly supporting al Sisi, and the Saudis want Moscow to get more involved in Egypt with financial support.
This takes a lot of pressure off of Washington, where the U.S. government has already postponed the delivery of 4 F-16 jet fighters which is mostly just a statement. I think that at the end of the day the U.S., although probably not publically, would welcome Moscow’s financial help to Egypt, in conjunction with several GCC states, because it helps to stabilize the new government as Cairo tries to move forward in a constructive way. So the Egyptian card here is an issue that I think observers need to concentrate on a bit more in this other triangular relationship. At the end of the day, the U.S. and Russia have mutual security interests in the MENA region too.
[SUSRIS] An incredibly complicated combination of things to consider.
[Karasik] Yes, it’s very complicated but the dynamics are sitting in front of us. There are many different levels to the future of the region, and the power centers inside and outside the region all want their own outcomes. Trying to get everybody on the same track is the most important goal right now. If the U.S. and Russia can reconcile some of their differences despite what appears to be a full failure of the reset policy, Riyadh might come in – with Moscow pushing too – and be able to get the Syrians en masse to the negotiations for Geneva 2. So that’s where a possible synergy may occur. Or, if Geneva 2 fails to occur, then other options will be pushed forward. Overall, the best news is the Kingdom and the Kremlin are talking.
About Dr. Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik is currently the Director of Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE and Beirut, Lebanon.
Dr. Karasik is also a Lecturer at Wollongong University of Dubai where he teaches graduate level international relations. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He has worked on Central Asian, Russian, Caucasian and Arabian Peninsula issues for over 20 years regarding nuclear proliferation, security and terrorism questions including transnational terrorist groups, clan structures and politics, and criminal organizations. He writes numerous risk assessments across his geographical focus. Since 9/11, Dr. Karasik has also concentrated on terrorist targeting and tactics regarding critical infrastructure in the United States, Europe, and the GCC states. Finally, he is a dedicated “Saudiologist” who tracks and analyzes all issues related to internal and external Saudi affairs since the early 1990s.
Dr. Karasik’s key RAND publications released to the public are “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy (2009 co-author); “Future U.S. Security Relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan: U.S. Air Force Roles (2008 co-author); “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks (2007 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement” (2006 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe,” (2006 co-author), “War and Escalation in South Asia,” (2006, co-author), “Economic Dimensions of Security in Central Asia,” (2006; co-author), “The Muslim World After 9/11” (2004; co-author) and “Toxic Warfare” (2002). His other publications include “Islamic Finance in a Global Context: Opportunities and Challenges,” Chicago Journal of International Law, vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 2007 (co-authored) and “Chechnya: A Glimpse of Future Conflict?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, July-September 1999 (co-authored).
Dr. Karasik is a military analyst on al-Jazeera International and is frequently interviewed by The National, Reuters, Trends News Agency, and AFP. He has a background in basic geology and petroleum geology directly related to his previous work on the Caspian and Arabian Gulf regions. Dr. Karasik served as a Subject Matter Expert on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the U.S. Library of Congress. He also served as a Committee Member on IREX’s Contemporary Issues Fellowship Program for Azerbaijani applicants. Dr. Karasik worked for 18 months with internists in Santa Monica, CA to develop a software package to track human systems and pharmaceutical use. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California, Los Angeles in four fields: Russia, Middle East, Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology focusing on tribes and clans from Central Asia to East Africa. He wrote his dissertation on military and humanitarian operations in the northern port city of Arkhangel’sk and their impact on political institutions during the Russian civil war.