In achieving this goal, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a godsend. Until 9/11, the United States had been deeply involved in peeling off parts of the former Soviet Union such as the Baltics and integrating them into Western systems. With 9/11, the United States became obsessed with the jihadist wars, giving Russia a window of opportunity to stabilize itself and to increase its regional power.
As the United States extracts itself from Afghanistan, Russia has to be concerned that Washington will supplement its focus on China with a renewed focus on Russia. The possible end of these conflicts is not in Russia's interest. Therefore, one piece of Russian external strategy is to increase the likelihood of prolonged U.S. obsession with Iran. Currently, for example, Russia and Iran are the only major countries supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia wants to see a pro-Iranian Syria -- not because it is in Moscow's long-term interests but because, in the short run, anything that absorbs the United States will relieve possible pressure on Russia and give more time for reordering the former Soviet Union.
The crisis in Europe is similarly beneficial to Russia. The unease that Germany has with the European Union has not yet matured into a break, and it may never. However, Germany's unease means that it is looking for other partners, in part to ease the strain on Germany and in part to create options. Germany depends on Russian energy exports, and while that might decrease in coming years, Russia is dealing with the immediate future. Germany is looking for other potential economic partners and, most important at a time when Europe is undergoing extreme strain, Germany does not want to get caught in an American attempt to redraw Russian borders. The ballistic missile defense system is not significant, in the sense that it does not threaten Russia, but the U.S. presence in the region is worrisome to Moscow. For Russia, recruiting Germany to the view that the United States is a destabilizing force would be a tremendous achievement.
Other issues are side issues. China and Russia have issues, but China cannot pose a significant threat to core Russian interests unless it chooses to invade maritime Russia, which it won't. There are economic and political issues, of course, but China is not at the heart of Russia's strategic concerns.
For Russia, the overwhelming strategic concern is dominating the former Soviet Union without becoming its patron. Ukraine is the key missing element, and a long, complex political and economic game is under way. The second game is in Central Asia, where Russia is systematically asserting its strength. The third is in the Baltics, where it has not yet made a move. And there is the endless conflict in the northern Caucasus that always opens the door for reasserting Russian power in the south. Russia's foreign policy is built around the need to buy time for it to complete its evolution.
To do this, the Russians must keep the United States distracted, and the Russian strategy in the Middle East serves that purpose. The second part is to secure the West by drawing Germany into a mutually beneficial economic relationship while not generating major resistance in Poland or an American presence there. Whether this can be achieved depends as much on Iran as it does on Russia.
Russia has come far from where Yeltsin took it. The security forces are again the heart of the state. Moscow dominates Russia. Russia is moving to dominate the former Soviet Union. Its main adversary, the United States, is distracted, and Europe is weak and divided. Of course, Russia is economically dysfunctional, but that has been the case for centuries and does not mean it will always be weak. For the moment, Russia is content to be strong in what it calls the near abroad, or the former Soviet Union. Having come this far, it is not trying to solve insoluble problems.