A key component of Russia’s 21st-century grand strategy goal of becoming the supreme balancing force in Eurasia is its “Ummah Pivot” of comprehensive engagement with the Muslim-majority countries to its South, stretching from North Africa to South Asia. This vector of Russian diplomacy is intended to compensate for the recent setbacks in Western Eurasia (Europe) while simultaneously preventing any future disproportionate strategic dependence on Eastern Eurasia (China).
It is yet to be articulated and—perhaps—is not consciously understood even by most Russian policymakers as it began in a somewhat ad hoc fashion after the country’s decisive anti-terrorist intervention in Syria in 2015. What is therefore needed is a clear understanding of what is happening in this broad swath of geostrategic space with a special attention paid to the challenges, opportunities and narrative engagement for optimizing Russia’s grand strategy there.
The present analysis sets out to accomplish this ambitious task, though taking care not to get bogged down in details by instead focusing more on the agents of change (dynamics) and interests (both opportunistic and enduring). It begins by describing the processes that are currently unfolding, including by identifying the main actors and their driving motivations. It then segues into a series of observations about their overlapping and contradictory interests, which in turn enables one to better formulate Russia’s policy towards them individually and multilaterally.
Upon reaching that point, the second part of this article will go on to elaborate on Russia’s desired vision for those countries and the processes that they are participating in before talking about the means through which its soft power strategy can most effectively be utilized to advance them. The overall purpose of this two-part article is to enlighten Russian decision makers about everything of significance related to their country’s unofficial “Ummah Pivot”.
North Africa: All Eyes on Libya
Beginning from North Africa and moving eastward through the Levant, Gulf, South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia and South Asia, the first-mentioned region is plagued by the security threats emanating from the war-torn Libya, where a slew of external powers is competing to shape the outcome of its ongoing civil war. First and foremost among them are Turkey, Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE, though the U.S. also plays a naturally important role, even if the country has tended to neglect this conflict over the past few years—despite being responsible for it over a decade ago.
The region’s future will be determined by how the Libyan civil war ends. Thus far, it appears as though piecemeal progress has been made on stabilizing the military situation there as a result of Russian and Turkish diplomatic efforts, the former of which were reportedly aided by private military contractors (PMCs) while the latter were assisted by a direct military intervention at the request of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
Egypt has sought to secure its national interests by backing Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) alongside its Emirati patron, though the Turkish intervention halted its advance on the capital last year. Russia’s stance is a bit ambiguous: on the one hand, it supports the internationally recognized government allied with Turkey, while on the other, Russian PMCs have reportedly helped Haftar too. This seemingly schizophrenic policy can be attributed to either the ad hoc nature of the North African dimension of Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, a desire to balance both sides of the conflict by different means. It must also be said that Russia has an interest in supporting its historical, though at times wayward, Egyptian partner due to its large commercial, energy and military market potential. Furthermore, backing Haftar quietly helps improve relations with an aspiring Arab hegemon, the UAE, which could be instrumentalized to open up other regional entry points elsewhere in the future, such as in the Horn of Africa, where Abu Dhabi has recently become the most influential external actor.
Besides, it should not be forgotten that Algeria is Russia’s historical and loyal partner as well. The country, too, aspires for stability in Libya, but it is also caught in a never-ending “Cold War” with the neighboring Morocco, with which Russia is also seeking to cultivate ties as part of its regional balancing act. Speaking of which, the unresolved Western Sahara conflict remains a possible obstacle for enhanced cooperation with Rabat, though Moscow has over the past few years been pragmatic enough not to let that outstanding international legal issue stand in the way of improving bilateral relations. Nevertheless, Russia should proceed with caution lest it risk inadvertently raising suspicions from Algeria and, perhaps, unintentionally pushing it closer to China or other leading nations. Still, it is unlikely that Algeria, which is heavily dependent on Soviet/Russian weaponry, would ever pivot too quickly away from Russia no matter what, especially considering the pressure that it to varying extents faces from other countries, like France.
All told, the geostrategic future of North Africa is still being determined, shaped most powerfully by the ultimate outcome of the Libyan civil war. It is possible that the country remains de facto internally partitioned between Haftar’s East and Tripoli’s West, thus dividing it into spheres of influence between Turkey on one side and Egypt, the UAE, France, and perhaps also Russia on the other.
Moscow’s most immediate goal is to improve its international soft power standing by remaining a balanced player in this situation, though with an eye on obtaining economic dividends with time —ideally from “both Libyas”—such as through energy extraction and reconstruction contracts. In order to set itself apart from its many competitors in these spheres, Russia must find ways to position itself as uniquely valuable to one or hopefully both sides. This will require creative diplomacy and perhaps more skillful leveraging of its reported PMC presence in the East.
The Levant: Complex Multipolar Balancing
Russia’s anti-terrorist intervention in Syria was truly a game changer that has since resulted in transforming Moscow into a regional diplomatic power broker. It is rightly perceived as a neutral actor for the most part due to its principled diplomatic stance in Syria, whereby it does its best to publicly treat Damascus and the internationally recognized armed opposition as equals through the Astana peace process. Although this may have disturbed Damascus to a certain extent and thus unintentionally pushed it closer to Iran in order to balance the speculative fears of the long-term geostrategic consequences of a disproportionate dependence on Moscow (i.e. pressuring Syria to eventually make peace with Russia’s close Israeli partner and/or request the dignified but phased withdrawal of Iranian forces), it wildly succeeded in showing the other external parties to the conflict that Russia takes their interests into account. This is most clearly the case when it comes to Turkey via Russia’s silent acquiescence of its de facto sphere of influence over parts of northern Syria, despite Moscow openly criticizing it at times as being against international law while passively facilitating it through Astana.
The Syrian conflict might not be politically resolved anytime soon, thus resulting in an indefinite state of affairs whereby the country remains internally partitioned between the liberated majority of the state and the American- and Turkish-occupied East and North, respectively. This is due to Damascus’ inability to remove those occupying forces militarily, which in turn prevents it from reclaiming the profitable energy deposits in the American occupation zone. Russia’s prior attempt at diplomatically balancing with the Kurds regrettably failed because they ultimately remained loyal to Washington, but any potential breakthrough in the U.S.-Russian relations might lead to a pragmatic series of mutual compromises across Eurasia, which could see some progress made on somewhat resolving this dilemma in Syria. In any case, Russia would do best to expect the situation to mostly remain frozen and formulate its policies from that prediction. With this in mind, it must multi-manage its increasingly complex relations with Turkey and especially Iran in Syria, the latter of which is regularly bombed by Israel without any Russian interference due to their 2015 deconfliction mechanism.
Russia regards Israel as a truly powerful regional force to be reckoned with, ergo the reason President Putin devotes so much of his personal diplomatic efforts to maintaining and expanding increasingly excellent ties with it and, in particular, former Prime Minister Netanyahu. In fact, one can even say that Israel relies more on Russian security assistance in Syria to ensure its regional interests vis-a-vis Iran by bombing the latter than on the U.S., which only provides military and economic aid but is unable to shape regional security in the manner that Russia indirectly does.
Israel appreciates this so much that it refused to sanction Russia in solidarity with the West, a point that President Putin never forgot. As it stands, Iran’s continued military presence in Syria is challenging for Russian long-term interests since Tehran is a formidable but friendly competitor to Russia there, despite the bilateral relations being better than at any time in history. At times, Iran is accused by Israel of arming militants that end up attacking Israel, which is why Tel Aviv bombs them, so it would be in the interests of peace for Iran to leave. Syria, however, continues to cling to it in order to balance Russia.
One way or the other, Russia must seek to reassure Syria that its fears of a future disproportionate dependence on Moscow are unfounded and that the Eurasian great power will not trade its legitimate interests on the so-called “grand chessboard” with other great powers in order to promote its own. The main reason for such suspicions rests in Russia’s truly neutral stance towards the Astana peace process where it treated Damascus and the internationally recognized armed opposition as equals by handing them both the Russia-written draft constitution at the same time. It can be argued that this served Russia’s larger regional geostrategic interests as explained, but it complicated its narrower ones with Syria by unintentionally provoking a so-called “strategic dilemma”, which resulted in Damascus clinging more closely to Tehran than ever before. Until Iranian forces are removed, the U.S. is unlikely to lift its crippling unilateral sanctions regime. Yet, Syria rightly does not trust the U.S. to keep it implied word, ergo the dilemma. Russia must therefore pioneer a creative solution to this issue.
One possible idea is to leverage the potentially improved relations with the U.S. towards this end whereby the Biden administration might seek to reach a regional compromise with Iran in the context of the ongoing nuclear negotiations. In exchange for generous sanctions relief, Iran would have to gradually scale down its presence in Syria. In fact, even if only unofficially, more sanctions relief for both Iran and Syria could be paired with progress on Iran’s gradual withdrawal or—at least—major drawing down of its forces in Syria. That, however, requires political will by all sides, and it is here where Russia could balance each player and help them reach a pragmatic compromise. After all, without sanctions relief in Syria, the country’s reconstruction will never be fully completed. But upon the lifting of sanctions (even if only partially), much investment will pour into the country, particularly from the UAE with which Syria has recently patched up its relations. On that topic, it is in Russia’s interests to see to it that Syria returns to the Arab League or at least under Arab (e.g., the UAE) patronage to an extent so as to serve as a bulwark to both Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria.
As far as the Turkish influence goes, Russia and its historical rival have recently begun to regulate their friendly competition in North Africa, the Levant, and the South Caucasus in a responsible fashion. Differences still exist, some of them potentially serious, but they seem manageable for the time being. Turkey’s interests in Syria are related to institutionalizing its sphere of influence there through some form of Bosnian-like broad devolution of power which would give the occupied regions plenty of political autonomy. That is unacceptable to Damascus, at least for now, but if this were linked to a larger regional compromise of sanctions relief in exchange for a gradual Iranian withdrawal, then it might help them reach a solution to this impasse. Russia must do all that it can to bring this vision about, though remembering to balance the Turkish influence with a restored Arab/Emirati influence. In this possible outcome, all players would win. However, the key challenge remains Damascus since it does not want to “lose face” in the eyes of its very patriotic citizenry—therefore, there must be clear and credible rewards/incentives for it to compromise in such a way. Once again, Russian diplomacy is the solution.
Elsewhere in the Levant, the so-called Kurdish question remains acute. Turkey is absolutely against the Kurds having any sort of autonomy in Syria, which could prove problematic for the larger compromise that Russia wants to broker between it, Syria, Iran and the U.S. there. One way or another, all of their interests must be respected. A possible outcome could be Damascus restoring sovereignty over its Northern border region in exchange for Kurdish demilitarization coupled with a broad political and, perhaps, economic autonomy through a complicated profit-sharing formula between that region and the central government—similar to what Iraqi Kurdistan has with Baghdad. Turkey, more than anything, does not want to be threatened by PKK-aligned militants there, but a joint Russian-Syrian patrol of the border could possibly prevent that. The U.S., however, might stand in the way since it does not want to withdraw without leaving a lasting geopolitical legacy behind.
Accepting that this remains one of the most complicated dimensions of the Syrian peace process, it is worthwhile moving on for pragmatism’s sake to Iraq, the last part of the larger Levantine puzzle where Russia has any significant influence (it lacks a lot of it in Lebanon, which is mostly divided between Iranian and Saudi influence at the moment and thus provides little opportunity for any significant Russian entry point other than perhaps a joint offshore energy extraction in the future).
Unlike in Syrian Kurdistan, Russia’s Kurdish outreaches in Iraq have been remarkably successful, resulting in Russia being the region’s largest investor through its energy companies. Turkey occasionally intervenes there in a military way to fight PKK militants and also commands some sway over the region, but Iran has some influence over rival Kurdish political groups, too. America still has a formidable presence which should not be forgotten. Overall, though, Russia can use Iraqi Kurdistan as a perch from which to balance the four neighboring countries, in a friendly and a non-military way.
The challenge, however, is in the future political status of Iraqi Kurdistan which regularly clamors for independence. The last time this happened a few years ago, Russia, importantly, did not condemn it, though never condoned it either. This resulted in some parties casting suspicion on Russian strategic motives. It was through multilateral military pressure from the surrounding countries that this independence plot was foiled, but it probably won’t be the last.
The next time this happens, Russia must be prepared. It cannot compromise its interests with either rival side, but must somehow enhance them, which is very difficult to pull off. Perhaps, the same policy of strategic ambiguity could pay off, but it must be deeply contemplated in case the regional situation changes by that time. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurdistan is an important outpost of Russian influence in the Levant, though one that is little discussed and which at times seems almost neglected by the country’s analysts, at least in their public works. That should change because the region is integral to Russian grand strategy interests.
The Gulf: Opportunities Galore
The Gulf has seen a lot of change in recent years. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) rapid ascent as the unofficial ruler resulted in far-reaching liberal reforms in the social and economic sectors. There were fears that they might antagonize the ultra-conservative clerical elite, with which power is de facto shared in the Kingdom, but these have not (yet?) come to pass. Still, royal rivalries remain, and they are ripe for external exploitation even though it seems like MBS will probably remain in power for some time. During his unofficial rule, though, Saudi Arabia got bogged down in neighboring Yemen, which led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It intervened very decisively due to the fears of that country turning into an outpost of Iranian influence following the Ansaraullah’s (Houthis’) rapid advance in 2014-2015.
Yemen has since turned into an “Arab Afghanistan” in the sense of being a militarily unresolvable conflict that can only be ended through political means, with neither side willing to compromise due to their maximalist objectives and the need to “save face”.
The UAE, ever pragmatic under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ, who is also MBS’ mentor), mostly withdrew a year or so ago but left powerful proxy forces behind in its de facto protectorate of South Yemen. Saudi Arabia still remains trapped in this quagmire though, but has signaled interest in some kind of pragmatic solution. Most realistically, this should have to do with an internal partition of the country back into its Northern and Southern halves, influenced mostly by Iran and the GCC respectively. Regarding the GCC, the UAE is arguably the most powerful force nowadays as Saudi Arabia no longer commands such influence or respect due to its failure to win its war against the much smaller neighbor. Both external pairs of players fear the other’s influence in Yemen. This might be therefore a difficult deal to seal, unless Russia somehow helps to broker a diplomatic solution as it seems somewhat interested in doing so after hosting the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in February.
What Russia should keep in mind is that the UAE must be its prime Arab partner of choice. Abu Dhabi commands impressive trans-regional influence, including in the Horn of Africa. If Moscow unofficially sided more with it than with Saudi Arabia or Iran (especially in Yemen), this could potentially open doors in the neighboring regions that might otherwise remain closed. At the same time though, for reasons of international soft power and prestige, Moscow must not be seen as supporting separatist forces either. However, the very fact that it proposed some form of decentralization in Syria back in 2017 shows that there is a precedent to do the same in Yemen. The thinking goes that this is a pragmatic possibility, one without any ulterior motives since Russia would not have proposed it to its Syrian ally had it been otherwise. In the very least, Russia must try to float this idea more confidently to gauge regional interest both at the elite and local levels.
Another Gulf-related issue is the intra-organizational spat over Qatar, which has officially been resolved despite distrust still lingering. Basically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE accused Qatar of supporting terrorism through its sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood (designated as a terrorist group by Moscow) and meddling in their affairs via Al Jazeera. It is crucial to point out that Qatar is a Turkish ally too, with Ankara having recently established a military base there. Both countries are ideological allies in so far as their shared support for political Islam goes, especially through the Muslim Brotherhood. Another point that deserves mentioning is that the GCC (with the exception of Qatar) is in regional rivalry with Turkey across North Africa (Libya) and the Levant (Syria). Although Ankara is trying to resolve this rivalry, just like with Qatar, even an official end to it might not change the dynamics completely. In other words, one can say that among the most powerful transregional trends in the Ummah right now is the Turkish/Qatari-GCC rivalry across North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf.
Russia’s equally excellent relations with all players, including Iran (which will be analyzed separately later on due to its unique geostrategic location), enable it to freely move between each of them without fear of offending the other so long as it does so pragmatically and without pitting one against the other. Russia supported Qatar during the intra-GCC “Cold War”, but it did not go against the rest of the GCC either. No real dividends were achieved, at least none that were too visible, but thankfully no losses were incurred either. This therefore represents a success of sorts for Russia’s balancing act in one of the Ummah’s most important spaces, and also its wealthiest. Russia’s “military diplomacy” of arms sales to all sides in order to retain the balance of power between them through no-strings-attached sales (i.e., no political demands upon them unlike the ones that the U.S. sometimes makes to its partners) increases its appeal among their elite, but soft power among civil society does not appear to be too significant except in the tourism industry.
South Caucasus: Tricky Relations with Turkey
It is here at the juncture between Russia, Turkey, and Iran where Moscow recently made the most impressive progress in the Ummah Pivot. Its peacekeeper deployment to parts of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region as part of the Moscow-mediated ceasefire agreement between it and Armenia in November of last year resulted in Russia restoring plenty of its lost influence in this region. Its approach to the conflict was very balanced. Russia respected international law by not supporting Armenia’s illegal occupation of Karabakh, yet also respected its CSTO mutual defense commitments to Yerevan by warning Baku (and by extent, its ally Ankara) not to attack Armenia.
Speaking of which, Azerbaijan’s military successes were attributable both to its Russian weaponry but also the recently acquired Turkish drones. Some observers considered Russia and Turkey to be competitors in that conflict, while a few forces speculatively wanted them to clash for their own divide-and-rule benefit, but Russian diplomacy literally saved the day not just for Armenia but for the wider region.
The resultant ceasefire mandates the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, thereby unlocking the South Caucasus’ connectivity potential and greatly advancing Russia’s commercial interests with those countries as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran. This is by far Russia’s greatest achievement in the “Ummah Pivot”, but it requires Armenia to fully respect it, which remains to be seen for domestic reasons. In any case, Armenia is unlikely to resort to any suicidal revanchism, although it might refrain from unblocking all corridors right away either. Russia must therefore encourage its ally to do so in order to help its own increasingly impoverished people by opening up new opportunities for long-term economic development in that landlocked country.
Russia truly deserves respect for not allowing its friendly competition with Turkey in the South Caucasus during the latest conflict to turn into an unfriendly one, but this relationship must be closely managed since Turkey aspires to establish a transregional sphere of influence across all Turkic states, including those in Central Asia.
Besides, Ankara wants to do the same in non-Turkic Muslim-majority ones in the Levant and North Africa through its sponsorship of Muslim Brotherhood-linked forces in order to create a sphere of influence via ideologically allied governments. This thematically resembles what the USSR did in post-WW2 Europe through its support of communist governments there, which is to make no judgment but to point out an observation. It must be said that Turkey’s grand strategy plans pose one of the most formidable latent threats to Russian grand strategy interests, but since they were responsibly managed at least for the time being in the South Caucasus and the Levant (Syria), they should at least in theory be manageable elsewhere, like in Central Asia.
It is in Russia’s interests to ensure that Azerbaijan does not become a Turkish proxy, though Baku is also fearful of this too. Importantly, it did not support Hamas during the latest war in Palestine, largely staying silent, unlike its partial patron in Ankara, which proudly supported the militants. This intriguingly resembled a more toned-down variation of the Russian position, albeit that Moscow was loudly calling for both sides to end hostilities and stop killing civilians.
It might be the case that Azerbaijan is increasingly conscious of the scenario that it might gradually surrender some of its strategic sovereignty to Turkey, which could be one of the possible explanations for why it agreed to Russian peacekeepers in order to balance Ankara (while later allowing Turkish ones to enter parts of Karabakh too). Azerbaijan is the regional pivot state while Armenia is largely geostrategically irrelevant in the sense of being unable to independently do anything dramatic now that it is removed from Karabakh. Georgia, meanwhile, will remain a concern considering its close relations with NATO and the unresolved situations with its former regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It seems, however, that internal political differences within Georgia are acute enough to prevent any decisive policy moves, which has both pros and cons. On the one side, it is unlikely that Georgia will ever step away from the West, but it also might not move all that closer to it either. It could be the case that the state of strategic affairs remains frozen for now, pending a new American meddling campaign of course, but even that could be countered if it naturally provokes preexisting polarizing political differences and therefore weakens whatever pro-American government might be in power at the time. That said, the U.S. could also do the same towards any pragmatic Georgian government which is not openly anti-Russian, so the country will likely remain a theater of “hybrid competition” between those two great powers for the coming future.
Having said that, Georgia is not as important as it once was, since the November 2020 ceasefire’s mandate to unblock all regional economic and transport corridors will make Armenia equally—if not more important—as a facilitator of regional trade upon completion. This outcome will help balance regional affairs if successfully managed.
Iran: Friendly Great Power Balancing
This country is a “frenemy” just like Turkey, with similarly complicated relations with Russia. Bilaterally, the ties are excellent, but Iran seriously distrusts Russia in Syria despite their waging anti-terrorist struggle side-by-side there because they cooperate for different ends. Russia bombed terrorists to help Syria liberate more territory prior to the January 2017 Astana peace process which mostly froze the lines of control into spheres of influence, while Iran fights them face-to-face for the most part in order to increasingly advance the area under control of Damascus. The Iranian goal aligns more closely with Syria’s but hit a dead end since Astana informally legitimized the American and Turkish occupation zones, as was explained earlier. Iran also shares Syria’s anti-Zionist ideology, and the two cooperate on supporting Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli militants, which in turn provokes more bombings from Tel Aviv, creating a self-sustaining cycle of destabilization and the reason why it was earlier suggested that Russia must broker a creative political solution seeking Iran’s dignified but phased withdrawal from the Arab Republic.
Those differences aside, Iran is in need of more foreign investment. Russia’s window of opportunity might have closed with the country’s 25-year strategic partnership deal with China of early 2021. Chinese companies have much more political will than Russian ones to defy America’s unilateral sanctions. Iran has no historical distrust of them either, nor is it engaged in any “friendly competition” with the People’s Republic in third countries like Syria. That being the case, however, the situation might eventually change, depending on the outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It is too speculative to say what might happen, but one possibility is that sanctions are lessened, which may in that case inspire Iran to incentivize Russian businesses to invest there in order to avoid a disproportionate strategic dependence on China in the future. In that case, Russia would have to race to occupy certain strategic niches where it can outperform its Chinese competitors, which will be challenging.
One advantage that Russia has is its closer economic connectivity with Iran via the prospectively opened South Caucasus trade corridor and the Caspian. There is also the largely stalled North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) with Azerbaijan, Iran, and India as the lynchpin. New Delhi’s commitment to respect Washington’s unilateral sanctions regime, however, led to the project being for the most part halted; besides, it made Tehran distrust its partner. That dynamic played a major role in the Islamic Republic’s decision to partner with the People’s Republic in a potentially game-changing way. India, however, has enormous potential and the political will to challenge China in a friendly way through “economic diplomacy”. The recently restored strategic closeness between Russia and India could be leveraged towards that end in a post-sanctions scenario, though they will struggle to make up for lost time considering how rapidly China moves into the countries that it partners with.
It is in Russia’s grand strategy interest to resolve the strategic dilemma it has with Iran in Syria (ideally, as part of a larger compromise solution) while simultaneously partnering with India to balance the Chinese influence in Iran. A lot depends on the nuclear negotiations, though. There are also powerful forces at play, both Western and in Iran domestically, trying to alienate Russia from Iran. The years of failure to articulate Russia’s balancing act and its de facto military alliance with Israel in Syria led to a great loss of goodwill, even if not openly expressed by the usually secretive and highly diplomatic Iranians—so plenty of work will have to be done to restore this. Think tank cooperation has led the way in this respect, but only incipiently. Thankfully, though, both sides are beginning to discuss their differences in the open instead of pretending they do not exist for reasons of “political convenience”.
Central Asia: Containing Potentially Destabilizing Influences
Traditionally seen as Russia’s “backyard” or “soft underbelly”, Moscow is gradually losing its influence there to Beijing; perhaps, soon to Ankara and even once again to Washington, depending on the regional strategic outcome of the U.S. impending withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan (regarded as part of South Asia in the context of this article).
First of all, some of these countries—notably Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—are increasingly independent, and while Russian remains the language of inter-ethnic communication and the country itself is still the top destination for economic migrants (except from a much more developed Kazakhstan), Russia is losing a lot of its luster. It remains a major trade partner for the time being and has a number of military bases; but some of the population is attracted to Turkey’s brand of political Islam, despite there being no such a legal party in support of that ideology after Tajikistan’s only in the region was banned a few years ago as a terrorist group (which Dushanbe accused Tehran of supporting).
China’s rising economic potential through its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is changing the economic calculus, though also—interestingly enough—provoking some anti-Chinese sentiments, not necessarily grounded in economic facts. In fact, there is a tendency for some locals to behave in an outright Sinophobic fashion, which complicates some of these countries’ relations with China. The U.S. hopes to make inroads by presenting itself as a neutral balancing force between these two so-called “hegemons”—Russia and China—though it is unclear whether it will succeed in any meaningful way. A lot depends on the progress made with what can be described as Pakistan’s N-CPEC+ vision or the Northern expansion of BRI’s flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Afghanistan to Central Asia. N-CPEC+ can both expand Russian influence southward but also provide an entry point for American economic influence northward. This will be discussed further on but is being brought up now to identify this crucial strategic variable.
Another point to pay attention to is how Azerbaijan recently resolved its long-standing maritime dispute with Turkmenistan. Keeping in mind Turkish grand strategy intentions and Ankara’s influence over Baku, there is a chance that those two might cooperate to advance Turkey’s Middle Corridor to China through Central Asia, further complicating Russia’s political and especially economic influence in the region. Not only that, but the Lapis Lazuli Corridor through Afghanistan to Pakistan could also become viable as another branch of N-CPEC+ directed towards the South Caucasus and West Asia but passing northward through Central Asia’s Turkmenistan.
These overlapping connectivity potentials provide both opportunities but also challenges to Russian grand strategy. Simply put, Russia must seek to profit from them, manage the situation, but not lose control of the dynamics, especially in the soft power sphere as seems to be gradually happening. One possible solution is leveraging the new MGIMO branch campus in Tashkent to train the next generation of the regional elite to ensure influence among their leaderships.
Of serious concern is the growth of non-state threats in the region. Not only does this relate to traditional terrorism (usually embodied by extreme ideological interpretations of Islam) but to nationalist sentiments as well. The Fergana Valley is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and this spring’s clashes between the first two were destabilizing but thankfully brought under control real quickly.
This speaks to how unexpectedly such worrisome scenarios can organically materialize, to say nothing of the influence that external actors, like the U.S., and non-state ones, like ISIS, could wield over those dynamics if they truly attempted to. On the topic of the latter, Central Asia is fearful of Afghan-emanating terrorist threats from ISIS (seeing as how the Taliban, which is banned in Russia just like the Muslim Brotherhood, is strictly focused on Afghanistan and has no expansionist intentions). Russia’s close security cooperation with those countries could help balance the growing Chinese, Turkish and American influence and be leveraged to secure preferential trade deals and such.
At all costs, Russia must stop Central Asia’s gradual slide out of its sphere of influence lest Moscow lose control of the dynamics and new threats begin to emerge. One overarching trend to pay attention to is the growing coordination between Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, Pakistan and even Iran in this region. Led by the Chinese connectivity infrastructure and aided by Turkish soft power, it might end up being the case that Russia “loses” Central Asia without even realizing it, especially if the Chinese-Iranian strategic partnership makes the Islamic Republic a more prominent regional player through improved connectivity, while Pakistan’s enormous economic potential is tapped through N-CPEC+.
One possible solution is to aid India’s entry into the region via Iran to balance out the other competing forces, but this is dependent on the Iranian-Indian relations which, as explained earlier, were seriously damaged by New Delhi’s respect of Washington’s unilateral sanctions. Even if Iran wants to balance the Chinese influence with a joint Russian-Indian influence in a post-sanctions scenario, there might only be so much that Moscow and New Delhi can do now that the game somewhat changed with Beijing’s involvement in the Islamic Republic.
South Asia: Managing Afghanistan & Mitigating Regional Tensions
The two regional pillars of Russia’s “Ummah Pivot” here are Afghanistan and Pakistan, though India remains Moscow’s top partner and has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan. Regarding Afghanistan, Russian diplomatic outreaches to the Taliban—seemingly aided by Pakistani connections—succeeded in normalizing the group’s political role in the country despite it still being officially listed as a terrorist organization by Moscow. This was a very pragmatic move, though, since it created an alternative to the previously U.S.-led but largely unsuccessful peace efforts over the past two decades and greatly enhanced the Russian-Pakistani ties too, which in turn helped Moscow balance New Delhi’s unofficial military alliance with Washington aimed at jointly containing Beijing.
Nobody quite knows what will happen in Afghanistan after the U.S. full withdrawal by September 11, but most expect that the Taliban will gain a lot of ground, if not eventually seize control of the country. Russia must work with Pakistan first and foremost and then the other major diplomatic players, like China and the U.S., to try to mitigate the chaotic consequences, including in the humanitarian dimension, since the latter could lead to large-scale migrant crises which might also provide cover for terrorists to infiltrate Central Asia.
There is also a clear need to stabilize Afghanistan regardless of possible Taliban gains. This can only be sustained through economic engagement, which highlights the importance of N-CPEC+ (or—from the Russian perspective—the Central Eurasian Corridor [CEC] due to Moscow’s respect of New Delhi’s sensitivities related to its partner’s participation in CPEC projects which it is totally against on account of transit through the disputed Kashmiri territory).
It should be remembered, though, that if Russia fails to seize the initiative with N-CPEC+/CEC, it risks losing out to the U.S., which wants to utilize this corridor to expand influence northward to balance Russia and China in Central Asia (possibly via new production facilities conveniently located in low-cost Pakistan).
It is already the case that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan agreed to construct an international railway (unofficially regarded as PAKAFUZ), which essentially lays the basis for N-CPEC+/CEC and might likely see some form of Chinese investment. There is little doubt that the U.S. will seek to exploit this emerging corridor in the future, as should Russia, each for their own ends. In addition, there are an estimated $1-3 trillion worth of rare earth minerals sitting unexploited under the Afghan soil, and it is here that Russian companies could profit tremendously, perhaps through the deployment of PMCs to protect national firms that extract them from possible ISIS threats. The Taliban, however, does indeed decisively fight against ISIS so that might not be necessary. Moreover, improved Russian-Taliban ties (speculatively brokered or facilitated by Pakistan) can result in the group giving Moscow control over some extraction sites, especially if it returns to power or at least in the areas it controls if it doesn’t. It is for this reason why Russia should continue improving political ties with the Taliban so as to profit from them in the future.
When it comes to Pakistan, the benefits of their rapid rapprochement in recent years are clear. Russia can obtain an important energy partner, as well as reach other deals for extracting minerals along its periphery. Pakistan wants to avoid a disproportionate dependence on China, to which end it prefers to balance Beijing with Moscow since both great powers are friendly with one another, unlike Washington which is Islamabad’s traditional ally.
Even so, the U.S.-Pakistani ties will likely continue improving and remain strong, especially considering Pakistan’s interest in courting more American investment as part of their shared N-CPEC+ goals. The recently troubled U.S.-Indian ties due to America’s S-400 sanctions threats, domestic meddling (mostly through media support of opposition narratives), violation of India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) through a recent “freedom of navigation” (FONOP) patrol and failure to reach a comprehensive trade deal despite years of negotiations could see the U.S. rebalance its regional strategy away from its Indian-centricity (driven by their shared desire to militarily contain China) towards a return to treating Pakistan equally, if not a bit better.
That is not to say that the U.S. and India will become competitors once again, like during most of the Old Cold War. The U.S., though, might maintain close military ties with the South Asian nation through the Quad while diversifying its economic diplomacy to more closely embrace Pakistan given the desire to use it as its springboard for balancing Central Asian affairs.
Pakistan would willingly accept that since it needs the investment, especially to avoid an overdependence on China, and would also hope that a comparatively reduced or rather more balanced U.S. support for India would ensure its regional security interests, particularly as it relates to the reported Indian support for militants in Pakistan’s Balochistan that are considered by Islamabad to be terrorists. Interestingly, while India pioneered the concept of multi-alignment, it is Pakistan that is nowadays practicing it much more proficiently and in a more potentially game-changing way, depending on the course of its new model of economic diplomacy through CPEC+ that was unveiled during March’s inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue.
It is in Russia’s interests to remain close to Pakistan, especially for balancing reasons related to the U.S.-Indian relations, but not to risk India’s ire either since the recently troubled U.S.-Indian ties present an opportunity to restore the traditional Russian-Indian relationship in accordance with both leaders’ political will. That outcome could help stabilize South Asia since it was India’s pro-American pivot which is thought by some to have caused the small-scale border war with China last year and worsened the multipolar cooperation through BRICS and the SCO.
The diplomatic balancing act is probably more complex in South Asia than anywhere else in Russia’s “Ummah Pivot” space because of what is at stake—namely, five nuclear-armed nations (Russia, Pakistan, India, China and the U.S.). There is also a quarter of the global population there, too. Ideally, Russia will connect more closely with India through the NSTC via Iran and Azerbaijan while simultaneously pioneering the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC), perhaps with some Japanese involvement or investment, the latter of which could help balance China in a pragmatic yet non-hostile way.
The top variable influencing the “Ummah Pivot” here is the post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan and consequent progress on N-CPEC+/CEC, including American and Turkish participation. What is more, Pakistan’s CPEC+ vision entails directly connecting CPEC to Iran via W-CPEC+, thereby complementing the 25-year Iranian-Chinese strategic partnership. In the event that Pakistan connects more closely with Turkey via the Lapis Lazuli Corridor branch of N-CPEC+/CEC in parallel with doing the same with Iran via W-CPEC+, then a new Chinese-backed majority-Muslim bloc of nations might emerge along Russia’s Southern frontier, which provides both challenges and opportunities like all else.
Russia might be powerless to stop this, so it would have to responsibly manage it through strategic investments in each pertinent “Ummah Pivot” member in order to ensure that their leaderships do not ever flirt with anti-Russian policies. That worst-case scenario would probably become possible only if the Russian-Turkish ties deteriorated against the context of the growing Turkish influence in Central Asia, which is why Turkey—again—is such a latent challenge for Russia.
From our partner RIAC