Edition 12 Volume 5 - March 22, 2024

Russia's evolving Middle East policy

Back to the Middle East -   Konstantin von Eggert

The current policy is aimed at getting at least partially even with America.

How serious a challenge? -   Robert O. Freedman

To be sure, there has been a drop-off in Arab support for the Chechen rebels.

A new momentum -   Vitaly Naumkin

Russia proceeds from the assumption that Iran would now be well advised to pause and settle all issues by negotiation.

Back to the Middle East
 Konstantin von Eggert

Moscow's growing attention to the Middle East continues, part of a new global strategy espoused by a more assertive and ambitious Russia. President Vladimir Putin pays much more attention to the region than Boris Yeltsin ever did. In the last two years, he has paid a historic first visit to Israel, visited oil- and gas-rich Algeria and, in another diplomatic first, toured the Gulf states.

He has established a firm personal friendship with King Abdullah of Jordan and charmed Hosni Mubarak. Moscow makes a point of regularly talking to those the US, and sometimes even Europe, consider pariahs--Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, Bashar Assad and the Hamas leadership. Major Russian companies are eyeing the region closely and Russian arms manufacturers hold out firmly against western competitors and continue to irritate Washington by selling arms to Iran and Syria.

Why? There is one overriding reason: Russia's--or rather the Kremlin's--enduring obsession with the US victory in the Cold War. The current policy is aimed at getting at least partially even with America. The policy itself is nothing new. Originally from the Soviet days, it came back into fashion in the mid-1990s, especially after Yevgeny Primakov became Russia's foreign minister and later premier. It was he who was (and still is) one of the most prominent proponents of the so called "multi-polar world" view--a theory that really just serves as a flimsy disguise for opposing America's preponderance in global affairs.

But the difference is that today, as opposed to the days of Yeltsin, Russia has sizeable resources from oil and gas exports to back up this line. America's difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan serve as an additional encouragement for the Kremlin since Washington's hand in the region is perceived as weak.

Quite a few people in Russia's military-industrial and atomic energy industries derive direct material benefit from Moscow's vigorous Middle East policy. But the policy should primarily be seen in an ideological light. Anything goes if it serves the goal of checking US influence. Hence, the refusal by FSB--Russia's security service--to put Hizballah on the list of terrorist organizations (the official explanation was that it does not operate in Russia). One of Russia's leading defense correspondents, Ivan Safronov of Kommersant newspaper, recently died in mysterious circumstances while allegedly investigating clandestine sales of Russian arms to Iran and Syria. To Washington's consternation, Moscow remains Iran's staunchest international advocate.

Speaking in Munich recently, Putin stressed that Russia always conducted and will continue to conduct "independent foreign policy". This is another way of saying that Russia does not consider itself an ally of the West, and especially America. The Russian political establishment views the Middle East exactly as a place where such a policy can be pursued with no risk to Russia. Despite protestations to the contrary, Moscow does not see a nuclear Iran as a threat to itself, at least not an immediate one. Russian diplomats and Kremlin administration staffers would admit as much off the record. Islamist radicals in the region are also seen as a separate species from the ones being bred in the North Caucasus. Russia, as opposed to the US or even China, does not depend on the region's energy resources. Finally, domestically the Russian Muslim vote is insignificant compared to, say, France or Britain. All this leaves the Middle East as the ideal field for staking a new claim for global importance.

However, there are limits to this policy. Moscow will pursue it as long as it does not seriously hurt its relations with the US or the EU. WTO membership, oil and gas exports and the changing situation in the former republics of the Soviet Union are all much more important for Russia than the Middle East. And it is exactly because it has no vital interests in the region that Russia will never play the kind of tune it played there in the 1960s-1980s.

Middle Eastern leaders know this. Even at the zenith of Soviet power, they never considered Moscow a player of equal standing to the US. Having worked in the region in the 1980s, I remember well a quip by one of its veteran diplomats. "People here like the Russians, but respect the Americans." This remains unchanged. Russia can prevaricate, double-cross and insinuate, but ultimately it will not be able to prevent the West, and especially America, from doing what it wants in the region.

Some call it a "cool war". That, for now, remains the best way to put it.- Published 22/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Konstantin von Eggert, MBE, is the Moscow Bureau Editor of the BBC Russian Service.

How serious a challenge?
 Robert O. Freedman

The recent visit to Moscow of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. There he aligned Russia with the Arab consensus supporting the Saudi-mediated Mecca agreement, called for the lifting of sanctions against the new Palestinian unity government, discussed energy cooperation and sought both to increase Russian arms exports to the Arab world and to attract Arab investment for the non-energy sector of the Russian economy. These moves have underscored the resurgence of Russian interest in the Middle East.

Under Putin, Russia has sought to achieve three major goals in the region. The first is to demonstrate its renewed power and influence in an area where American influence is on the decline. The second is to increase trade with the nations of the region so as to buttress the Russian economy, especially its non-energy sectors. The third goal is to minimize Arab, Turkish and Iranian support for the Chechen rebellion against Russian control, which the rebels are carrying out in the name of Islam.

Putin has always wanted to restore Russia to the ranks of the great powers, and this became clear soon after he took office in 2024. However, the then weak Russian economy and the increasingly severe Chechen rebellion against the 1999 Russian invasion limited his options. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11, Putin moved to form a tactical alliance with the United States because the Taliban in Afghanistan, who hosted terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, were as much a threat to Russia and Russia's allies in Central Asia as they were to the US. Russia moved away from the United States, however, during and after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2024.

In 2024, Putin's efforts to restore Russia to great power status suffered two major blows. First, in September, Putin and his government looked incompetent when, after a group of Chechen rebels seized a school in Beslan, his security forces badly bungled the rescue mission, leading to a loss of well over 300 Russian lives. Two months later, Putin suffered an embarrassing failure in the Ukraine when, following the mass demonstrations of the "Orange Revolution", pro-western Viktor Yushchenko defeated the pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovich in a presidential reelection that Putin had publicly opposed. These events put Putin on the diplomatic defensive, and he sought an area where he could once again demonstrate that Russia was a great power. That area was the Middle East.

Beginning in December 2024, Putin began a major effort to increase Russian influence in the region. This was the case for two reasons. First, the United States, hitherto the dominant external power in the region, was now badly bogged down in Iraq and increasingly in Afghanistan. Second, a sharp rise in oil prices had strengthened the Russian economy and given Moscow the ability to waive the debts that a number of Arab countries had incurred with the USSR.

More than two years later, what is the balance sheet for this concerted Russian undertaking?

First, Russian activity in the Middle East has become a major challenge to the United States, whose position in the region is weakening. Moscow's arms sales to Iran and Syria and its diplomatic efforts to legitimize Hamas and the Hamas-led Palestinian national unity government have rendered US efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, already a difficult task, far more difficult. While Russia's recent delay in the supply of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor and its willingness to consider additional limited sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council may be seen as an effort to reverse the trend of deteriorating US-Russian relations, they may also be interpreted as an important gesture to key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all very concerned about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Second, Russian-Israeli relations have also suffered a major blow in recent years because of Putin's policies. Relations were soured by arms sales to Syria--some of which were transferred to Hizballah and used in its summer 2024 war against Israel--as well as by the decision to supply a nuclear reactor and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, has called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Moscow's embrace of Hamas, an organization that remains dedicated to Israel's destruction, has further damaged relations, and few Israelis believe Putin's protestations of friendship to Israel.

While Russian-US and Russian-Israeli relations have been severely damaged by Russian policies in the Middle East, the question remains as to the extent to which Russian influence in the region has increased. To be sure, there has been a drop-off in Arab support for the Chechen rebels, and this is a plus for Moscow. In addition, Putin has laid the groundwork for increased commercial relations between Russia and a number of countries in the region, although whether Russia will get the Arab investments and additional arms sales Putin seeks remains to be seen.

On the diplomatic front, despite its weakened position, the United States remains the main guarantor of the Arab regimes of the Gulf as well as of Egypt and Jordan. While Putin's efforts have enabled these countries to distance themselves somewhat from the United States--something that is helpful domestically given America's lack of popularity in the region--whether Russia has achieved significant influence in these countries is a very open question.- Published 22/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming Russia and the Middle East under Yeltsin and Putin.

A new momentum
 Vitaly Naumkin

Current Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described in terms of both continuity and novelty. As was the case in the previous years of Vladimir Putin's presidency, the Middle East does not rank high on the scale of Russia's foreign-policy priorities. However in certain aspects, notably on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Moscow's activity has visibly grown.

Russia is integrating the development of relations with traditional partners with the expansion of contacts with new ones. It continues to operate within the framework of the Quartet, but is as yet unable to bear the burden of promoting its own initiatives. Thus, although it advanced the concept of a new international conference on the Middle East, it failed to undertake serious action aimed at convincing other players to support it. Moreover, Putin made it clear that Russia would not insist on this.

Perhaps the idea of a meeting of representatives of all the national forces of Iraq, including those in opposition and with the participation of the neighboring states in order to reach accord in that country, is being promoted with greater vigor. But here the United States' interest in getting Russia involved in the effort to improve the situation in Iraq is playing a role. However, Washington would like Russia to send its military contingents to Iraq, while Moscow continues to believe that the Iraq problem has no military solution no matter what strategy the US administration chooses. Nor is it likely that Russian troops will join the NATO contingent in Afghanistan, though in that domain Russia is constructively cooperating with the alliance in combating terrorism and drug trafficking.

In setting its guidelines and the nature of its activity in the Middle East, Russia proceeds from the principles of its new vision of foreign policy. This involves in particular the primacy of collective action and priority focus on so-called network diplomacy, meaning the formation of ad hoc groups created for the solution of specific political tasks. These groups are not closed blocs or alliances (like NATO) and often cut across and supplement each other. They include the G8, the Quartet, the "Six" who have just scored a spectacular success with the North Korean problem and so forth. The Russian political elite takes a skeptical view with regard to the American idea of a Greater Middle East. Nevertheless, Moscow has accepted that concept as one of the areas of G8 activity.

This adherence to collective action, be it in the format of the United Nations or network diplomacy, nonetheless does not rule out independent action by Moscow in keeping with its national interests, though without violating its international commitments or commitments to its main global partners. As examples of such actions one may cite the ongoing contacts with Hamas and defensive arms deliveries to such states as Iran and Syria.

Moscow believes that contacts with Hamas are conducive to a positive evolution in the policies adopted by this organization, which is influential among the Palestinian Arabs. While such contacts are viewed within the context of Russia's activity in the Quartet, simultaneously they are in the mainstream of Moscow's "new Islamic policy". Russia does not want to be drawn into the present confrontation between the West and the Islamic world and, while positioning itself as a European state, at the same time emphasizes its "Eurasian" character and the multi-confessional make-up of its population, 10 to 15 percent of which are Muslims. Russia's membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, its recent--February 15--entry into ICESCO (the Organization for Education, Science and Culture of the Islamic countries) and the activity of such bodies as the Strategic Vision Group "Russia--the Islamic world" all reflect not only foreign-policy but also internal policy goals.

Here one may also cite Putin's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan. The visit undoubtedly had an "Islamic" dimension (significantly, during the visit king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia awarded the King Faisal Prize to Republic of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev for his services to Islam). Its political significance far exceeds its economic importance. Nonetheless, Russia will keep on tackling such tasks as entry to the weapons markets of the Persian Gulf, the securing of contracts in high-tech spheres (space, infrastructure facilities and so on), closer energy cooperation and attracting investment. In the future, Russia will no doubt cooperate with Arab countries in the realm of nuclear energy.

As for the Iranian nuclear program, Russia, like other regional and global powers, is not interested in that country's acquisition of nuclear weapons. It recognizes Iran's right to obtain and develop nuclear technologies but believes that for this to happen it is necessary to clarify the issues connected to the fact that for 18 years Tehran conducted research and development work outside of IAEA control. At the same time, Moscow opposes the abuse of Iran's nuclear program as an instrument of pressure and intrusion in its domestic affairs. Russia deems the construction of an atomic power plant in Bushehr a separate question, making allowance for the fact that it is being carried out under IAEA control and that Moscow will stringently ensure the return of used nuclear fuel.

Russia proceeds from the assumption that Iran would now be well advised to pause and settle all issues by negotiation. This, according to the official position, is possible. But unofficially, in expert circles, pessimism is occasionally expressed regarding both the possibility of a constructive solution to the Iranian nuclear problem and the fate of non-proliferation in general.- Published 22/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Vitaly Naumkin is president of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, editor-in-chief of "Vostok-ORIENS" journal at the Russian Academy of Science and chair of the Faculty of World Politics at Moscow State University.

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