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Gurgen Gukasian

Senior researcher at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, the Institute of Oriental Studies, RAS, associate professor at People’s Friendship University of Russia

Abdulaziz AlDoseri

Assistant researcher at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Derasat)

In July 2015, the P5 + 1 countries reached a deal on the Iranian nuclear program and on the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Iran. This important development in Middle Eastern strategy led to extensive commentary from many different stakeholders, including the governments of the United States, Israel, Iran, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. This report aims to remedy this communication gap by providing readers with Russian and GCC perspectives on the issue, as delivered by researchers specializing in strategic issues in the Gulf.

1. Introduction

In July 2015, the P5 + 1 countries reached a deal on the Iranian nuclear program and on the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Iran. This important development in Middle Eastern strategy led to extensive commentary from many different stakeholders, including the governments of the United States, Israel, Iran, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Russian and GCC commentators are very familiar with both Iranian and Western views regarding this decision. However, Russian and GCC commentators are relatively lacking in information about each other’s perspectives on this key development, due to the nascent nature of relations between the two. This report aims to remedy this communication gap by providing readers with Russian and GCC perspectives on the issue, as delivered by researchers specializing in strategic issues in the Gulf.

The views expressed below represent the views of the authors, they do not necessarily represent the views of the institutions to which they are affiliated, or of their respective governments.

2. A Russian Perspective

Gurgen Gukasian, Russian Academy of Sciences

After the P5+1 reached agreement with Iran on July 14, 2015 on limiting Iranian nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, it seems clear that the most important implications will include changes to the global oil market, and an expansion of Iran’s foreign trade and economic role in the Middle East.[1] During the sanctions era Iran was held back in many spheres of economic activity. The World Bank estimates that the value of frozen overseas Iranian assets amounts to $107 billion, including revenues from oil exports (of which an estimated $29 billion will be released after the sanctions are lifted). Losses incurred by Iranian exports 2012 - 2014 are estimated at about $17,114 million (13.5 % of its total exports).[2]

When viewing the situation from a Russian perspective it is important to note that the removal of sanctions against Iran is a matter of principle for Moscow - especially now that Western states have imposed sanctions on Russia after events in Ukraine. Sanctions relief would affirm Russia’s call for acute international disputes to be solved via dialogue. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that the lifting of sanctions against Iran would be in Russia’s national interests and could entail significant benefits, since Iran is a longstanding partner, and the easing of tensions around it could enhance regional trade and cooperation – including with Russian companies.[3] In 2010, Russian trade turnover with Iran amounted to $3.651 billion (a record high over a number of years), but due to sanctions this fell to just $1 billion in 2014.

It is important to note that, even during sanctions, Russia did not halt economic ties with Iran, instead it chose to take an active role in barter deals and the registration of Iranian companies, for example. Any future expansion of Russian trade relations with Iran could be quite expansive, including: energy (such as peaceful nuclear energy) and electricity, mining (oil, gas, etc) and pipeline projects, petrochemicals, railways projects, aviation and shipbuilding, infrastructure projects, trade in metals, equipment, weapons, transport vehicles, wood, paper, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and food production, as well as light manufacturing.[4] According to sources in Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development, a number of contracts with Iranian counterparties have already been drawn up. For example, in November 2014, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation signed a major deal to build eight nuclear power plants in Iran (the first nuclear power station at Bushehr was built by Rosatom).

Flickr / MFA of Russia
Anton Khlopkov:
Iran’s Nuclear Milestone

One significant barrier to Russian economic cooperation with Iran lies in the difficulty of converting Iranian rials into other currencies due to financial sanctions. As sanctions ease, this barrier will be removed. Moreover, there are plans to convert Iranian rials into Russian rubles bypassing conversion into dollars and euros. Some skeptics warn that after sanctions are lifted, Iran will expand cooperation with American and European companies rather than Russian ones. However, when Iran hosted European delegations after the conclusion of nuclear talks, only Italy agreed to provide funding and insurance coverage for industrial, construction and infrastructure projects, worth $2 billion, in Iran. Japan has also worked with Iran on several major projects and annual trade between the two states exceeded $11 billion at its peak.[5] However it is important to note that Iran remains an independent regional power, and is hardly likely to limit itself to Western or U.S. companies. Asian companies are also very active players on the Iranian market. Trade between Iran and China hit $47.5 billion in 2014, showing 36% growth compared to the previous year.[6]

Moving on to the potential negative effects of the lifting of sanctions on Iran for Russia (and, in fact, all oil exporting states), it is clear that Tehran is open about its goal of becoming a major energy provider. In other words, Tehran will try to upgrade its oil and gas export facilities. This may well lead to a noticeable increase in oil (and gas) supply, though Iran bears no responsibility for overproduction of oil on global markets in the period 2014-2015.

It is true that the tightening of sanctions in 2012, essentially expanding them to include a ban on the purchase and transport of Iranian crude oil and natural gas to the European Union (EU), clearly affected Iran’s oil sector. Within one year, Iran’s oil exports declined from 2.8 million barrels/day in July 2011 to below 1 million barrels/day in July 2012. According to a World Bank report, most observers predict that Iran’s crude oil exports could reach pre-2012 levels of 2.8 million barrels/day 8 to 12 months after sanctions are lifted. This would mean an extra 1 million barrels/day of crude oil hitting the oil market.

As a result, international oil prices could drop by about 14% (assuming that the futures oil price for delivery in December 2015 stands at $66 per barrel, this would reduce oil prices to an estimated $56). The World Bank estimates that a drop of $10 in oil prices could negatively impact the fiscal balances of major oil exporters in the MENA region, shaving 5% off Saudi Arabia’s GDP and 10% off Libya’s GDP. This would correspond to a loss of $40 billion for Saudi Arabia and $5 billion for Libya in annual oil export revenues. Meanwhile, the EU and United States, as the largest oil importers, would gain the most in absolute terms, although not as much as a share of their GDP. Iran’s post-1978 oil production (Iran produced about 4.25 million barrels/day in 1978) peaked in 2007, at 4.058 million barrels/day of which 2.480 million barrels/day were exported.[7] Stanislav Jukov, Chief of the Energy Studies Center at the Institute of World Economy (RAS), argues that declining demand for oil combined with additional oil production from Iran and Iraq will dampen oil prices in the long-term, and that the factors that could support the price are mainly the breakeven oil price for U.S. oil shale (about $60) and a comfortable price for balancing the Saudi Arabia budget (about $80-90).[8]

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Sophia Kortunova:
Does the World Need More Oil?

However, we argue that approaching sanctions relief for Iran, and the country’s concomitant return to the oil and gas market, with an exclusively negative attitude would be counterproductive, especially for Russia, whose economic strategy is in any case aimed toward a shift to economic diversification and a declining reliance on oil exports. A World Bank report recently estimated that crude oil exports account for no more than 10% of Russia’s GDP (compared to 42% for Saudi Arabia, for example). In the report, the World Bank stated that “countries with significant petrochemicals industries, including the U.S., Russia and Israel, as well as those in the EU, will see an increase in their production”.[9] In other words, petrochemicals industries will see more favorable conditions, which is a positive feature.

Russia is currently developing a number of major high value added projects on the deep processing of oil and gas. One of them – a new gas processing plant in Nahodka – will process 3.15 billion cubic meters of gas annually for 20 years. The former USSR was among the six major world producers of ethylene. In 2013, the volume of petrochemical production on the Russian domestic market was estimated at a disappointing $35 billion, even though the petrochemical sector grew at an above-GDP growth rate of 5.4% that year. Russia’s strategy for its petrochemical sector until 2030 envisages Russia joining the world’s five leading ethylene producers, growth in domestic plastics consumption from 30 kg per capita to 89 kg, as well as progress in other industries within the sector.[10]

If we are to assess long-term trends on the world oil market, we must take into account the profound structural economic changes that affect the balance between oil and gas supply and demand. Only the most important aspects can be addressed here: in the long term, global economic growth should recover. China, one of the major engines of world economic development, is expected to see its GDP grow by 6.9% in 2015 and 6.5% in 2016, according to OPEC forecasts from July 2015, which in turn mean the country’s oil consumption is set to increase.

Other medium-term and long-term stabilizing factors for the oil market should also be considered. For instance, shale production in the United States has recently been hit by deceleration, as confirmed by the 2015 financials of the largest oilfield service companies, Schlumberger and Halliburton. The number of rig counts (units) fell from 1,912 in the Q4 2014 to 861 in June 2015. This has not yet impacted U.S. oil production, as producers have worked through a backlog of uncompleted wells. However, according to EIA forecasts, U.S. oil production will increase from 8.7 million barrels/day in 2014 to 9.5 million barrels/day in 2015, but will then decline to 9.3 million barrels/day in 2016. As Bloomberg reported, most shale projects in the U.S. break even at an oil price of $80 per barrel and below, only five out of over 35 analyzed projects are able to break even at an oil price of $55 per barrel. Major high-cost upstream projects are to be scaled back, including a Conoco Phillips exploration program in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea oil fields.[11]

Iranian crude oil stockpiles, on the other hand, are estimated at approximately 17 – 35 million barrels/day, or less than 0.2% of global oil production. Moreover, Iran – where oil production costs may be higher than in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the UAE – lacks investment capital. Finally, cheaper oil should push the global economy to expand fuel consumption in the future, as historically it has often been the case that periods of low oil prices have fuelled the conditions needed for global growth.

The world economy is struggling with overall instability on global energy markets as a result of both economic and technical cycles, Many research institutes as well as expert centers at Russia’s gas majors refrain from issuing mid-term forecasts for resource prices. However, one of the most complex forecasts – Bloomberg Consensus, outlines possible oil prices (Table 1).[12]

Table 1: Average Brent Oil Price Forecast – analysts, s/bbl (Bloomberg Consensus – Current)

Year 2018 2017 2016 2015
Maximum 108.0 112.0 100.0 72.3
Mean 79.3 77.0 71.7 62.0
Median 76.0 76.0 70.0 62.3
Minimum 55.8 55.6 55.9 52.8

However, we argue that it is more in Russia’s interests to promote and strengthen overall economic diversification and import substitution, than to excessively focus on the impact of a possible lifting of Iranian sanctions on oil and gas markets. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that Russia is prepared to deal with oil price fluctuation.[13] Since the 1990s, the Russian economy has seen significant progress in its restructuring efforts. The country also has stable long-term oil and gas export contracts (with China and other importers) and coperation between Russia and Iran is also a possibility. A number of experts have expressed their firm conviction that Iranian gas will eventually flow to Europe through the network of pipelines known as the Southern Corridor, TANAP and probably TAP as its natural extension. This is indeed a likely scenario. In early June, Azizollah Ramezani, the National Iranian Gas Company’s (NIGC) Director for International Affairs, said that Iranian gas could flow to Europe along Russia’s “Turkish Stream” pipeline. He did, however, concede that negotiations were not currently being held.[14] At the same time, there are plans for Russian-Iranian bilateral projects in gas processing, petrochemicals and even oil swap contracts (since Kazakhstan, Russia’s partner in the Eurasian Economic Union, has already been involved in similar deals).

Islamic Republic News Agency
Elena Melkumyan, Andrei Derbenev, Omar Mahmood:
Iran — a Stumbling Block for
Russia and the Gulf Countries?

We feel that Russia could rely on Iran as a strategic partner for many years to come. For Europe, on the other hand, Iran may prove an inconvenient oil and gas exporter, since Tehran claims it intends to demand importers of Iranian oil also invest in industrial development in the country. Moreover, there are Iranian claims about the seller’s freedom to choose the LNG tankers’ destination if the “price is not right”.[15] Many U.S. experts doubt how loyal Iran would be to the United States. For instance, Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said “sanctions relief will transform Iran from a “partner” to a “patron” of oppressive regimes it currently backs, including Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela.” According to Berman, “Iran spends $200 million annually to support Hezbollah and $25 million per month to support Hamas, and Iran sends $6 billion annually to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is a substantial expenditure, and it is also one as a result of sanctions relief that is likely to grow exponentially”.[16]

When oil prices were high, there was no urgent need for cooperation in production between oil powers, like Russia or the GCC states. But now, with the global economy suffering from instability, Russia and the GCC should seize the opportunity to promote effective cooperation in deep oil and gas processing, a broad range of petrochemical and other manufacturing industries, and agriculture. It is the only way to escape from oil export dependency in economic development. Russia can take an active role in these sectors with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait.


3. A GCC Perspective

Abdulaziz AlDoseri, Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies

Months before signing the nuclear deal with P5+1, Iranian officials headed to London to showcase 45 oil and gas projects aiming to double Iran’s crude output. According to Mehdi Hosseini, chairman of Iran’s oil contracts restructuring committee, Iran aspires to move from current 2.8 million barrels/day to 5.7 million barrels/day production as a short term goal.[17]

Hosseini presented new contracts and production-sharing and service agreements to International Oil Companies (IOCs) in the hope of attracting them to Iran.  The Iranian oil sector provides huge potential for investors. This interest is driven by abundant oil and gas reserves and low extraction costs. It is estimated that Iran would need investments of between $100 billion to $500 billion over the next five years to achieve its goals. The success of Iran’s plan to increase production lies in securing both IOCs’ technologies and foreign investors’ commitment.[18]

Yet there are plenty of considerations that both IOCs and foreign investors need to keep in mind, especially regarding Iran’s internal energy policies and the conditions on the global energy market. Hurt by western-imposed sanctions targeting its oil industry, Iran would like to regain its lost market share while oil market conditions are challenging.

Meanwhile, Iran can up their production to pre-sanctions levels without IOCs’ help. Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh claims that after sanctions are lifted, oil production will increase by 0.5 million barrels/day within one week and another 0.5 million barrels/day months later.[19] To achieve this Iran would have to reinvest some of its oil revenues, use some of its frozen assets (est. $100 billion) and the sell oil cargoes accumulated while under sanctions.

On the other hand, the Iran nuclear deal comes at a very delicate point for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. GCC governments are facing pressures while managing their budgets due to huge government spending and decreasing oil revenues. The IMF said that Saudi Arabia’s economy would grow by only 2.8% this year and 2.4% next year chiefly due to falling government spending. Furthermore, the IMF suggested that the Saudi government should introduce taxes and remove energy subsidies in order to generate additional sources of revenue and to hold down the ever-increasing domestic energy consumption.[20] GCC states differ in terms of the oil price needed to balance their budgets. IMF estimates show that Kuwait needs the lowest price at $47 followed by Qatar at $59 and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at $73. Bahrain and Oman need oil prices at $93 and $94. Saudi Arabia has the highest break-even price at $103.[21]
Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh

The Iranian government faces similar difficulties. Hassan Rouhani presented a government budget in which state budget is expected to rise from 8,044 trillion to 8,379 trillion rials. However, in USD terms, the state budget would decrease from $303 billion to $294 billion. This is because, in the new budget, the official USD rate would increase by 7.5%. The rial’s depreciation provides additional local currency at the government’s disposal and make non-oil exports more attractive, but would cause domestic inflation.[22]

Amidst the US shale oil boom and sliding oil prices, market analysts looked to OPEC for market relief. Historically the oil cartel has assumed the role of the swing producer that balances oil markets whenever needed. OPEC’s production quota stood unchanged for decades at 30 million barrels/day, decreasing both its market share of global oil production and its ability to influence the market. During OPEC’s November 2014 meeting, the organization officially abandoned its role as a swing producer by refusing to cut production and support oil prices.

Some analysts speculated that a Saudi-led GCC decision in OPEC was targeted against Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia has had its own experience with such market conditions in the 1980s and does not want to repeat the same mistake for the sake of other producers’ benefits.  Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi was very clear in explaining Saudi oil policy: “It is not the role of Saudi Arabia, or certain other OPEC nations, to subsidize higher cost producers by ceding market share”.[23]  That said, the Saudi oil minister left the door open for cooperation with non-OPEC producers to help balance the market. Also, in a recent statement entitled “Cooperation holds the key to oil’s future”, OPEC offered cooperation to other producers on condition that efforts “[have] to be on a level playing field”.[24] Implying that the burden of restoring market balance has to be shared equally by all producers. Some thought that after the Saudi Deputy Crown Price Mohammed Bin Salman met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last July an understanding on oil markets might emerge between the two oil giants. Only time will tell if something like that can materialize. Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin does not see any hope of a deal along those lines transpiring. He thinks that OPEC’s “golden age” has passed and that Russia’s oil industry is not administered by the government.[25]

Navigating through a low oil price environment poses many challenges for both the GCC and Iran. If oil price will remain low, the GCC would potentially have to make changes in its socio-economic model to continue its economic growth. As oil prices remain low, the GCC have started to issue local debt, such as the Saudi issuance of government treasuries. Further down the line, GCC states may eventually restructure subsidy programs and might try to adjust its spending plans. Before the 2008 crises, GCC spending dramatically increased with oil price fluctuations on the up side. Tracking a downward-moving oil price is not easy. Cutting spending on infrastructure projects would definitely harm long-term growth, and layoffs or cuts to public sector jobs is politically unpalatable given the GCC’s emphasis on the social contract. Even currency devaluations may fail since most GCC exports are oil related.

Although the Iranian economy is more diversified than that of the GCC, as oil represents only 20% of Iran’s economy compared to 40%-50% in the GCC, Iran’s failure to realize the economic benefits of the nuclear deal threatens the deal itself. Iran’s economy boasts a number of sectors that would appeal to foreign investors and firms, but the oil and gas industry is what matters most. Global economic conditions, oil demand and future price expectations in particular, play a major role in the IOCs’ decision. If Iran fails to achieve its goal of crude production, it will be the perfect pretext for hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal would be portrayed as humiliating concessions to western powers without any significant return.

The nuclear deal itself revealed how GCC states had different opinions on relations with Iran. Each state’s reaction was clear evidence of that. It is the result of each individual GCC state’s perception of the deal. Oman, for example, was proud to announce that it was the facilitator for secretive U.S.-Iran talks held in 2013. This Oman-Iran relationship goes back to the 1970s, when the Shah helped Sultan Qaboos against a Marxist rebellion in the Omani province of Dhofar. Further, a new gas pipeline is planned between Iran and Oman that demonstrates how Oman views Iran as a Gulf neighbor who can contribute to the region’s security and economic prosperity.

Even Qatar has similar economic ties with Iran. Both countries share a huge gas field (North Field/South Pars Field) on their offshore borders at the Arabian Gulf. This gas field helped Qatar accelerate its economic development plans. The Qataris understood that in order to have sustainable development of their shared natural resources, they need at least a pragmatic relationship with Iran. At the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Qatar’s foreign minister urged the international community to launch serious dialogue with the Iranians.

Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE welcomed the final nuclear agreement cautiously, by saying that they hope it would help improve the region’s stability and security. Saudi Arabia was even clearer by saying that the nuclear deal should prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon and that Iran should stop intervening in GCC states’ internal affairs of the GCC states. Moreover, it was not until King Salman met President Obama recently that the Saudi King officially stated his endorsement of the nuclear deal.

The Iran nuclear deal brings both benefits and risks for the GCC. Trade and investment opportunities depend on Iran’s (unlikely) commitment to regional stability and peace. This gives an indication that the GCC might be interested in a limited normalization of economic relations rather than a full restoration of political and diplomatic relations. Iranian and GCC businesses seem eager to reestablish trade ties after sanctions are fully lifted. Dubai, for example, has always been a major launch-pad offering Iran access to global markets. Trade between Iran and Dubai reached $17 billion in 2014, which accounted for 80% of Iran’s trade with its neighbors.[26] According to the Iranian Business Council, there are around 8,000 Iranian traders and trading firms in Dubai.[27]

GCC states view the economic benefits Iran would reap as the real threat, and not the nuclear program. The main threats to stability are regional non-state actors, which are mostly backed by Iran. Due to Iran’s economic situation, it is not thought that the country’s frozen funds would easily find their way to Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups. However, this does not mean that Iran will change its regional stance, especially regarding the internal affairs of the GCC. Soon after signing the nuclear deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech that Iran “will never stop supporting our friends in the region and the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon”[28].

In the meantime, the GCC states are countering the Houthi (an Iran backed proxy) insurgency in Yemen in an effort to restore the country’s legitimate president. It was no surprise that the Saudi led coalition in Yemen escalated its efforts right after the announcement of the nuclear deal, resulting in the liberation of the Yemeni port city of Aden.

[1] The agreement was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council on July 20.

[2] Economic Implications of Lifting Sanctions on Iran. MENA Quarterly Economic Brief. World Bank. Issue 5. July 2015.

[3] Лавров: отмена санкций против Ирана выгодна России. (Lavrov: removal of sanctions against Iran is fruitfull for Russia). 22.04.2015:

[4] See also: Пирожков А. Чем России выгодна отмена санкций против Ирана. Деловой Петербург. 15.07.2015 (Piroshkov A. Why a removal of sanctions against Iran is fruitful for Russia. Business Petersburg. 15 July, 2015):

[5] Race among foreign companies to return to Iran market. Iran Daily. 05 August 2015:

[6] Iran-China Trade over $47.5 bn. in 2014. Iran Daily. 4 Jan., 2015:

[7] Economic Implications of Lifting Sanctions on Iran. World Bank. Issue 5. Pp. 3-4, 34

[9] Economic Implications of Lifting Sanctions on Iran. World Bank. Issue 5. p. 34

[11] Current View on Oil Price and Market Forecasts. Gazprombank. Russia. July 27, 2015, p. 3-4.

[12] Current View on Oil Price and Market Forecasts. Gazprombank. Russia. July 27, 2015, p. 5

[13] Путин: Россия готова к колебаниям цен на нефть в случае отмены санкций против Ирана. (Putin: Russia is Ready to Oil Price Fluctuations after Lifting Sanctions on Iran.) 10 July, 2015:

[14] Россия может начать торговать иранской нефтью. Фонд стратегической культуры. 11.09.2014 (Russia May Begin to Trade Iranian Oil. Fund for Strategic Culture. 11 Sept., 2014).: //

[15] Iranian Oil Will Hardly Reach European Shores. Energy International Risk Assessment. An Independent Monthly Review:

[16] Foreign Policy Experts Warn Against Iran Deal, Calling It ‘Threat’ to US Security. The Daily Signal. August 13, 2015:

[18] IEA Oil Market Report: 12 August 2015:

[19] Ibid.

[20] IMF Executive Board Concludes 2015 Article IV Consultation with Saudi Arabia:

[21] Regional Economic Outlook Update Middle East and Central Asia Department May 2015, Statistical Appendix, IMF:

[22] Iran's budget tackles falling oil prices, Al-Monitor, December 10, 2014:

[23] Saudi’s oil market strategy makes sense, FT, March 11, 2015:

[24] Cooperation holds the key to oil’s future, OPEC Bulletin Commentary July-August 2015:

[25] Rosneft chief Sechin damps talk of Russia-Saudi oil supply deal, FT, September 7, 2015:

[26] Boost for UAE-Iran trade, Khaleej Times, July 15, 2015:

[27] MIDEAST MONEY-Sanctions sap Dubai's role as Iran trade hub, Reuters, Feb 15, 2012:

[28] Nuclear deal will not change Iran's relations with U.S.: supreme leader, Reuters, Jul 18, 2015:

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