Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again duped American media into thinking his opinion matters.
As the nation awaits expected remarks from American President Donald Trump on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA)—the Iran nuclear deal—Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov weighed in yesterday, warning of “negative consequences” if Trump was to acknowledge the undeniable reality that Iran has all but abandoned its obligations under the deal.
“Obviously if one country leaves the deal, especially such a key country as the U.S., then that will have negative consequences,” Peskov told reporters on Monday, without elaborating. “We can only try to predict the nature of these consequences, which we are doing now.”
Russia is a regional power that has no business weighing in on the Iran deal or anything happening in the Middle East, or Africa, or Latin America, and relies almost entirely on Iran for its global influence.
Russia’s economy is fledgling at best—a woeful foe for a rival like its thriving neighbor China—and its military is doing little to prove it has the training and resilience to withstand its Iran-mandated role in the Syrian Civil War. Polls show its foreign interventions are unpopular at home, while formerly devout Soviet fiefdoms like Cuba—and, in turn, its fiefdom in Venezuela—seek support from more reliable partners.
Yet Putin’s team is so adept at crafting an ominous turn of phrase that his “negative consequences” assertion has alarmed American media. Some even compared Putin’s warning favorably to President Trump’s attitude toward the deal. “Trump is all talk on Iran—meanwhile Putin’s Middle East strategy is working,” a headline on the Hill blared this week.
The article was posted hours before Russian officials admitted yet another military accident in Syria. This time, the two-man crew of a Sukhoi-24 aircraft died as their plane crashed while taking off, failing to fly to their combat mission. The crash follows a much deadlier incident in which a Russian military jet crashed while flying to Syria with 91 people on board.
Putin masks in Peskov’s declaration that he believes in Iran’s benevolence, and that in almost every part of the world outside of the post-Soviet region his government’s footprint is preceded by a larger, more formidable Iranian presence.
In Latin America, leftists who once embraced the USSR as their primary patron now view Putin as an afterthought. Havana has welcomed Iranian president Hassan Rouhani with open arms while Tehran expands its “new chapter” in bilateral relations with the regime. Putin’s government, meanwhile, has been forced to make embarrassing remarks regarding its ability to provide Cuba the support it needs to continue existing as a communist tyranny.
“Cuba really wants more supplies, but the question is in financial sources. If financial resources are found—the companies will deliver,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said in May. “It’s not charity.”
With those words, Novak confirmed that Russia was struggling to do what Venezuela could breezily afford to for over a decade until recently: subsidizing the Castro regime with free energy.
As for Venezuela, dictator Nicolás Maduro, a close ally of Iran whose administration has deep ties to Hezbollah, felt it more important to travel to Algeria to boost bilateral ties before landing in Moscow this month. The pattern repeats itself with other leftist governments in Latin America: The former Kirchner administration was so close to Iran it stands accused of intervening with Interpol to protect Hezbollah terrorists; Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff hatched a plan to skirt Iranian sanctions before being impeached; and Hezbollah established a base in Nicaragua before Putin could return to reclaim the former Soviet ally.
What’s more, the Russia military is spread exceedingly thin around the world. What appeared to be a world-class military, flanked by deadly paramilitary forces and a sophisticated diplomatic apparatus, in places like Georgia and Ukraine now looks more like a pathetic plea for attention a la Cuba’s invasion of Angola in Syria and Libya. In the latter, Russia has backed former General Khalifa Haftar—an anti-Islamist power player in what is effectively largest piece of terra nullius in the world—but only after Haftar proved himself to command the most potent forces in the country. In the former, dictator Bashar al-Assad relies more on Iran-backed militias, Iran-recruited Afghan “cannon fodder,” and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) than the Russian military.
Behind this Russian military decline may be the sad state of its economy. The World Bank ranks Russia 13th in global GDP size, smaller than Canada and South Korea but barely edging out Spain. At nearly $1.3 trillion, Russia’s GDP is dwarfed by China ($11.1 trillion), Japan ($4.9 trillion), and France ($2.5 trillion). With compounding American and European Union sanctions on Russia over the various invasions it has conducted of its neighbors, economists expressed little hope in a major market rebound this year, while polls show Russians increasingly concerned with the fiscal state of their Federation.
The Kremlin has responded to this sluggish economic year by boasting of its status as a “leading grain producer” (while China and India runs circles around them in technology) and warning Trump of “negative consequences” if he abandons the Iran deal.
All of this is not to say that the Putin regime is not a serial human rights violator, nor that it does not pose a significant threat to neighbors and U.S. allies like the Baltic states, Ukraine, or Georgia. But the Kremlin’s publicity machine, through statements on issues its opinion carries no weight in, continues to feed the myth that Russia is on par with China and even Iran as a global challenger to American influence abroad. Russia’s reality struggles to keep up with that illusion.