Senior Russian officials have publicly condemned the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful military commander, joining foreign leaders in warning that it will lead to an escalation of tensions in the already unstable Middle East region.
However, the Kremlin may be able to capitalize on the controversial attack against its ally Tehran if it drives a deeper wedge in Washington’s strategic relationship with European allies, analysts said.
An escalation could also present Russian President Vladimir Putin with a golden opportunity to demonstrate global leadership by working toward a resolution, they said.
“Putin would love to seize the role of a mediator to reduce tension but also to strengthen his image in the West,” said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund in Washington.
Major General Qasem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran's elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed in a U.S. air strike in neighboring Iraq on January 3 days after pro-Iranian militants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said later that the assassination sought to preempt an undisclosed “threat” to American lives.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. attack “flagrantly violates” international principles. The Russian Defense Ministry called it a “shortsighted” step that will lead to more regional turmoil.
U.S. allies in Europe -- who were not informed of the attack beforehand -- also expressed concern about Washington’s deadly strike in a region that accounts for a significant portion of the world’s daily oil production.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said that although Iran carried out a series of “dangerous provocations,” the U.S. response “has not made it easier to reduce tensions.”
U.K. shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry from the opposition Labour Party slammed U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran policy as well as his clandestine operation against Soleimani.
“For two years, I’ve warned about Trump’s reckless lurch towards war with Iran. Last night’s attack takes us even closer to the brink,” she said.
Trump angered European leaders when he withdrew the United States in 2018 from an international agreement signed by his predecessor Barack Obama that put limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union were the other signatories to the agreement. Trump began reimposing sanctions on Iran later that year, which contributed to the woes of the country's economy.
Trump has rankled European leaders over a host of other policy issues as well, such as defense spending and climate change, raising concerns about the strength of the transatlantic relationship.
Trump’s failure to inform European partners has handed a “victory to Putin in terms of weakening the transatlantic relationship again,” the German Marshall Fund's Katz said.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Putin following the U.S. assassination of Soleimani on January 3. The two leaders expressed their concern about the U.S. strike, also discussing the crisis in Syria and Libya as well as bilateral relations.
Macron has been seeking to mend European relations with Russia, one of the bloc’s biggest trading partners.
Brussels, along with Washington, has imposed sanctions on Russia for destabilizing Ukraine, including annexing Crimea. The sanctions have impacted both European and Russian growth. As the policy split in transatlantic relations deepens, it will weaken resolve to keep the Russian sanctions in place, Katz said.
Global Statesman Role
Russia faced isolation from the West after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed separatists in the Donbas. That year, Washington and Brussels kicked Russia out of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.
However, Russia’s military intervention in Syria a year later to support President Bashar al-Assad forced Western leaders to sit down at the negotiating table with Putin to discuss peace in the embattled country.
With the Kremlin's strong ties to Tehran, Putin could again play a key role as U.S.-Iran tensions are ratcheted up.
"Putin is looking for avenues where he can play the role of a great power -- where he can show that he is not isolated diplomatically. If he can help maneuver out of a huge crisis in the Middle East, he will certainly seek to do that,” said Paul Stronski, a Russia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“And if [he] ingratiates himself with Europe, that is even better.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States.
And Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami has promised a “crushing response” to "all perpetrators" involved in Soleimani’s killing. Several analysts said Iran is likely to respond forcefully to the killing, potentially provoking further U.S. strikes.
“If anybody is going to be able to prevent this from spiraling into something nasty, the Russians are probably best placed to do that,” said Jeff Mankoff, a Russia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.