How Will Russia React to the Killing of Soleimani?

The assassination of Iran’s Quds Force leader General Qasem Soleimani opens a new chapter in the already tangled story of Washington’s misadventures in the Middle East. While it seems unlikely that the Trump administration gave much consideration to Moscow’s reaction before ordering the killing, one way or another, Russia will have a say in what comes next.

While Russia does not want or need a U.S.-Iran conflict, the crisis touched off by the assassination does have some benefits for Moscow. Not only is a distracted U.S. government going to be less focused on Russian activities in Europe and elsewhere, growing tension between Washington and Tehran could bolster Moscow’s longer-term objective of reducing U.S. influence in the Middle East. Further escalation between Washington and Tehran, however, would force Moscow to make some difficult decisions given the potential for a conflict to have a significant impact on Russian interests. The biggest wildcard is Syria, where Russia and Iran have maintained an uncomfortable partnership in support of the Bashar al-Assad government, which would likely be on the front lines of any U.S.-Iran clash.

Russia’s initial response to the assassination was, by Russian standards, comparatively muted. An official readout of President Putin’s phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron on January 3 only mentioned the two leaders’ “concern” (ozabochennost’) over the killing and the potential for escalating tensions in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was more critical, claiming that the assassination of a government official on the territory of a third country “crudely violates the principles of international law and deserves condemnation” but stopped short of threatening consequences.

While Lavrov’s call for condemnation may be easy to brush off coming from a country with its own long history of overseas assassinations, it is worth noting that Moscow has largely refrained from targeting foreign officials, at least since Soviet commandos killed Afghan president Hafizullah Amin in 1979. As a country that likes to portray itself as a peer to the United States, Russia benefits from being able to point to a U.S. precedent, just as it pointed to the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia to justify its invasion of Georgia in 2008. The Soleimani killing provides Moscow a potentially useful precedent should it decide, for instance, to target a Ukrainian official on some dubious pretext in the future.

In the shorter term, Russian actions are likely to be cautious. Though relations between Moscow and Tehran are generally positive, and both consider the United States a strategic competitor (Iran and Russia, along with China, just wrapped up joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman), the two countries are not allies, and Russia has its own concerns about Iranian behavior that this crisis will not dissipate. Russia continues to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and is wary of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability that could further destabilize the Middle East. Russia’s toleration of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah positions throughout the conflict in Syria suggests that Moscow is willing, if hardly enthusiastic, to see the Iranians get hit.

As long as the impact of a U.S.-Iranian quarrel on Russian equities in Syria (or elsewhere) remains limited, Moscow has little reason for direct involvement at this stage of the crisis. Despite some overheated Western commentary about a Russo-Iranian strategic axis and the possibility of a 1914-style clash of alliances (with Russia presumably cast in the role of Imperial Germany urging its Austro-Hungarian ally to demand satisfaction for the assassination its heir to the throne), in fact Moscow is unlikely to encourage Tehran to respond vigorously, much less aid it in doing so given the long list of existing problems in U.S.-Russian relations Moscow must deal with.

Besides, Napoleon’s (reputed) advice to “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” gives Russia plenty of reason for circumspection at this stage. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Russia has aimed to position itself as a more reliable security provider and regional broker than the United States. Russia would consequently be the last country to complain if the fallout from the Soleimani assassination accelerates the departure of U.S. forces from the Middle East.

Already, the assassination of Soleimani on Iraqi territory has renewed calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. Similarly, growing concerns about possible Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops, diplomats, and other personnel in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere in the Gulf could lead Washington to accelerate its drawdown from the wider region. Since its intervention in Syria more than four years ago, Russia’s message to Middle Eastern governments has been that the United States is an unreliable partner that will abandon its allies in time of crisis. The departure of U.S. forces from Iraq and the region more broadly would not only support that argument but could accelerate Middle Eastern states’ search for alternatives, which could create opportunities for Moscow.

Syria remains the biggest question mark. Assad owes his victory in the Syrian civil war to the support of both Russia and Iran. Despite being on the same side of the conflict, Moscow and Tehran are also rivals for influence in post-war Syria. Russia’s main disadvantage in this rivalry has long been its lack of boots on the ground (Russia’s main military contribution was airpower, which is good for striking targets but not at controlling territory). Iran, conversely, benefitted from the network of militias it controlled and sponsored throughout the country. Since Soleimani was Tehran’s point-man for relations with these militias, his demise could provide an opening for Russia. The post-Soleimani vacuum could, according to some analysts in Moscow, create an opportunity for Russia to push for an agreement among the various pro-government forces on the ground and either sideline the pro-Iranian militias or at least establish more influence over them. Russia, in other words, benefits from a distracted Iran as well as a distracted United States.

Of course, if the Soleimani assassination does accelerate the drift toward war between the United States and Iran, then Russia’s calculation changes. Russia absolutely does not want another large-scale war in the Middle East, particularly one that could destabilize Iran, a country of over 80 million people that borders states in the Caucasus and Central Asia that Russia considers part of its sphere of privileged interests. Nor, given President Putin’s call for extending the New START agreement and pursuing new arms control talks, does Moscow want a crisis that leads Iran to further ramp up its nuclear program and accelerate its breakout from the JCPOA restrictions, much less announce its departure from the Non-Proliferation Treaty à la North Korea. Yes, a conflict would likely cause oil prices to rise, but not only has Russian economic growth become less sensitive to oil price fluctuations, whatever economic benefits Russia might gain would not offset the larger costs.

If worst does come to worst and a conflict between the United States and Iran breaks out, it would be possible for Moscow to remain largely neutral. Indeed, its aspiration to take on a larger role as a regional balancer might benefit from such a stance. However, it is also possible that Moscow could decide that a conflict in the Middle East led by an unpopular U.S. administration presents an opportunity for strategic gains at U.S. expense. Ukraine, Georgia, and other vulnerable Russian neighbors could be big losers in a U.S.-Iran war if Moscow took advantage of U.S. distraction to press for further concessions.

While Moscow would likely seek to avert an all-out clash, it also would not want to see the United States more deeply entrench itself in the Middle East or for the Islamic Republic to be replaced by a regime more friendly to the United States. Some Russian observers have therefore raised the possibility that Moscow could aid Tehran directly, for instance by providing electronic warfare tools and other high-end arms that would raise the military costs to the United States. These could include the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which Moscow reportedly refused to sell the Iranians last year for fear of disrupting the balance of power in the Gulf and is currently at the center of a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Turkey. Whether it chose to do so or not would reflect a series of larger calculations about U.S. intentions and their implications for U.S.-Russia relations in the Middle East and beyond.

Syria would likely also be an arena for any U.S.-Iran clashes—a potentially dangerous flashpoint given the presence of Russian forces in the country. With Assad’s reconquest of the country nearly complete and a reduced U.S. troop presence already, Russia has no desire to see a resumption of conflict, especially involving the United States. Even if Moscow would not take steps to prevent strikes against Iranian forces and proxies, the danger of an accidental U.S.-Russian clash is significant. That possibility is perhaps the most important reason for the United States to fully understand the Russian dimension to this crisis.

Jeffrey Mankoff is a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program