While Russia often serves as a useful “boogeyman” for promoting militaristic policies, the odd moments when those same policies actually benefit Russia and avoid strong opposition from U.S. politicians and media provide a rare glimpse into the real motivations behind Cold War 2.0.
By Whitney Webb
Published on Mint Press News, June 3, 2019
In early May, MSNBC news host Rachel Maddow — known as one of the top promoters of the new Cold War and Russiagate in American media — emphatically endorsed regime change in Venezuela after she claimed that President Donald Trump’s hawkishness towards the South American country had changed, all because of a single phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Though Maddow’s claims were arguably the most extreme in suggesting that Trump was “taking orders” from Putin on Venezuela, she wasn’t alone in making them. For instance, Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks also made the claim that the Trump-Putin phone call on Venezuela was “direct evidence that he is literally taking orders from Putin.” In addition, several corporate media outlets supported this narrative by suggesting that Trump “echoed” Putin’s Venezuela stance after the phone call and directly contradicted his top staffers and even himself in doing so.
Yet now, strangely, those same corporate media voices remain silent on the Trump administration’s other regime-change project — in Iran — despite the fact that the Putin-led Russian government is set to be the biggest winner as tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic boil over and threaten to send the Middle East into a fresh bout of destruction and chaos.
How Russia wins
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran have grown in recent months, analysts in both corporate and independent media have speculated about what country is set to benefit the most from the U.S.’ campaign of “maximum pressure” and regime change against the Islamic Republic. Of the many analyses, two countries have stood out as likely beneficiaries: Russia and China.
The cases for China and Russia’s benefit are somewhat similar given that the Trump administration’s focus on Iran results in less pressure on both Russia and China. This is despite the fact that, officially, the U.S.’ current National Defense Strategy explicitly calls for focusing attention on preparing for a “long war” against Russia and China to prevent either from superseding the U.S. as a global superpower. Yet, with the U.S. focused on regime change in Iran and Venezuela, Russia and China can avoid bearing the brunt of U.S. military adventurism, either directly or by proxy, while the U.S. wears itself thin by trying to do it all at once.
Several U.S. military analysts have been warning against war with Iran for precisely this reason. Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, recently wrote in The Hill that the U.S. faces a lose-lose scenario by pursuing a militaristic, aggressive Iran policy:
To gear up for a major conflict with Iran, the U.S. would be forced to de-emphasize Europe’s eastern flank, allowing Russia more time and breathing space to consolidate its position. On the other hand, a U.S. campaign that is defined more by bellicose rhetoric and less by action will buttress Russia’s claim, already seemingly validated in Syria and in Venezuela, that the U.S. talks a good game but has no real stomach for projecting its power.”
Both countries also stand to benefit from Iran’s increasing desperation for trading partners unwilling to bow to the U.S. Currently, China represents 30 percent of Iran’s international trade and the current U.S. sanctions on Iran have pushed Tehran to rely more heavily on Russia, especially for weapons purchases, than it had while the Iran nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) was in force.
However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that China, though it benefits to some degree, is not a clear winner amid current tensions, while Russia stands to gain the most. The reason for this is the effect of current and future U.S.-Iran tensions on the oil market. While China trusts Iran to be a key oil supplier even if there is a breach in U.S.-China relations, any shock to the oil market and any jump in oil prices — both of which are likely to occur if U.S.-Iran tensions continue to escalate — will spell disaster for the Chinese economy, given that China is now the world’s largest importer of oil.
Russia, on the other hand, stands to benefit massively from the chaos that U.S.-Iran tensions are set to unleash on the oil market and, by extension, oil prices. With the U.S. seeking to starve Iran of any and all oil export revenue, all countries that had been purchasing Iranian oil must seek new suppliers. Yet, with the prospect of a U.S-Iran conflict still ever-present, it will be those oil producers outside of the Middle East that will come out on top, since oil supply routes that do not pass through the Middle East do not risk supply disruptions that would be caused by a war in the region. Thus, Russia, owing to its location, will emerge as an oil producer of extreme importance. Furthermore, given that such instability in the Middle East will lead to a surge in global oil prices, Russia will be able to export more oil at a higher price and will see its economy and geopolitical clout benefit greatly as a result.
A potential geopolitical killing
In addition to a great boost to its oil sector, Russia also stands to make unique geopolitical gains, particularly in the Middle East and beyond. For instance, in Syria, Russia is increasingly seeking to use its pull with Syria’s government as a major bargaining chip with Israel and the U.S., as made clear by the upcoming trilateral summit on the Middle East between Russia, Israel and the U.S. The main focus of that summit will likely be the fate of the presence of foreign militaries in Syria, particularly Iranian and U.S. forces.
The summit will likely be dominated by Russia and Israel, given Israel’s influence over the U.S., and particularly over National Security Adviser John Bolton, who will represent the U.S. at the summit. Israel’s key interest in Syria at this stage of the conflict is the removal of Iranian forces from Syria. Russia is likely to oblige that request, as doing so would allow Russia to dominate a post-war Syria at Iran’s expense. This seems to be a current Russian objective in Syria, given recent reports of in-fighting among Russian and Iranian forces in Northern Syria.
However, Russia is unlikely to help reduce Iran’s Syria presence if doing so would favor the United States’ occupation of Syrian territory or threaten to upset Russia’s own interests in Syria. Thus, in this case, Russia is counting on Israel’s influence on the Trump administration to ensure that, if Iranian forces vacate Syria, it will be Russia that will dominate the country post-conflict.
Russia also stands to gain geopolitically from the isolationism being forced on Iran by the Trump administration. Indeed, U.S. pressure on Iran has already served Russian interests by pushing Iran further towards Russia, giving Moscow the status of an increasingly important economic partner of Tehran. While benefiting the Russian economy, closer economic ties between Moscow and Iran would also give Russia a leg up in discussions with the U.S., as Washington may then need to make concessions to or coordinate with Russia in future efforts to pressure Iran.
Meanwhile, Russia stands to reap major profits by selling more weapons to Iran, and to gain geopolitical clout by further cementing is role as a mediator of conflict by promoting compliance with the JCPOA and opposing regime change. Iran’s dwindling options for strategic alliances with non-U.S. aligned countries will make it difficult for Tehran to resist Russian demands on key issues, including the Syria conflict.
Another major geopolitical win for Russia that has resulted from the U.S.’ current Iran policy is the tension that that policy has engendered between the U.S. and its European allies. When the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, it began the development of a rift between the U.S. and its key European allies who are also JCPOA signatories — particularly France, Germany and the United Kingdom. As a signatory, Russia’s stance on Iran has revolved around the JCPOA, with Russia having urged Iran to remain in the deal “no matter what,” advice that Iran does not now seem keen to follow.
Russia’s stance on JCPOA is likely aimed just as much at Europe as it is at Iran, since promoting the agreement amid the U.S. unilateral withdrawal paints Russia as more predictable and stable in terms of its political stances and diplomacy in comparison to the U.S. If nothing else, Putin is known for excelling at taking advantage of the missteps made by his geopolitical adversaries.
This i all part of a careful public image that Russia is seeking to cultivate with European countries as it hopes to attract them to do business with Russian oil and gas companies as the Middle East now seemingly approaches another era of extreme instability. By promoting the JCPOA alongside Europe, Russia makes increased Russo-European cooperation seem more attractive.
As U.S.-Iran tensions mount, particularly if armed conflict breaks out, importing goods from Russia, especially oil and gas, will appear more attractive and safer in comparison to goods that originate from or pass through the Middle East before arriving in Europe. Depending on how the situation plays out, Europe — driven by concerns about stability and reliability — may be willing to risk angering the U.S. to pursue increased economic cooperation with Russia, even though doing so would run counter to current U.S. and NATO objectives.
Putin plays Netanyahu
While it is often difficult to find accurate, honest reporting on Vladimir Putin –reporting that is neither too biased against him nor too much in his favor — it is generally acknowledged that Putin, above all else, is interested in advancing Russia’s national interest and is a cunning strategist who often thinks several steps ahead of both his allies and his adversaries.
In viewing the ratcheting up of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Putin’s modus operandi remains unchanged and, upon closer examination, it is clear that he is giving the hotheads driving this still-escalating situation just enough rope to hang themselves. Meanwhile, Russia is waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces and further cement its already acknowledged role as the new foreign “peacemaker” in the Middle East while gaining economic and geopolitical clout in the process.
Prior to the Israeli election earlier this year, Israeli media noted on several occasions that Putin was backing the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including when Putin hosted Netanyahu at a sudden pre-election summit. Israeli newspaper Haaretz described Putin’s decision to host Netanyahu at the time as aimed at helping Netanyahu secure the “crucial Russian vote” among Russian-Israeli Jews in order to “outflank” his competitors. In another instance, Putin was alleged to have further helped Netanyahu’s reelection odds by having Russian special forces find and deliver the remains of Zachary Baumel — an Israeli soldier who had gone missing in Lebanon in 1982 — to Israel just ahead of the election.
Putin’s direct support of Netanyahu may seem odd to observers of geopolitics, given that the two have often been at odds over Syria. However, Putin and Netanyahu have developed an effective working relationship and Russia and Israel enjoy relatively strong bilateral ties and economic agreements.
Yet, beyond the ties that have been forged between the two countries in recent years, Putin likely knows that he can play Netanyahu’s weaknesses to his advantage. For instance, Putin is acutely aware of the benefits to be reaped from increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran and is also aware of the key role that Netanyahu has played and continues to play in driving the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Netanyahu’s near-obsession with regime change in Iran and the practical likelihood that a U.S.-Iran war would be “unwinnable” for the U.S. and would leave its military weakened and distracted are points that Putin is likely eager to exploit in pursuance of Russian geopolitical goals.
Russia seeks to play the role of mediator but only to a certain extent and has kept its attitude towards Iran intentionally vague when dealing with the Israeli government, so much so that Israeli officials have cited Russia’s unknown stance towards Iran as a major difficulty in negotiating the deconfliction of Russian and Israeli forces in Syria. This is likely because Russia doesn’t seek to aid either side amid escalating tensions, instead waiting for the current tensions to play out, as it stands to make gains in either case.
That Russia stands to gain from current U.S.-Iran tensions hasn’t been lost on all Israeli officials, however. Earlier this month, a former Israeli intelligence official, Yakkov Kedmi, openly stated that not only is a war against Iran “unwinnable” for the U.S. and its regional allies, but further that Russia would be the only major country to benefit from any military conflict pitting the Americans against the Iranians. Appearing on Russian television program Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, Kedmi stated that, if war does break out, the U.S. “won’t remain whole” after the conflict and that “if anyone wins, it’ll be Russia.”
“If the price of oil exceeds $100 per barrel, it hits the Chinese economy. Most of all, it hits the European and American economies,” Kedmi stated. “If you double the price,” he added, “[global] industry will be ruined. First of all, it will happen in the U.S.” To that, the program’s host, Vladimir Solovyov, asserted that “Their [American] industry will be [ruined]. It’ll be the opposite in our country. Our economy will begin to develop. We’ll feel like kings with golden diamond-studded wheels on our cars.”
Why the Russiagaters are silent on Iran
Given Russia — and Putin’s — clear benefit from the continuing U.S. escalation with Iran and a potential military conflict, it is striking that Putin’s fiercest critics in the American media have remained silent about this clear pay-off as the Trump administration continues to pursue an aggressive, hawkish Iran policy that hardly benefits the U.S. and instead benefits its supposed adversary. This is especially notable in light of the fact that these same American critics of Russia and Putin’s leadership were recently accusing Trump of “taking orders” from Putin by altering his Venezuela policy in a way that was perceived to benefit Russian over American interests.
This dichotomy is most easily deconstructed by noting that top promoters of Russiagate and news personalities known for their hyperfocus on Putin rarely call for any policy that would involve a reduction in tensions or less militarism abroad. Indeed, all too often, the “solutions” offered by these journalists involve sending weapons to U.S. proxy forces, shooting missiles at Russian allies, sanctioning Russia and its allies, and other “useful reminders of the military strength of the Western alliance” between the U.S. and NATO.
Without fail, the suggested solutions of how to counter Putin from the U.S. media and political establishment almost always involve “pushing back” with force equal to or greater than the perceived aggression. Rarely do they involve backing down or unwinding tensions, even in the cases where doing so would clearly challenge key geopolitical objectives of the Russian government.
In the case of Russia’s benefit from Trump’s Iran policy, the benefit is so clear that it has been voiced in several mainstream media outlets — including CNN, The Hill, Forbes and Bloomberg — with most of those reports focusing exclusively on the oil angle. However, while Russia’s advantage has been noted, it is also clear that Trump’s current Iran policy has avoided inflaming the Russiagate hysteria that has marked media coverage of other Trump policies and statements that were perceived as being “pro-Putin” for the past few years.
One reason that the media has skipped a prime opportunity for another Russiagate frenzy is the fact that many of the driving forces behind Russiagate are also supportive of regime change in Iran. Indeed, while Russiagate has recently been cast by Trump and prominent Republicans as a “hoax” narrative exclusive to Democrats, prominent neoconservatives have long been pivotal in creating and fomenting Russigate for over five years.
For instance, the origins of the infamous Steele dossier — which was used to assert that Russia’s government had a litany of salacious blackmail on Trump that it would use to manipulate him as president — trace back to top neoconservative Republican donor Paul Singer. That dossier was subsequently circulated within the Obama administration during the 2016 campaign by neoconservatives Victoria Nuland and the late Senator John McCain.
Many of the same neoconservative figures who have helped stoke Russiagate and pounced on the resulting climate of hysteria to promote increased militarism as the solution, also support regime change in Iran. Michael McFaul — U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration — is both a strong advocate for aggressive U.S. measures to counter Putin and also a vocal proponent of U.S.-led regime change in Iran. Similarly, on the supposed other side of the political spectrum, Bill Kristol — well-known neoconservative writer, an icon of the establishment “resistance” to Trump, and a promoter of Russiagate — also strongly supports hawkish measures to contain Russia and is a long-time, vocal supporter of regime change in Iran.
While the tense situation between the U.S. and Iran is undeniably troubling, the relative silence among figures in U.S. media and politics who claim to be Putin’s fiercest critics with regard to Trump’s aggressive Iran policy reveals a stark truth about Russiagate. The goal of Russiagate is not actually about “countering” Putin or Russian geopolitical influence; it is about promoting the expansion and widespread adoption of hyper-militarism by both the establishment left and establishment right in the United States.
While Russia often serves as a useful “boogeyman” in service to this agenda of promoting militaristic policies, the odd moments when those same policies actually benefit Russia and do not run into hysterical opposition from the political and media establishment provide a rare glimpse into the real motivations behind Cold War 2.0 and the dubious validity of the media-driven narratives upon which current anti-Russian hysteria is based.
Feature photo | August 26 2018: wanted posters of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Berlin wall. Putin’s face is shown dripping in blood with the caption “bloody Vladimir.” Robert David Hart | Shutterstock
Whitney Webb is a MintPress News journalist based in Chile. She has contributed to several independent media outlets including Global Research, EcoWatch, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has made several radio and television appearances and is the 2019 winner of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism.