The Yemen bombing and the ongoing Ukraine crisis reveal the essence of realpolitik. Such thinking grounded in reality rather than ideology may bring about a compromise between Russia and the U.S.

Pictured: A float depicting United States President Barack Obama, left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the traditional Viareggio Carnival parade in Viareggio, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015. Photo: AP

The war in Yemen is gradually turning into a large-scale international conflict, moving beyond the borders of the armed confrontation between the government and the Houthi rebels. The country is witnessing the unfolding of a political clash between Iran, supported by Russia, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, on the other.

In drawing comparisons between the war in Yemen and the head-on collision between Russia and the West in southeastern Ukraine, it should be noted that the former is determined to a much greater extent by the concept of realpolitik, although the foreign policy of the major powers is also a measure of its scope.

U.S. support is with Saudi Arabia: Washington approved the bombing of the Houthis by an Arab coalition led by Riyadh, and has agreed to provide logistical support, although military intervention is not on the table. Moscow sharply criticized the bombing of rebel positions in Yemen, but has neither the strength nor the desire to take a more active part in the hostilities.

Yemen and the contradictions of a realpolitik policy

But U.S. strategy in the region is hampered by an obvious contradiction. On the one hand, the United States is providing significant military support to Iraqi troops fighting Islamic State radicals, which accords entirely with the interests of Iran.

On the other, the United States has sided with Riyadh in this momentous confrontation in Yemen, which, according to renowned Russian Arabist Georgy Mirsky, is unfolding between two fundamentalist currents in Islam: Saudi-led Sunni and Iranian-led Shia.

In an article entitled “Why no one likes a realpolitik foreign policy,” The Washington Post summed up the dilemma facing the U.S. government: “If you’re an Iranian fighting ISIS, press 1 for assistance. If you’re an Iranian fighting for the Houthis in Yemen, press 2 for targeting.”

But the White House is powerless to overcome this contradiction. It cannot walk away from Saudi Arabia, its most important ally in the Middle East. Yet, at the same time, open confrontation with Iran is highly undesirable, especially as the P5+1 talks with Tehran in Lausanne over Iran’s nuclear program are nearing the finish line.

Russia, too, is not keen to interfere in the Yemeni conflict, despite its desire to help Iran. In its present economic situation, the Kremlin stands to gain from instability in the Middle East. According to Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky, “In terms of realpolitik, it would suit Moscow for the war to last as long as possible: Oil prices might creep up and a new bout of instability in a region where Russia still wields influence would increase its clout in Middle East politics.”

How Realpolitik influences Russian and American domestic politics

But no matter how pragmatic or even cynical the interests of the global players are, realpolitik is perhaps one of the few political tools able to prevent global armed conflict. In Ukraine, as in Yemen, as the fighting continues and the deaths increase, the politics on both sides is devoid of the features that define Bismarck’s German-language term Realpolitik, which means politics based on reality as it actually is, not as idealists would like to see it.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign got underway recently. The first to throw in his hat was Texas senator and Republican nominee Ted Cruz. He is a staunch supporter of immediate lethal military assistance to Ukraine and tighter economic sanctions on Russia.

Almost concurrently the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recommending that the president approve lethal arms supplies to Ukraine. The document, which is advisory in nature, was backed by 348 legislators with just 48 against. The Obama administration is known to have so far resisted the motion.

The resolution of the U.S. Congress provoked a fairly sharp reaction in the Chechen parliament, where speaker Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov stated that in response his republic was ready to commence supplies of Russian weapons to guerrillas in Mexico. Moreover, Abdurakhmanov intends to seek retaliatory measures from the State Duma and the Federation Council in the event of U.S. deliveries of lethal weapons to Ukraine.

On the face of it, the initiative could serve as a source of inspiration for Russian satirists. Abdurakhmanov has already been lampooned in Russian media as a “Kremlin mountain dweller” and “Kuzkin’s father” — by analogy with “Kuzkin’s mother,” whom Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to “show” to the Americans [the Russian idiom “To show Kuzkin’s mother” roughly translates as “You’ll get your comeuppance.”]

But in fact, the passions around Ukraine are so heated that the confrontation between East and West has begun to assume ideological, moral and even religious connotations, which, given the aggressive attitude of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is seeking to become the spiritual leader of all Russian Muslims, is becoming dangerous.

However, ideological intransigence is not the sole prerogative of Russia. According to Reuters, a poll of supporters of the U.S. Republican party asked which world leader posed the greatest threat to the United States. 

First place went to Barack Obama with 34 percent of the vote, followed a fairly long way behind by Vladimir Putin at 25 percent, with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad completing the Republicans’ unholy trinity at 23 percent. In other words, over a third of the party believe that the greatest threat to U.S. national security comes from their nation’s own president.

Why Russia and the US should come up with a compromise

In this historical context, renowned U.S. political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski suggests that the U.S. should seek a compromise with Russia. In an interview with influential British newspaper The Times, Brzezinski stated that the crisis in Ukraine needs to be resolved through a compromise acceptable to both the U.S. and Russia. He asserts that the key is to find a solution in which US and Russian interests are broadly compatible.

Brzezinski believes that the United States should give a guarantee to Russia that Kiev will not join NATO. He also called upon the West “not to humiliate Putin” — this recommendation even appeared in the headline. On the other hand, he argues in favor of Western assistance in helping Ukraine to become a democratic member of the European Union.

Brzezinski is known as a harsh and indefatigable critic of Putin. But the fact that he of all people is now calling on the U.S. and the EU to follow the principles of realpolitik is symptomatic. He and many other foreign experts are convinced that given today’s strained relations and the Kremlin’s aggressive emotional disposition over Ukraine, any other course of action would not only be ill-advised, but ruinous for the entire world.

This applies not only to political and military affairs, but also economics. Bloomberg News published a piece by Russian expert Leonid Bershidsky stating that, “Putin’s economic team is working miracles.”

Last week’s growth in the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, the first rise since July 2014, may be an indication that the panic caused by the sharp fall in oil prices is coming to an end. Russia’s improving economic data might be enough to persuade Western governments that sanctions are not hurting Putin’s government, wrote Bershidsky, who, like Brzezinski, is generally highly critical of Putin’s policies.

Realpolitik in the Middle East

That position is broadly shared by many experts in the U.S., Western Europe and the Middle East. “It is important for Europe and Russia to stop any further deterioration and address the crisis in a manner that reflects the interests of both. It seems that they have eventually realized this fact and are working to safeguard these,” says Dr. Mohammad Al Asoomi, a UAE economic expert and specialist in economic and social development in the UAE and the GCC countries, in his column “Realpolitik will eventually win in Ukraine crisis,” published in Gulf News.

“The current intentional politics practiced by the West against Russia express very little ‘reality’ and ‘much ideology,’” writes the publication InvestorIntel. “Russia has a huge surplus of foreign capital and can protect itself from the economic storm. The EU is still in austerity mode and failing to recover... Markets respond to realpolitik and the economic wars launched by Washington and Brussels against Moscow will hurt the markets of the former rather than the latter.”

A significant number of experts in Russia posit that if Russia joined the United States in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Washington would “turn a blind eye to Ukraine.”

Others, on the contrary, believe that no amount of goodwill in the joint struggle against Islamic radicals will save Moscow. But perhaps a few small steps towards a compromise and the rejection of ideologically motivated policy on Ukraine, Syria and Yemen will, sooner or later, result in a mutually acceptable formula. The main thing is for politicians on both sides to display enough wisdom and patience to start untying the Gordian knot, rather than trying to slice through it.