Mr Vasilyev, Senator McCain recently said that Russia has become a major player in the Middle East How true is it? What benefits are there for Russia in this and what risks do you see here?
McCain’s statements have to be taken interpreted with regard to his mindset. After many years in Vietnam’s prisons he’s developed an ardent hatred towards Russia, China, Vietnam, basically, everyone, who is doing something not to Washington’s liking.
Ironically, when I worked as a war reporter for the Pravda newspaper in Vietnam, I personally saw how McCain’s plane was downed.
McCain managed to get out at the last moment and landed into the waters of Lake Чукбать. He spent several years as POW and since he came back he has always favoured pressuring Libya, Syria and – where possible – Russia.
Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.
After withdrawal from the region in the 1990s, our country is finding its way back to the Middle East. However, it’s wrong to say it’s become a key player. The military campaign by Russia conducted upon the request of the Syrian government has indeed led to a shift in the balance of forces, paving the way to some kind of political settlement. If we hadn’t done it, there would an ISIS flag flying over the presidential palace in Damascus, followed by the fall of Lebanon and Jordan.
Their next goal would be to break Saudi Arabia and transfer the capital of the world Caliphate as they call it.
Fortunately, this did not happen, because of Russia, because it’s a serious player. However, in terms of the economy Russia cannot continue to be a serious player in the short and mid-term. Economic problems are coming to the forefront. But the regional powers are looking at Russia with respect now. They respect Russia’s might, they respect those who do not let friends down. Russia also demonstrated that it has a modern arsenal.
It did require costs, but Russian weapons got publicity which led to an increase in export sales.
Risks related to intervention are numerous. Russia has been exposed to criticism by Western and some of Arab media. Any victory by government forces causes a media hysteria. They condemn the killing of civilians, destruction of humanitarian convoys, schools, hospitals, etc – that is the usual set of ungrounded facts that are fed to viewers or readers. Even political leaders in the region and the West buy this narrative.
Russia’s zero tolerance towards terrorist organizations has provoked a response from them.
Russia has to take unprecedented security measures to prevent terrorist acts on its territory. There have been acts against Russians outside its borders – the killing of ambassador Karlov, the bombing of Russia's plane over Sinai.
What is the root cause behind the rise of ISIS? Why is the radical movement so appealing to Middle Eastern countries?
Terrorist Islamic groups rose as a response, albeit in the style of the Middle Age, to globalization.
It is a vile and criminal response by some Muslim countries to their unfair position as part of the globalized world, to attempts to impose Western values and their political structures alien to those societies.
The ideology of extremist groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram is very similar.
They provide pseudo-simple answers to complex international issues. But I think they are doomed because they cannot resolve the problem.
After the Afghan tragedy, Russia has been strongly against the use of its ground troops in any armed conflicts.
Russia’s campaign in Syria is the first mission since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are forces that want to drag Russia into a ground war. I believe that the Russian leadership will not agree to it. Russia’s intention to wind down its military presence there is obvious.
Why is the military operation against the terrorists and armed opposition has been so atrocious? Where do they get the weapons to offer such a strong resistance and even mount counter-offensives?
Over the six years, the Syrian army has become exhausted fighting on several fronts and lost many of its personnel. The opposition was armed by tolerant and law-abiding Europe as well as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. There have been controversies between them and eventually Turkey as a country with an old history of statehood has taken a more mature stance. Each of the regional stakeholders had their own priorities which ran counter to each other.
When the CIA officially armed opposition groups which they considered moderate, those weapons ended up in the hands of extremists.
Will the US position change under Trump? Will Washington launch a real fight against terrorists?
Trump is a like black box with unknown long-term intentions… He will be under constant pressure from the old establishment which he was able to beat during his campaign. The old establishment is supported by the mainstream media and some government agencies.
…US and Russian national interests complement each other.
But American policy-makers have not been able to comprehend this simple thing largely because of their intent to dominate… Russia is no longer a country that is ready to do whatever the US tells it to do. Instead, we have a country that has its own pride, its history, traditions and Americans had to take it into account. Fundamental US and Russian interests do not contradict each other.
Is there a hope for a lasting ceasefire in Syria or is it just a pause in hostilities?
So far there is a fragile ceasefire which has been constantly violated. It’s hard to guarantee that it will hold.
The only hope is that Russia, Turkey and Iran can work together based on their common interests despite the fact that they support different sides.
What will be the relationship between the Middle East and Russia in the future?
Russia has proven to be a major political player in the Middle East. Russia seeks cooperation in fighting terrorism and extremism. Our country is interested in normal economic and cultural interaction with the region’s countries. Certainly, we have to take into account Russia’s weakness in the economy. It cannot replace either the West or China.
Its role will be mostly limited to politics. Russia does not want and cannot turn into the key player.
Russian policy is no longer about being a superpower in its old school interpretation. Russia is seeking win-win relations with other countries, looking to expand cooperation across a range of areas, trying to resolve issues through political means. It is particularly relevant given a large share of Muslims in our country. You have to take into account their sentiment and their preferences.