Why does Russian President Vladimir Putin support the Assad regime in Syria with such vigour? Why does Moscow keep close relations with Tehran? The answers to these current questions may lie in Russian history. So, of course, many contemporary Westerners are mystified.
One of the major themes in Russian history and the Russian psyche is that the next enemy was probably lurking just over the horizon – and they often were.
There is a long, long list of those who threatened the capital of the Russian state but it is important to remember that Napoleon occupied an empty Moscow, and Hitler’s Panzers only came close. Muslim raiders twice got everybody who couldn’t flee into the Kremlin and dragged off hundreds of thousands of Russians as slaves.
For the Russians, fighting French, Germans, Poles and Swedes was sometimes necessary, but subduing the Muslim threat was the real business of the Czar’s armies. However, the rulers of Moscow were not just warlords, they could be adroit diplomats too.
The Muslim Tatars were aligned to the Turks (another ancient enemy), but for most of that time, the Sunni Turkish Sultan also had to keep a wary eye on the Shia Persians. While the Russians and Persians have squabbled enough over the centuries, they have also long maintained cordial relations… and usually done so to the detriment of the Turks.
The first permanent exchange of ambassadors for both Russia and the Persians was with each other, back in the middle of the 16th Century. The Russians finally finished off the Tartars, subdued (barely) the Chechens, and came to grips with the Turks several times. Even though the Russians have occupied Persia once or twice (during Word War Two for example), they didn’t come with imperial conquest in mind and – by Russian standards – behaved themselves.
Czars and Shahs come and go, so do revolutionaries, but so long as Tehran and Moscow view Sunni Muslims as threats to their safety and long-term interests, it would seem they are prepared to cooperate.
Syria, under the Ba’ath party has been friendly to Moscow since the 1960s; but it might now be that Assad’s Alawite Shia identity and his close ties to Iran are just as important in maintaining Russian support. Putin, for all his faults, is better versed in history than his Western counterparts and his foreign policies often reflect long-term and traditional Russian interests.
Trying to shame Putin for supporting Assad’s Syria or for staying cordial with Iran is a non-starter. It is also likely that our maladroit attempts to do this only reinforce Putin’s contempt for our chattering classes and political leaders. We may forget our history but Putin remembers his… and we should at least remember that.
John Thompson is a researcher, writer and commentator on defence and security issues at Think Tank of One.