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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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The Emerging “Eastern Axis” and the Future of JCPOA

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Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said that Tehran would further strengthen its ties with Moscow via a strategic partnership. Said Khatibzadeh  ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded’

    This agreement will be similar in nature to the agreement signed by Iran with China in March 2021, dubbed as the strategic cooperation pact, which sought to enhance economic and strategic relations (China would invest 400 Billion USD in infrastructure and oil and gas sector while also strengthening security ties). Commenting on the same, Khatibzadeh also said that an ‘Eastern axis’ is emerging between Russia, Iran and China.

    Closer ties with Russia are important from an economic, strategic point of view, and also to reduce Iran’s dependence upon China (many including Iran’s Foreign Minister had been critical of the 25 year agreement saying that it lacked transparency). Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the eve of his Russia visit from October 5-6th, 2021 also stated that Iran while strengthening ties would not want to be excessively dependent upon either country.

Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Russia

    Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian  during his Russia visit  discussed a host of issues with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov including the current situation in Afghanistan, South Caucasus, Syria and the resumption of the Vienna negotiations.

Russia and Iran have been working closely on Afghanistan (on October 20, 2021 Russia is hosting talks involving China, India, Iran and Pakistan with the Taliban).

It is also important to bear in mind, that both Russia and Iran have flagged the non-inclusive nature of the Taliban Interim government. Russia has in fact categorically stated that recognition of Taliban was not on the table. Said the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly,   ‘the whole gamut of Afghan society — ethno-religious and political forces — so we are engaging in contacts, they are ongoing.’

China’s approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan

Here it would be pertinent to point out, that China’s stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan is not identical to that of Moscow and Tehran. Beijing while putting forward its concerns vis-à-vis the use of Afghan territory for terrorism and support to Uyghur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has repeatedly said that there should be no external interference, and that Afghanistan should be allowed to decide its future course. China has also spoken in favor of removal of sanctions against the Taliban, and also freeing the reserves of the Afghan Central Bank (estimated at well over 9 Billion USD), which had been frozen by the US after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

If one were to look at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal, Russia has been urging Iran to get back to the Vienna negotiations on the one hand (these negotiations have been on hold since June), while also asking the US to return to its commitments, it had made under the JCPOA, and also put an end to restriction on Iran and its trading partners.

Conversation between US Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister

The important role of Russia is reiterated by the conversation between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister. Angela Merkel during her visit to Israel also made an important point that both China and Russia had an important role to play as far as getting Iran back on JCPOA is concerned. What is also interesting is that US has provided a waiver to the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. The US has opposed the project, but the Department of State said waiving these sanctions was in US national interest. Both Germany and Russia welcomed this decision.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia may have moved closer to China in recent years, its stance on Afghanistan as well as it’s important role in the context of resumption of Vienna negotiations highlight the fact that Moscow is not keen to play second fiddle to Beijing. The Biden Administration in spite of its differences has been engaging closely with Moscow (a number of US analysts have been arguing for Washington to adopt a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis Russia and to avoid hyphenating Moscow with Beijing).  In the given geopolitical landscape, Washington would not be particularly averse to Tehran moving closer to Russia. While the Iranian spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh spoke about a Eastern axis emerging between Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, it would be pertinent to point out, that there are differences on a number of issues between Moscow and Beijing. The Russia-Iran relationship as well as US engagement with Russia on a number of important geopolitical issues underscores the pitfalls of viewing geopolitics from simplistic binaries.

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New U.S. travel rules excludes foreigners vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V

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Local and foreign media have stepped up reports about rising Covid-19 infections in Russia. While the reports also indicated high deaths in the country, other highligted new trends that are noticeably appearing. Interestingly, directors at the Russian tourism and travel agencies say that many Russians are lining up for vaccine tourism in Serbia, Bulgaria and Germany and a few other foreign countries.

These Russians aim at getting foreign vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

Here are a few facts about Russian vaccines.

Russia’s Sputnik V was the first officially registered coronavirus vaccine on August 11, 2020. Russia is using four vaccines for mass vaccination for Covid-19. These are Sputnik V and Sputnik Light developed by the Russian Health Ministry’s Gamaleya Center.

EpiVacCorona developed by the Vector Center of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), and CoviVac developed by the Chumakov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Clinical trials of the EpiVacCorona vaccine on teens aged from 15 to 17 might begin in the near future.

China has 1.3 billion population and has given the two billionth vaccine by the end of August, the United State has 380 million and attained 60% of its population. In Europe, vaccination rate is highly at an appreciable level.

Overall, Russia with an estimated 146 million people has Europe’s highest death toll from the pandemic, nearly 210,000 people as at September 30, according to various authentic sources including the National Coronavirus Task Force.

More than 42 million Russians have received both components of a coronavirus vaccine, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova.

“The number of citizens who have received the first component of a vaccine has topped 44 million, and more than 37 million people have completed a full vaccination course,” Golikova said.

She gave an assurance back in July that once the population have been immunized with at least the first component of a two-shot vaccine, herd immunity to Covid-19, or at least an 80% vaccination rate, should be reached by November 1.

Reasons: Even though Russia boasted of creating the world’s first coronavirus vaccines, vaccination is very low. Critics have principally blamed a botched vaccine rollout and mixed messages the authorities have been sending about the outbreak.

In addition, coronavirus antibody tests are popular in Russia and some observers suggest this contributes to the low vaccination numbers.

Western health experts say the antibody tests are unreliable either for diagnosing Covid-19 or assessing immunity to it. The antibodies that these tests look for can only serve as evidence of a past infection. Scientists say it’s still unclear what level of antibodies indicates that a person has protection from the virus and for how long.

Russia has registered Sputnik V in more than 150 foreign countries. The World Health Organization is yet to register this vaccine. For its registration, it must necessarily pass through approved procedures, so far Russia has ignored them, according reports.

There have also been several debates after the World Health Organization paused its review process of the Sputnik V vaccine over concerns about its manufacturing process, and few other technical reasons. While some talked about politicizing the vaccine registration, other have faced facts of observing recognized international rules for certifying medical products as such vaccines.

During the first week of October, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has reiterated or repeated assertively that a certain package of documents were needed to continue the process for the approval of the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V by the World Health Organization. The final approval is expected towards the end of 2021.

Still some the problems with the registration as unfair competition in the global market. For instance, Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said in an interview with the Rossiya-24 television channel on October 5: “I think it is an element of competition. Until Pfizer covers a certain part of the market, it is pure economics.”

On the other side, Pyotr Ilyichev, Director for International Organization at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Interfax News Agency, for instance that World Health Organization has been playing politics around Russian vaccine especially when it is need in most parts of the world.

“The world is facing an acute shortage of vaccines for the novel coronavirus infection. In certain regions, for instance in African countries, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The Russian vaccine is in demand, and the UN stands ready to buy it,” he told Interfax.

“However, certification in the WHO is a complex, multi-step process, which was developed in the past in line with Western countries’ standards. It requires time and serious efforts from our producers. We hope that this process will be successfully finalized in the near future,” Ilyichev said.

Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Leonid Slutsky has described as discriminatory a decision reported by foreign media that the United States, under its new consular rules, would deny entry for foreigners immunized with the Russian Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V.

“Thus, the U.S. will blatantly embark on a path of ‘vaccine discrimination.’ There are absolutely no grounds for such decisions. The efficacy and safety of the Sputnik V vaccine have been confirmed not only by specialists, but also by its use in practice,” Slutsky said on Telegram.

He cited an article in The Washington Post saying that from November the United States may begin denying entry to foreigners vaccinated with Sputnik V.

It means that if such additional border measures are adopted, foreigners seeking entry to the United States will have to be immunized with vaccines approved for use either by American authorities or the World Health Organization.

According to an article published in The Washington Post, for the first time since the pandemic began, the United States intends to loosen entry restrictions for foreigners vaccinated against Covid-19.

The new rules, which enter into force in November, will not apply to Russians vaccinated with Sputnik V and citizens of other countries using this Russian vaccine.

Under the new rules, foreigners will enter United States only if they are immunized with vaccines approved for use by the United States Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization. Russia’s Sputnik V is yet to be approved by the World Health Organization and is not recognized by the United States.

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Should Russia Be Worried by the New AUKUS Alliance?

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The establishment of a new trilateral military and political alliance consisting of the United States, Australia, and the UK (AUKUS) and the corollary rupture of France’s “contract of the century” to build a new generation of diesel-powered submarines for Australia elicited mixed reactions in Russia. Some were pleased to see a conflict arise between the United States and France, while some expressed concern that the alliance targets Moscow just as much as it does Beijing. Others were worried about the implications of the U.S. decision to share nuclear submarine technology with a non-nuclear state (instead of the French diesel submarines, Canberra will now get eight nuclear submarines).

These are valid points, but they all focus on the short-term consequences of the creation of AUKUS. Yet the decision to form a trilateral union and the new format of modernizing Australia’s underwater fleet will also have long-term implications, including for Russia.

Above all, the launch of AUKUS has confirmed that the standoff with China is indisputably the number one foreign policy priority for U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration. Standing up to China is apparently worth risking a serious fallout with Paris over, worth putting Canberra in an awkward position, and worth expanding the interpretation of nonproliferation. The fact is that it’s getting increasingly difficult for Washington to single-handedly compete with Beijing in the naval arena, especially in the eastern Pacific Ocean, so it has no choice but to lean on its most reliable partners while ignoring the inevitable costs.

Nuclear-powered submarines have only one indisputable advantage over modern diesel submarines: a greater operating range, thanks to their superior autonomy. If the new submarines were intended only to defend Australia, there would be no need for them to be nuclear. If, however, they are expected to perform covert operations over many months in more remote waters—in the Taiwan Strait, near the Korean Peninsula, or somewhere in the Arabian Sea—then a nuclear reactor would be a significant advantage.

For Russia, this means that any of its actions from now on will be viewed by Washington within the context of the U.S.-Chinese confrontation. The White House will, for example, turn a blind eye to Moscow’s cooperation with New Delhi and Hanoi on military technology, seeing it as a way to shore up the regional counterbalance to Beijing. Russia’s ongoing assistance with China’s naval modernization program, on the other hand, will be closely scrutinized and could become grounds for new U.S. sanctions against both countries.

There has been some speculation that AUKUS will, with time, become an Asian equivalent of NATO, with more countries joining, from Canada and New Zealand to Japan and South Korea, and eventually even India and Vietnam. These predictions have unsurprisingly elicited concern in Russia.

Yet they are unlikely to come true. Countries like South Korea and India have no desire to join a multilateral military alliance that could jeopardize their relations with other countries. In any case, the establishment of a new structure is in itself an indirect acknowledgement by Washington that the twentieth-century rigid model of alliances is not right for this century. If anything, AUKUS is an attempt to find a modern alternative to NATO.

It’s inevitable that the role of NATO in U.S. strategy will decrease, but that’s not necessarily in Russia’s long-term interests if it means the organization will be replaced with structures such as AUKUS. NATO has detailed and clearly articulated decisionmaking procedures and mechanisms for reaching compromises among its many members. Decisions made by NATO may be unpalatable for Moscow, but they are generally consistent and predictable. The same cannot be said of less heavyweight structures such as AUKUS, from which any number of improvised reactions could ensue, inevitably adding to the political risks.

The concept of AUKUS envisages that control of ocean lanes will continue to be a U.S. priority. The United States is not capable of establishing sufficient control over land transport corridors in Eurasia, nor does it need to do so: the main global cargo traffic routes will be maritime for the foreseeable future. For this reason, it is the world’s oceans rather than continental Eurasia that will be the main battleground between the United States and China.

For Russia, as a predominantly land power, that is overall a good thing—as long as Moscow doesn’t strive to position itself at the epicenter of the Chinese-American standoff. In theory, in a couple of decades’ time, Australian submarines could turn up off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island and Kamchatka Peninsula, or even cross the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean, creating a new potential threat for Russia’s Northern Fleet. There is every reason to suppose, however, that their main routes will lie much further south, and will not directly impinge upon Russian interests.

It is noteworthy that at around the same time as the establishment of AUKUS, China submitted an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was actually conceived as part of the strategy for China’s economic containment under former U.S. president Barack Obama, though his successor Donald Trump refused to take part in the initiative. China’s chances of joining the TPP are slim, but in making the request, Beijing is once again demonstrating that for its part, it would like to limit its rivalry with Washington to the realm of trade, investment, and technology. By creating AUKUS, on the other hand, the United States and its partners are increasingly signaling their intention of extending the confrontation to the field of military technology and the geopolitical arena.

Back in May 1882, when Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy agreed to establish the military and political bloc known as the Triple Alliance, it’s unlikely that anyone in Europe gave a second thought to the possible long-term consequences. After all, the aim of the alliance was purely the containment of France, where revanchism was rife following the country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1872. There were no bigger plans in Berlin, Vienna, or Rome at that time. Yet little more than thirty years later, the European continent was awash with the bloodshed of an unprecedented war.

Today, AUKUS looks like a rickety and unstable structure cobbled together in a hurry. But in twenty or thirty years, the logic that prompted its members to establish a new military and political alliance could lead them into a situation that neither they nor their opponents can get out of without the most severe consequences for themselves and the rest of the world. That is the main long-term danger from AUKUS.

From our partner RIAC

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