Tensions between Russia and the West over security in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have surfaced at an annual defense conference in Moscow. Major flashpoints include the situation in Syria and NATO expansion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a stark warning about the expanding threat of terrorism and conflict across the globe at the opening Wednesday of the two-day Moscow Conference on International Security.
“The situation in the world is not becoming more stable or predictable, rather the opposite,” he said. “In front of our eyes we see that tension on both global and regional levels is on the rise. Further erosion of international law is obvious, so are attempts to use force to promote personal interests, to strengthen own security at the expense of others’ security, to contain by all means the process of a formation of a polycentric world order.”
As if to underscore the point, Israeli missiles hit a suspected Iranian arms depot in Damascus just hours after Lavrov and Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman met on the sidelines of the security conference.
Those airstrikes also symbolize the complicated nature of Russia’s relationship with Israeli and Iran, says analyst Alexey Malashenko via Skype.
“Russia is playing a very difficult game between Israel and Iran,” he said. “It creates some problems. … I think similar situation will continue. So, Russia will keep the normal relations with both countries.”
Russia says it wants a global alliance against terrorists and is fighting them in Syria just like a U.S.-led Western alliance has been doing.
But Western and Arab states say Russia is defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they accuse him of responsibility for a chemical attack on civilians this month that Moscow and Damascus blame on Syrian rebels.
The Western alliance wants Assad out of power, but the Kremlin fears losing its ally in Damascus would mean losing regional influence.
“Maybe the problem of Bashar al-Assad, his presidency, is most painful problem for Kremlin because indeed, it has to be replaced, and Putin and in Kremlin they understand it. That’s no doubt,” Malashenko said. “But, anyway, by whom it’s possible to replace him, who will come instead of him? This is a problem.”
Another problem, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, is the gradual expansion of the NATO Western military alliance into eastern Europe.
“NATO is a military and political bloc and not a group of stamp collectors. It follows a course of projecting its power and bringing more and more states into its orbit,” Shoigu said at the conference opening. “The recent decision to make Montenegro an alliance member is the latest proof of that. Podgorica’s military potential is close to zero, but its geographic location allows [the alliance] to strengthen control over the Balkans.”
Montenegro’s opposition held protests Tuesday against joining NATO. Many fear joining the Western alliance could upset relations with Russia, or even lead to a military clash.
Also this week, U.S. fighter jets arrived in Estonia, and British typhoon jets went to Romania, as NATO reassures members concerned about Russian aggression.
Trust is almost completely eroded between NATO and the Kremlin, says the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Petr Topychkanov via Skype.
“It all started from Yugoslavia in 1990s, but then Georgia war, NATO extension, missile defense programs — United States and NATO — and, of course, the most recent and the most important thing was the Crimea annexation by Russia.”
On East Asia, Russian President Vladimir Putin and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed North Korea’s nuclear program.
Russia agrees to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, but only through the U.N. Security Council.