Alexander Shumilin*: The Russia’s Middle East policy: between the Soviet model and new realities


How to describe the current Russian Middle East policy? It’s common to hear, for example, that “Russia’s coming back to the Middle East as a Great Power” or “Russia has created a pole of attraction in the region, a new pole of strength”. The others say that “Russia has fallen in trap with its Middle East policy”.  To be short it depends on the optic to perceive the ongoing in the region. In other words we have to do with duality in perceptions and the ensued analysis. 

Many analysts are apt to compare Russian policy in the Middle East over the last decade with traditional Soviet policy—decisive, relying on force (as in the Syrian crisis) and most importantly, defining itself in opposition to that of the “collective West” (United States (US) and European Union (EU)). But this is true only to a certain extent: in fact, throughout the 2000s, we are dealing with a fusion of elements from Moscow’s Soviet era (Cold War) policy with ones from its almost polar opposite, the Middle Eastern policy of democratic Russia in the 1990s.

It is also important to recognise that in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, Soviet/Russian policy towards Middle Eastern issues has always been conditioned by the state of Moscow’s relations with Western countries, particularly the United States. Indeed in the Cold War, the USSR opposed Western interests in the region through its allies and clients, regardless of the costs, whereas in the 1990s Russia tried to profit economically from its interactions with the countries of the region, an approach that relied, to a great extent, on solidarity with the West in relation to Middle Eastern conflicts. Today, Russia is trying to interact with all regional countries capable of paying (unlike the Soviet Union, which was denied access to certain markets) and on a strictly commercial basis. In the 1990s, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia saw the Middle East mostly in economic terms, as a market for its goods and a source of finance in the form of loans and credit. To a great extent, this perception lives on to the present day. Indeed, after the West imposed sanctions on Russia in connection with the Ukraine crisis, Moscow tried to turn to the Arab monarchies of the Gulf for loans, but without success because of differences with these countries over Iran and the Syrian crisis.

Of note is that in the Russian socio-political realm, which is thoroughly dominated by pro-Kremlin TV channels, nostalgia is evoked both for the era of Soviet policy in the Middle East and for its leaders, “the USSR’s reliable partners in the Arab world”, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, the Assad family in Syria and so on. Their overthrow, usually attributed to the United States, is seen as the root cause of the appearance and growth of radical Islamism across the region. The TV audience is fed a simple message: democracy does not work in Arab countries and authoritarian rulers are therefore preferable to Islamists. In practice, however, Moscow is pragmatic and ready to work with all the governing groups in these countries. Russia’s relations with Egypt after the “Arab Spring” are instructive in this regard: in 2012-13, Russia successfully cooperated with the moderate Islamist Mohammed Morsi, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was formally banned in Russia. After Morsi was overthrown, Moscow worked even more fruitfully with the man who removed him, Field Marshal-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who had initially positioned himself politically and ideologically as the polar opposite to the Islamist Morsi. Such pragmatism is characteristic of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. When he took power in 2000, he picked partners in the Middle East in line with his foreign policy imperative, which was the fight against terrorism (this was the time of the Second Chechen war). It was precisely on the basis of their common front against terrorism that Russia’s relations with Israel progressed so well, including in the period just after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Yet, the Russian approach of politics first, then economics can now also be seen in relation to Iran: as far as one can judge, Moscow is counting on forging a stronger partnership with Tehran by taking advantage of the formally anti-Western positions that dominate the Ayatollah’s policy. Iran is seen in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as an important pole in the future “multipolar world”. The relationship is also about mutually beneficial economic cooperation and a certain amount of coordination in the military and political spheres. And all of this despite the fact that, now that sanctions have been lifted, Iran is returning to the energy markets. This will contribute to reducing global prices of Russia’s most important exports (oil and gas), and will limit their volume in a foreseeable future , including those going to Europe. Such is the combination of motives and tools that Russia brings to its Middle Eastern policy.

To note that the former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov restarted to impact the Middle East policy of Kremlin in 2004-2005 mostly in a sense to revive the pro-Soviet alliances with the Arab friends. And that chiefly due to the first electoral crisis over Ukraine: at that time we saw the growing divergence in Vladimir Putin’s policy away from Western countries. It was for this last reason that Primakov’s line found an ear in the Kremlin, which is not to say that he was always directly involved in developing Russia’s Middle Eastern policy.

In other words, as in Soviet times, it was in the Middle Eastern arena that the differences between Moscow and the West began to assume a practical form. It was not long before Russia’s partial return to the Soviet model of regarding the Middle East as a zone of conflict with the West received confirmation: in the rocket war (July-August 2006) between Hezbollah and Israel, Russia’s position was interpreted both within the region and outside it as inclining more towards Hezbollah and Lebanon than Israel, which had suffered an unprovoked attack from its northern neighbour. Then, one might recall, one of the accusations levelled at Russia by Israel and the West was that Russian missiles supplied to Bashar al-Assad’s government had found their way into the hands of Hezbollah and were raining down on the Israelis. A year earlier, in an interview with the Israeli Channel-1, Vladimir Putin had said that he would continue supplying Syria with missile systems which, in his words, “merely complicate the work of the Israeli air force” but do not disrupt the balance of power in the region. “You (Israelis) can no longer fly over Bashar al-Assad’s presidential palace”, the Russian president stressed.

To be honest, we should discount some serious differences in opinion between Primakov and the government over certain fundamental developments in the region. For instance, he robustly challenged the idea of the “Arab spring” being an “externally inspired” phenomenon, mainly caused by the United States. On the contrary, he argued that the USA, like Russia, had been caught unawares by the scale of the protests in Arab countries.

The actions Russia has taken during the Syria crisis are now crucial to its future in the Middle East, with Moscow and Western political elites disagreeing deeply about the nature of the crisis. The “Arab Spring” that unfolded in 2011 initially forced Western countries to choose between supporting the status quo and upholding democratic principles (“the people have the right to rise up against a dictatorship to form their own government”), but the Russian leadership faced no such dilemma. In Moscow, the majority view held that the “Arab Spring” was the result of “manipulations and interference by Western countries” (yet another “colour revolution”)9 with the aim of changing the status quo in the Arab world in line with “Western strategic interests”. Even if it observed formal neutrality (non-interference in the processes underway in the countries of the “Arab spring”), therefore, the Russian leadership generally criticised and condemned the mass protest movements in these countries. But although it held to the argument that “protest movements are illegitimate, and the authorities (dictators and autocrats) legitimate”, Moscow only came out openly in support of the authorities in one country—Syria.

The real explanation for the Kremlin’s pro-Assad position, in our view, lies elsewhere: the height of the Syrian crisis (the transition from peace to civil war) at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012 came at a dramatic moment when power was being transferred in Russia itself, Vladimir Putin was returning to the Kremlin and his PR-team was drawing a direct line between the protest movements in Arab countries and those in Russia (the Bolotnaya square protests).10 It followed, then, that these movements were inspired by a “worldwide conspiracy” (America and Europe), that the West was trying to “subdue” Syria, after which it would “deal with Russia”. That was why preserving “Bashar al Assad’s legal government” was seen as serving Russia’s basic interests. In this way, Russian TV drummed up support for Assad as a symbol of sovereign Russia’s opposition to the “aggressive West”. In essence, the authorities were using the infamous political strategists’ trick for launching a popular mobilisation—“uniting the nation in the face of an external threat”.

The ruling group in Russia is openly concerned about the process of democratisation in any part of the world, fearing it might be an inspiring example to be followed by the democratic movement in Russia. The Kremlin’s propagandists claim that the drive for freedom cannot spring from a country’s population but is imposed by foreign countries and their agents. The main power responsible for “spreading such a virus of freedom” is, so Kremlin propaganda goes, the United States. This is an element of the broader anti-US angle of Russia’s so-called state ideology defining the guidelines of its foreign policy. In the context of the Arab Spring events, President Putin began to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical positions against the US primarily in the Middle East region, given that the majority of conflicts in this part of the world are completely or at least partly viewed differently by Moscow and Washington. The divergence in Russian-American relations prevailed over convergence. The same started to happen in Moscow’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies.

The Russian VKS (aerospace forces) operation that began at the end of September 2015 pursued more than its officially declared aims (“fighting against terrorist groups” and “reinforcing Bashar al Assad’s position as a partner in the fight against terrorism”). It was also meant to change the balance of power on the battlefield in favour of the Syrian government and so bolster its position in the negotiations that would come, sooner or later. Moscow also took advantage of the political vacuum (the breakdown of the “Geneva-2” negotiation process) and the military-strategic vacuum (the absence on Syrian territory of military infrastructure belonging to countries in the American-led international coalition and zones where Syrian, and, therefore, Russian aircraft were forbidden to fly). After a Russian bomber was shot down by Turkish fighter jets in October 2015, Russian aerospace forces deployed surface-to-air missile systems around Latakia, which in effect closed the Western portion of Syrian airspace to aircraft from coalition countries. By doing so, Russia became the most important military factor in Syria.

The crisis in Syria became a symbol of indecisiveness and the inability of the Western coalition and Arab countries to deal with the problem (either on a humanitarian or a military level). Thus the arrival of Russian aerospace forces gave Moscow the chance not only to demonstrate decisiveness (within its own conception of the nature of the crisis) and military power, but also to transform the crisis itself into an opportunity to reposition Russia in the world on new terms. It is logical to suppose, that Moscow hoped, that a side effect of its growing involvement in the Syrian crisis would be to significantly increase the level of mutual understanding between the Kremlin and Western political elites, above all in relation to Ukraine, given their “common fight against terrorism”. At the very least, involvement in Syria would give Moscow the opportunity to overcome its political isolation on the world stage, that had been caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

 Despite a clear and consistent Russian stance in favour of the Assad regime, most of the Gulf elites have been and still are turning toward Moscow. That is for one significant reason: after the chemical deal (2013), perceived by the Syrian moderate opposition and the GCC countries as a betrayal on the part of the Obama administration of the Sunni Arabs and evidence of a broader shift in American strategy (toward Iran), and the ensuing events, the Arab Gulf elites stopped concealing their disappointment with the US approach to Syria and started looking to Russia as a perhaps undesirable, but de facto only (by force of events) partner to deal with. In other words, angered by Obama’s inaction in Syria, the Gulf Arabs started to manifest an inclination to find ways to come to an understanding with Putin, who was showing resolve and determination in managing the situation in Syria – albeit in accordance with his views.

It is logical to suppose that Moscow hoped that a side-effect of its growing involvement in the Syrian crisis would be a significant increase in the level of mutual understanding between the Kremlin and Western political elites, given their “common fight against terrorism”. At the very least, involvement in Syria would give Moscow the opportunity to overcome its political isolation on the world stage caused by the conflict in Ukraine. It quickly became clear, however, that Russia’s view of events in Syria and its actions on the battlefield were at odds with what the countries of the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) coalition considered the right thing to do. From the very first days of Russian airstrikes, the leaders of Western countries and Arab states started to accuse Russia of hitting not IS and Jabhat al-Nusra positions, as was agreed at a meeting of the US and Russian presidents in New York in September 2015, but the positions of moderate Syrian rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime, that is to say, the international coalition’s allies, those who in the coalition’s preferred future would replace the Assad regime as part of a negotiated political transition.

Political circles in coalition countries began to think that Moscow’s real strategy in Syria was to “weaken as much as possible or even destroy anti-Assad rebel groups on the battlefield”. Then, Moscow would supposedly present the international community with the same old black and white picture, according to which there are only two actors in the Syrian drama – Assad and IS terrorists. At a certain point, Russia found itself cornered between its political and strategic prerogatives in the region (backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and maintaining special ties with Iran), on the one hand, and the urgent long-term need to improve its relations with GCC countries, particularly in the economic field, on the other.

The Ukrainian crisis ended up dramatically strengthening this contradiction in Russian policy, as Moscow’s ever increasing backing of Assad became regarded as a tool to be used in the broader standoff with the West, namely, something not to be abandoned without at least some clear steps by the West, in return, to ease sanctions on Russia. In short, any move on Syria should be viewed through the Ukrainian lens. Nevertheless Moscow goes on presenting itself as an emerging centre of political gravity for the major regional actors, including the Arab Gulf countries, a role it manages to sustain despite its continued pro-Assad line.

Russian strategists believe that such a view is not unfounded: not only has Russia succeeded in underlining the US’ and West’s weakness and inconsistency with regard to the Syrian crisis, but as far as the nuclear deal with Iran is concerned, it shares some reservations with the Arab Gulf states. Amid the growing political and strategic divergences on the Syrian issue, both sides are tending to cooperate to sustain the oil and gas markets. For the Russian leadership, the fact that a number of high-ranking Gulf officials have hurried to Moscow to discuss regional issues suggests a new weight. This means that the GCC views the mechanism as a means to influence Russia. For Russia, it is a way of overcoming its seeming tilt toward Iran, so as to be seen as positioned between Iran and the Sunni Arab community.

We can conclude that over the last decade the Russia’s Middle East policy has been shifting to the Soviet model, in which the region was seen primarily through the prism of strategic competition with the United States. Economic calculations are sidelined, namely perceived as secondary and subordinated to greater political goals. The basic logic of the Soviet model is to achieve geopolitical goals at any financial or economic price. One of the main reasons behind this shift is related to the phenomenon of the Arab Spring and the gains made by political Islam, which was widely seen and propagandised in Russia as a “conspiracy plotted in the US and the West”. It was considered to be hampering Russian policy in the region and threatening Russia’s security needs.

At the same time we’re witnessing some quite new elements – having nothing to do with the Soviet model. Namely, Russia’s obviously not ready to assume total responsibility for the future of Syria (Syrian settlement) and in this context Moscow’s trying to come to good terms with Washington via Jerusalem where Russian Defence minister Mr. Shoygu has recently paied visit – in search of Israeli mediation.  


* Information about the Author:

Alexander ShumilinDoctor of political sciences, Head of the Center for the Middle East conflicts (Moscow).

The article is based on the presentation at the International Conference «Middle East vector in the Russian Foreign Policy: goals and consequences». 

20.11.2017 22:30:00