Who wants a Russian Bear hug?

Vladimir Putin no longer needs to pretend he is a serious player in the region – he is.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Iran''s President Hassan Rouhani during their bilateral meeting in the UN Headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York City [Getty]
Putin greets Rouhani during their bilateral meeting at the UN on September 28, 2015 in New York [Getty]

All indications are that the proverbial Russian Bear is waking up from its hibernation and there is no stopping it. The Bear finds itself in a jungle so replete with murder and mayhem that whichever way it swings its claws it is bound to hit some right targets.

That some 400 civilians – including 97 children – are reported to have been killed by the Russian air strikes will scarce amount to anything these days between the murderous records of the Russia-Iran supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the US and its European and regional allies supported opposition, and the monster of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) born out of wedlock in between them both.   

The news that Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive in Tehran for meetings with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on November 23, puts on a new and more pronounced spin on much that has happened over the last month, since Russia began actively intensifying its military involvement in Syria.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Has Russia saved the Assad regime from collapse?

Putin’s agenda

The immediate purpose of this meeting is reported to be for Putin to attend the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). But certainly other issues will also be on Putin’s agenda.

“Russia is to press ahead with a plan to supply Iran with S-300 air defence missiles, despite concerns from the United States and Israel,” according to reports.

The last time Putin visited Iran was in 2007, when the shape of the world was much different from what it is today, for neither the Green Movement had shaken the Islamic Republic to its foundations in 2009 nor had the Arab Spring given hope to a renewed democratic uprising against retrograde Arab regimes in 2011 and beyond.

Also read: Analysis: A reluctant Russia in the Middle East? 

Above all, at that time Putin was in no shape to claim a regional and global significance for Russia beyond its own immediate borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad [AP]
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad [AP]

Today, Putin finds himself in a much different world. The UN Security Council Resolution declaration of war against ISIL on November 20, just about a week after the murderous ISIL atrocities in Zabol, Beirut, and Paris, and soon after Russia finally admitted that its airliner was indeed brought down by a bomb for which ISIL has already assumed “credit”, prefigure Putin’s visit to Tehran. Putin no longer needs to pretend he is a serious player in the region. He is. 

Putin’s move to give a big bear hug to Iran brings together all his previous moves to posit Russia as no longer a passive player in the region. He managed to get a chair for Iran at the table when all the major stakeholders in Syria (minus Syrians) gathered in Vienna in late October. 

Soon after he returns to Moscow from Tehran, Putin is scheduled to meet with French President Francois Hollande and Jordanian King Abdullah II. These moves all come together to mark the Russian design towards a new geostrategic remapping of the region pivoted in its own image and for its own purposes.

Putin’s move to give a big bear hug to Iran brings together all his previous moves to posit Russia as no longer a passive player in the region.


Totally discredited by both the catastrophic consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq he had inherited from President George W Bush, and the significant role of US and its European and regional allies in militarising the peaceful Syrian revolution, Obama is in no position either to challenge Putin’s moves or point a finger at his military adventurism.   

With the absolute mess that the US and its allies have made in both Iraq and Syria, Putin finds a very fertile ground for these strategic advances, and Iran has proved itself to be a solid Russian ally in this new configuration of power. 

ISIL is the wild card

Not just the weak and discredited Assad, but also his Iranian supporters, are now integral to the Russian move into Ukraine to carve a much larger sphere of influence (from Eastern Europe to Central Asia deep into the rocky terrains of the Arab world) still active in the normative imagination of the not so distant Soviet and Russian empires.

But it is both immature and rather irrelevant to speak of a Russian empire. This is a complete scramble for power among all the parties in the region, and Russia wants a sizeable presence in the game.

Also read: Putin declares checkmate on Syria

Fresh out of its successful nuclear deal with the US et al, Iran is now much more open in its embracing both its alliance with Russia and its vested interests in Syria and beyond. Israel and its active and passive Arab allies are obviously nervous about this bear hug in Tehran. But there is very little they can do about it.

An explosion after Russian air strikes on an ISIL fuel depot in Idlib [Reuters]
An explosion after Russian air strikes on an ISIL fuel depot in Idlib [Reuters]

Putin has sought to calm them down by meeting with Netanyahu before his Russian campaign and is scheduled to meet with him again in Paris on November 30 during the climate conference.

He also met with the Saudi defence minister back in October in Moscow, and is reported to plan a meeting with Saudi King Salman next year. His diplomatic manoeuvres are as adept as his military incursions into the Eastern Mediterranean domain of NATO. 

Russia may now at least pretend to bomb ISIL more seriously. But ISIL is not a Russian problem. To Putin, ISIL is what ISIL is to everyone else: A murderous mercenary army serving all reactionary and opportunist forces in the region by giving them all an excuse to look heroic fighting for the sake of saving civilisation from barbarity.


With the mayhem extended from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Paris, Mali, and with Brussels in a state of siege, who is to blame this “civilising mission”?

Putin’s visit to Tehran marks the definitive commencement of a new geostrategic configuration of power in the region. ISIL remains the wild card and the loose canon in this game, targeting mostly innocent and defenceless people in the region or abroad, making retrograde and opportunist powers look heroic and on the side of justice and civilisation.

With their hard power flying high from the Caspian Sea and their newly flexed diplomatic manoeuvres, the Russians may think they can have Iranians on their side and play footsie with the Saudis and Israelis too. The dance number is much easier theorised in Russian than performed in Persian. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.