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Russia in the Middle East: 10 Years After the Arab Spring

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Large-scale changes in the domestic and international political configuration of the Middle East, dubbed the “Arab Spring” in popular culture, coincided with the return of Russia to world politics. In this regard, Moscow’s intervention in the conflict over Syria has played a much larger role in strengthening its global position than its reaction to the coup in Ukraine or to Georgia’s aggression in South Ossetia in 2008. In these two cases, Russia responded to the hostile actions of the Western countries and fought what were in fact defensive battles within the near abroad, adjacent to its sovereign territory. In the Middle East, in Syria and later Libya, Russia has demonstrated its ability to project its national interests and values far beyond the modest zone of influence it retained after the end of the Cold War.

The immediate reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria is well-known — in the event of the fall of the legitimate government, the territory of the country would have become a zone controlled by religious extremist organisations. Most of these groups are banned in Russia, and by the nature of their ideology, would have provoked instability throughout the countries of the Middle East and its neighbours for many years. The distance between the region and Russia’s borders is, in reality, insignificant. A victory for the radicals in Syria would become a reliable instrument in the hands of the United States to keep in suspense not only Washington’s allies in Europe, Israel and the Gulf countries, but also to destabilise Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The secular regimes of all countries in this region neighbouring Russia would be under threat. It’s well-known that a significant number of extremist recruits from Central Asia participated in radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Thus, Russia has once again fulfilled its mission as the main supplier of security for the states of the southern part of the former USSR and, indirectly, China. Despite the fact that for Moscow, such a mission was difficult and costly, it was also inevitable due to the geographical proximity of these countries to the industrial centres of Russia in Siberia. Moreover, helping the Central Asian countries counter external challenges is a tool Russia uses to avoid the temptation to return to direct control over them, in the interests of Russia’s security.

We must understand that for the United States, instability and military conflicts in the Middle East and its environs do not pose any threat to national security at all: the United States is separated from the most problematic region in the world by thousands of kilometres.

Unlike Russia, China or Europe, the Americans can look at regional processes from the point of view of a diplomatic game, rather than taking steps to ensure their own security. Therefore, for Russia, preventing such a development of events by the mid-2010s was an important task in the framework of the competition between the great powers and the prevention of a hostile influence on its periphery.

Moreover, by this time Russia had acquired the military and diplomatic resources to implement such a policy. The events around Ukraine in 2014 demonstrated the readiness of the armed forces to carry out complex operations; the technical equipping of the army with modern weapons was actively promoted. The operation in Syria helped Russia better understand the real tasks of the naval forces for such a continental power as Russia, given the latest advances in military technology.

Russia’s forceful intervention in the Middle East made it possible to significantly improve relations with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. These states are quite archaic in terms of mentality and their ideas about the balance of power and cooperation in international affairs.

As the diplomatic practice of recent years confirms, Russia’s ability to exert military influence far beyond its borders provided a convincing argument for the policy of the Gulf monarchies to be more prudent.

The situation in the Middle East itself has gradually returned to a state of new normality. Only one country in the region — Tunisia — is moving, albeit very uncertainly, towards more stable institutions of state power, based on the principle of democracy. Other states that found themselves at the centre of the “Arab Spring” returned to those forms of statehood that were historically characteristic of the Middle East. The game of big and medium external powers is gradually returning as the most important factor in the development of the region.

In this game, Russia’s partners are not only the West, but also regional forces such as Iran and Turkey. The national interests of these countries may not coincide with Russian ideas and even come into conflict with them. This, however, is not an obstacle to building a working relationship with them. The most important factor is that Iran is not, and Turkey is less a part of the collective institutions and community of the West, which has set the goal of undermining Russia’s existing political system. The more Turkey becomes involved in regional security issues and plays an independent role in them, the better it is for Russia’s interests.

Preventing a threat to Russia was not its only task in returning to the Middle East and, therefore, to big international politics. Moscow’s active participation in regional affairs is an indispensable attribute of a great power capable of defending its idea of justice on a global scale. At the centre of these ideas is the moral imperative of preserving state sovereignty as the only factor guaranteeing stability and cooperation in international politics. Despite its scale and military power, Russia has traditionally taken a conservative, value-based approach to international affairs. Therefore, the stake on sovereign states as participants in international cooperation is natural for Moscow. Syria, thanks to Russian politics, is the only modern example of the preservation of such a state, despite the pronounced intentions to destroy it, which have at one point emanated from a significant group of great and middle powers.

In fact, in the Middle East the strategies of Russia and the West clashed over the most important issue for the modern world — the right to violate the formal principle of the sovereign equality of states within the UN system. After the Cold War, the United States and its allies have arrogated the privilege of dictating the interpretation of this principle in their selfish interests. This privilege became, in fact, their main acquisition, much more important than territorial conquests in Eastern Europe, or presence in the territory of the former USSR.

In 2011, the United States and Europe were able to act at their own discretion for the last time: when they achieved the overthrow of the Libyan government by military means. Syria and the Russian intervention there on the side of the legitimate government put an end to the history of the unipolar world.

Russian involvement in the affairs of the Middle East has solved this problem of international politics inherited from the short era of Western domination. Now any sovereign state, when assessing the possibilities of its survival, can assume that there is not one, but several sources of power in the world on which to rely. China has not yet demonstrated a convincing ability to act similarly to Russia. However, its economic ties can potentially become an alternative source of development funds for countries that are not ready to rely on the mercy of the United States and Europe.

The results of the “Arab Spring” were positive for Russia and were able to compensate to a certain extent for the damage suffered from the diplomatic defeat in Ukraine in 2014. Following its success in Syria, Moscow has been more confident in its response to the crisis in Belarus in the summer and autumn of 2020, which could theoretically lead to a dramatic outcome for European security. Unlike Russian policy in Asia, where a presence must be backed by years of economic gains, in the Middle East, Russia shows its best side in terms of diplomatic skill and military resolve. The current situation in the region inspires optimism — these properties will remain in the foreseeable future; they are the most important for achieving results.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member

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Time for Diplomacy

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When I was hired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union as an interpreter in the mid-1970s, the hardest thing about the job was translating for politicians who somehow “spoke” the language of their partners. They would often want to show off their skills, often interrupting the interpreter to say, “I got it. Go on.” This meant that important nuances, points of emphasis and details were lost in the process, which made it extremely difficult to ascertain the other side’s position with any degree of accuracy, let alone seal any specific agreements.

These days, pretty much everyone fancies themselves as a diplomat or a foreign policy expert at the very least. Without the slightest hint of hesitation, they are willing to voice their opinions on the most sensitive of international issues, brazenly tell us how we should be doing our jobs and share with us their sure-fire ways of quickly resolving long-standing problems, all the while ensuring and securing Russia’s interests. An inevitable consequence of this is that the global community is never quite sure what Russia’s official position actually is, which in turn leads to lopsided interpretations of Moscow’s foreign policy aspirations.

Given the unprecedented numbers of “armchair diplomats” we have today, it is hardly surprising then that politicians have absolutely no qualms about using real diplomats, and sometimes even entire diplomatic missions, as bargaining chips in the current global geopolitical confrontation. Depending on who you talk to, the “ambassadorial war” that is going on between Russia and the West has seen as many as 600 diplomats expelled from host countries. We have never seen anything like this in the history of diplomacy, and the sad truth is that the number of “casualties” will likely continue to grow.

The consequences of such a cavalier attitude towards the diplomatic service could be severe.

By all accounts, the world is already at war. Call it what you want: psychological warfare, information warfare, ideological warfare, hybrid warfare, or any other name you care to come up with. The label itself is not important, while the increasingly real risk of military confrontation is. Even if it does not come to that, the damage caused by the years of conflict is growing in all areas, whether politics, economy or social interactions for that matter.

Typically, there are only two ways a war can end—in a sweeping victory for one of the sides or in a compromise agreement that suits the interests of both sides. Today, there is no single country in the world that is capable of winning a regional confrontation, let alone a global war. This means that we need to look for agreements that would take us off our current path towards global destruction and open up opportunities for countries to work together in a productive manner.

One sure thing is that the parties will sooner or later have to sit down at the negotiating table. Those who’d held on to their best diplomats and experienced negotiators, having put together well thought-out and realistic bargaining positions, will clearly have the upper hand in such talks.

COVID-19 has shaken the global community to expose our vulnerability in the face of a deadly disease. Most experts concur that the mass vaccination programmes launched across the world will eventually lead to global herd immunity, signalling the end of the pandemic. Thankfully, the continued attempts to politicize the issue of vaccination are starting to recede into the background as the international community is becoming increasingly aware of our interconnectedness and the need to reach out and help one another in difficult times.

That said, we have to concede that such an awareness is sadly lacking among individual countries, regions and continents when it comes to issues of security. It would seem that the world’s leading politicians and experts—as well as the international community at large—are not yet ready to admit the obvious: today, any serious international crisis, even in a most isolated corner of the planet, could any time emerge as a global catastrophe, much in the same way that a dangerous infectious disease, no matter where it originated, can end up posing a real threat to human existence.

Most people would be surprised to hear that practically all the “safety” mechanisms set up over the course of decades to prevent isolated crises from escalating into direct military conflicts have in recent years been destroyed. The number of such mechanisms is shrinking, while the number of conflict situations is growing. You don’t have to be an imaginative author of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels to see where this could lead us.

There are no “easy outs” here. Even with all the political will in the world and the accumulated potential of professional diplomacy, no one will be able to effortlessly untangle the tangled knot of international problems. We thus need to prepare ourselves for long and difficult negotiations. Launching this most difficult of mechanisms should be our key priority right now. Perhaps the best way to do this, as President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has suggested, would be to organize a meeting of the leaders of the UN Security Council permanent members as soon as possible.

If such a meeting happens, its participants will need to acknowledge that the world is approaching the proverbial “point of no return”, conceding that a global war knows no winners. As soon as they reach this self-evident conclusion, they could then set about forming a working group under the auspices of the UN Security Council to organize and hold negotiations on the most pressing international relations issues. In doing so, the permanent members of the UN Security Council would be fulfilling its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, as set out in the UN Charter.

From our partner RIAC

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Isolation Can Only Be Splendid

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The coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in Russia exactly a year ago, in April 2020, greatly exacerbated the issue of the modern state’s resilience to challenges that have an objectively external origin. Of course, one cannot compare the scale of the threat to that of the military interventions the country has experienced throughout its history. However, the ubiquitous nature of this challenge from the very beginning made such comparisons the most appropriate, especially in contrast to the crises and disasters of the 1990s and early 2000s; in any case, it had not been a product of the Russian state. The exogenous nature of the problem was combined with the fact that, for the first time, it did not have a specific source in the form of an adversary which could be defeated through a single exceptional effort.

The most important cultural consequence of the pandemic has been Russia’s pivot inward. First, because the national media focused on news from the regions related to the peculiarities of the pandemic in each of them. The increased attention to the activities of the regional authorities, which received rather broad powers, contributed to the formation of a single information space from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. For the first time in national history, major news stories across a vast territory were devoted to a single topic.

Second, for the first time in the past 30 years, the citizens of Russia had to spend their holidays at home — in cities, at their dachas or traveling domestically. The issue of the accelerated creation of recreation infrastructure within the country has become relevant. No one disputes the fact that most Russian destinations are seriously inferior in terms of amenities to those in Europe or the Middle East. Not to mention the climate factor, which no state policy can overcome. But even if, in the future, international borders become open again (this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future), the emergence of such infrastructure and the habit of taking holidays without going abroad will further contribute to the localisation of the interests of Russian citizens.

Thus, for Russia, the pandemic has become an important factor in national cohesion and the localisation of interests within its own borders, the real consequences of which we will be aware of in the coming years. First of all, we can talk about the understanding that internal stability and development are more important for survival than the ability to respond to external challenges or to take advantage of opportunities that arise outside the Russian state.

These changes are of a strategic nature and inevitably affect foreign policy, keeping in mind those features of strategic culture that, while maintaining the same level of openness, would hardly be in demand. It is no coincidence that the most important issues of Russian foreign policy over the past year have been the deepening split in relations with the West, a more outspoken approach to interaction with China, and attempts to create a new system of relations with Russia’s neighbours: the countries that emerged from the former USSR. The latter can be interpreted as a distancing from them, to some extent.

The acute conflict between Russia and the West is the product of a massive change in the balance of power at the global level and the evolution of Russia itself 30 years after it acquired a new quality and borders. The former requires most of the world’s states to strive to maximise their advantages and provokes mutual pressure, attempts to change the balance in their favour. The latter forces Russia itself to abandon foreign policy attachments that have been established over the centuries. These changes seem especially dramatic in comparison with the period after the end of the Cold War, when Russia felt the need to constantly search for a compromise with the most powerful nations, which received the maximum benefits from the disappearance of the bipolar international order.

Until recently, the desire to preserve the most constructive relations with the West remained the central element of the post-Soviet Russian foreign policy. Now it is present only in the form of rhetoric, the main purpose of which is to point out to other nations that their behaviour is unacceptable. The completion of the post-Soviet stage of development for Russia requires an end to attempts to integrate systemically with the European Union and a willingness to establish a formula for stable working relations with the United States.

Contemporary relations between Russia and China are the product of a changing global balance of power and historical experience. The rapid rapprochement of the positions of Moscow and Beijing, as well as the coordination of their actions on the world stage, are, of course, the result of pressure on both partners from the West. Both powers understand that for quite a long time, their success in the fight against the main enemy will depend on their ability to act as a united front. In this respect, there are fewer reasons for hesitation — Moscow and Beijing have begun to move towards the creation of a formal alliance. Moreover, it is China that has shown fairly good results in the fight against the pandemic. Historical experience suggests that it would be wrong to strive for a clear distribution of roles according to the principle of “leader and follower” that can lead to instability in the long term. Therefore, now Moscow and Beijing are trying to avoid such a scenario of relations, although it is not easy.

Most importantly, the year of the pandemic set in motion Russian politics in the other states of the former Soviet Union. Here, surprisingly, Russia’s inward focus on itself has the ability not to weaken, but to strengthen its position in relations with partners in the region and non-regional players. First of all, because Russian politics is gradually becoming more demanding and diversified. By adopting this outlook, it refutes well-established notions about itself and immerses its partners in an unfamiliar situation, which is extremely useful for Russia.

One of the most important issues connecting international politics, history and geography in Eurasia is the question of the transformation of the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space over the past 30 years. The traditional point of view is that as historical experience was gained, each of the sovereign states that emerged from the USSR obtained unique characteristics and gradually their scale became so significant that it overcame the factors that ensure the existence of a certain community.

Finally, the history of this community should be completed by the transformation of Russia into the “last empire” — a power resembling Russia of 1917 in terms of its resource potential, and in terms of foreign policy behaviour — a 21st century nation-state which participates in the global balance of power. This is what is happening now, and the practical consequences are encouraging for some countries and discouraging for others.

Russia’s ability to somewhat distance itself from the former Soviet countries has a serious material basis — the preserved and partially increased resources and power capabilities of Russia, which make it possible to speak of a certain self-sufficiency in the international arena.

The understanding of the scale of these resources and opportunities came as Russia developed independently, including through the intellectual conceptualisation of the wealth that Siberia and the Far East represent for the Russian state. In this sense, the pandemic laid the groundwork for self-reflection and a focus on domestic problems.

The “turn to the East,” which has remained significant in Russian foreign policy discussions over the past 10 years, meant, first of all, strengthening ties with Asian countries and attempts to forge regional trade, economic and political relations. In many ways, it was carried out reluctantly — there was a lot of inertia of orientation towards Europe, Asia presents Russia with no security threats, while the creation of truly serious economic relations is practically impossible, amid the current conditions.

The development of Siberia and the Far East has never been a central focus of the political “turn”. However, Moscow has become more far-sighted, and now considers the territory beyond the Urals to be the most important, albeit as a by-product of the “turn”. In a sense, the “turn” has helped Russia to realise its own geopolitical dimensions, which became important in the context of a return to real, forceful international politics.

It would probably be wrong to interpret the current state of Russian policy towards the countries of the former USSR in terms of a “farewell”. Natural security considerations will remain as binding as ever, as well as ethical notions, despite the fact that Russia’s military capabilities allow it to solve many problems without directly controlling territory. Russian policy is becoming more flexible. Despite the fact that ethically Moscow still perceives Russia and the other former republics of the USSR as part of a kind of community, the methods of diplomatic interaction and the depth of involvement in its partners’ affairs are already the result of a separate assessment of every situation. The CIS issue is disappearing from Russian politics, and this can only be welcomed.

At the same time, it may be important that the consequence of internal changes is the drawing of external players into the Russian security periphery. For example, Turkey, Iran or Afghanistan. This process may not be unambiguous, but it is taking place. As a result, we can observe both an increase in requirements for the policy of Russia itself, and an expansion of its room for manoeuvre. We cannot be sure that the policy of Turkey, for example, will continue to move towards independence from the West. But now Turkish activism is bringing obvious benefits to Russia, and Erdogan’s elements of adventurous behaviour make him a “pleasant and comfortable” partner for Moscow.

Apart from modern Russia, there is hardly any other major power in the world whose resources and power capabilities would so much encourage the culture of self-isolation, and whose geographical position and associated historical experience would so much hinder it.

However, discussions on this topic are constant and sometimes take the form of the political concept of “a bear that walks in the taiga”. For national foreign policy, the challenge of the pandemic had an indirect effect — on the world stage, the country behaved, in general, like most states. The fact that Moscow’s actions were less selfish than those of Western countries reflected a desire to consolidate a new field of world politics and, at the same time, to fulfil a moral duty, without which Russia cannot exist.

However, this indirect effect was very likely more significant than any direct foreign policy challenge. The fight against the pandemic changed Russia from the inside and these changes are more important than any foreign policy manoeuvres or adaptation to international affairs.

From our partner RIAC

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Steering Russia-US Relations Away from Diplomatic Expulsion Rocks

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As the recent expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic demonstrate, this measure is becoming a standard international practice of the West. For the Biden administration, a new manifestation of the “Russia’s threat” is an additional tool to discipline its European allies and to cement the transatlantic partnership. For many European NATO members, expulsions of diplomats are a symbolic gesture demonstrating their firm support of the US and its anti-Russian policies.

Clear enough, such a practice will not be limited to Russia only. Today hundreds, if not thousands of diplomatic officers all around the world find themselves hostage to problems they have nothing to do with. Western decision-makers seem to consider hosting foreign diplomats not as something natural and uncontroversial but rather as a sort of privilege temporarily granted to a particular country — one that can be denied at any given moment.

It would be logical to assume that in times of crisis, when the cost of any error grows exponentially, it is particularly crucial to preserve and even to expand the existing diplomatic channels. Each diplomat, irrespective of his or her rank and post, is, inter alia, a communications channel, a source of information, and a party to a dialogue that can help understand your opponent’s logic, fears, intentions, and expectations. Niccolo Machiavelli’s adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” remains just as pertinent five centuries later. Unfortunately, these wise words are out of circulation in most Western capitals today.

A proponent of expulsions would argue that those expelled are not actually diplomats at all. They are alleged intelligence officers and their mission is to undermine the host country’s national security. Therefore, expulsions are justified and appropriate. However, this logic appears to be extremely dubious. Indeed, if you have hard evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a front office for intelligence officers, and if operations of these officers are causing serious harm to your country’s security, why should you wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? You should not tolerate their presence in principle and expel them once you expose them.

Even the experience of the Cold War itself demonstrates that expulsions of diplomats produce no short-term or long-term positive results whatsoever. In fact, there can be no possible positive results because diplomatic service is nothing more but just one of a number of technical instruments used in foreign politics. Diplomats may bring you bad messages from their capitals and they often do, but if you are smart enough, you never shoot the messenger.

Diplomatic traditions do not allow such unfriendly actions to go unnoticed. Moscow has to respond. Usually, states respond to expulsions of their diplomats by symmetrical actions – i.e. Russia has to expel the same number of US, Polish or Czech diplomats, as the number of Russian diplomats expelled from the US, Poland or the Czech Republic. Of course, each case is special. For instance, the Czech Embassy in Moscow is much smaller than the Russian Embassy in Prague, so the impact of the symmetrical actions on the Czech diplomatic mission in Russia will be quite strong.

The question now is whether the Kremlin would go beyond a symmetrical response and start a new cycle of escalation. For example, it could set new restrictions upon Western companies operating in the country, it could cancel accreditation of select Western media in Moscow, it could close branches of US and European foundations and NGOs in Russia. I hope that the final response will be measured and not excessive.

The door for US-Russian negotiations is still open. So far, both sides tried to avoid specific actions that would make these negotiations absolutely impossible. The recent US sanctions against Russia have been mostly symbolic, and the Russian leadership so far has demonstrated no appetite for a rapid further escalation. I think that a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin remains an option and an opportunity. Such a meeting would not lead to any “reset” in the bilateral relations, but it would bring more clarity to the relationship. To stabilize US-Russian relations even at a very low level would already be a major accomplishment.

From our partner RIAC

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