Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the Syrian civil war, Russia has remained largely absent from the Middle East. The humiliation as a result of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, coupled with its decline of authority after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, means the Middle East has been largely off the Russian Federation’s radar in recent history.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to see Russia return as a ‘great power’ on the international stage means their foreign policy has dramatically changed its priorities, expanding forcefully into the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, Russia has adopted a multifaceted approach to its Middle Eastern policy, meaning it is rapidly becoming a dominant force in the region, and is now challenging the influence of the West and the United States.
One such position that Moscow is particularly adamant on is its opposition to Western-backed humanitarian intervention. Since the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, the Kremlin has believed that the supposed humanitarian intervention under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine is instead a Trojan horse, disguising the West’s desire to pursue regime change.
R2P, stipulates that if the state cannot – or will not – protect its own people, it falls to the international community to intervene on its behalf. This scheme, however, merely acts as a way to conceal the West’s ambitions to promote liberal values. In light of this belief, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated Moscow would ‘never allow the Security Council to authorise anything similar to what happened in Libya’.
Similarly, Putin determined that ‘democracy, the rule of law and human rights are all little more than contrivances that allows the West to control weaker nations.’ Rightly or wrongly, Russia is convinced that the West wishes to infiltrate states which do not adhere to liberal international norms and alter them accordingly.
Furthermore, the fall of Gaddafi and his regime deprived Russia not only of political influence, but also of vital sources of trade in defence contracts. In its quest to become a great power, Russia needs to be aware of the risk of losing international significance to the West.
In a bid to prevent further loss of authority, Russia has taken steps to quell Western attempts to promote regime change and overthrow surrounding illiberal states. On a number of occasions, Moscow has blocked UN action in Syria; from a ceasefire in Ghouta, to cross border aid deliveries. Russia has remained adamant that it will block any attempts from the West to adopt a Libyan mindset and promote Western-friendly regime change(s).
Moreover, since September 2015, Moscow has dramatically escalated its military presence in the region through its support of Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, while Russia has material interests with Syria which include a number of defence contracts, as well as the rights to explore potential oil fields, Moscow’s support for Damascus is somewhat more profound.
Indeed, Russia Middle East analyst Aleksei Malashenko argues that Moscow’s longstanding relationship with Damascus marks the ‘last remnant of Soviet politics in the Middle East’. In fact, Russia is also protecting its image as a self-perceived ‘great power’. If Assad falls, this identity will be lost in the Middle East. In addition, losing this political influence to Western-backed rebels will be a disaster for Russia’s mission to re-establish itself as a world power.
To combat growing Western intrusion into the Middle East, Moscow not only maintains a military footing in Syria, but also attempts to alter international norms in regard to regime change. To counter Western liberal internationalist principles which advocate democracy, freedom of speech etc., Moscow promotes an alternative; ‘sovereign democracy’.
Putin, particularly, has spearheaded this concept which advances the primacy of sovereignty and argues that if political change is to occur, it must manifest itself within a state’s own border,s and under the control of the central organisations of power. In its pursuit for prestige on the world stage, the Kremlin not only challenges the validity of Western ideals, but also seeks to promote its own.
Increased Russia influence in the Middle East has also adopted its position on trade and investment. Since its action in Eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, Russia has been forced to adapt and diversify its trade relations in order to enlarge its economy, and establish its great power status whilst being subject to sanctions imposed by the West.
In light of this, Moscow has particularly focused its attention on defence contracts and arms deals in the region. Indeed, since the Arab Spring, Russia has lost over $10 billion worth of defence contracts in the Middle East. Replacing these sources of revenue are of vital importance to the nation.
Similarly, Russia has sold over $4 billion worth of arms to Syria since 2012, and is exporting advanced weapons systems to Egypt. Moreover, in 2016 Russia made the controversial leap of providing Iran with advanced S-300 air defence missile systems, much to the displeasure of the US.
Russia has also expanded its dealings in the region through the energy sector. Since December 2016, the state-owned oil company Rosneft has noticeably increased its presence in Egypt, purchasing a thirty-five per cent share in the largest natural gas project off the Egyptian coast. In addition, Russia now accounts for sixty-three per cent of natural gas in Turkey through the ‘Blue Stream’ gas export line.
Similarly, Russia has also signed a number of contracts to construct eight new nuclear reactors in Iran, the first of which will be erected at the Bushehr power plant. Russia has further expanded its dealing with Iran as one of the first countries to return to the Islamic Republic after sanctions were raised in 2015-16. Clearly, Russia is on a mission to dramatically increase its economic influence in the Middle East.
Finally, Russia has a number of national security concerns in the region, chief of which is the threat posed by Islamic extremist groups. By the end of 2015, between five thousand and seven thousand individuals from Russia and post-Soviet states joined ISIS, as well as Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. Russia wishes to contain the Syrian conflict out of fear that fighting may spill over its borders if Assad falls.
The result would have direct consequences within Russia’s borders. Moscow wishes to prevent transnational Islamist groups linking up with like-minded organisations within the Russian North Caucasus region. This position is well founded. In June 2015, a number of jihadist organisations around Chechnya and Dagestan swore allegiance to ISIS. As tensions around the North Caucasus are high, containing such a catalyst for conflict is of primary concern for the Kremlin.
Interestingly, Russia’s security concerns in the Middle East also stem directly from Moscow. Indeed, the promotion of regime change within the region threatens the stability of the Putin administration. The actions that Moscow has undertaken in order to quell unrest in Syria are a result of grass-root political discontent in Russia.
Chief of the Russian General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, protested Western intervention, arguing the furthering of colour revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen served only to ‘advance their (the West’s) strategic interests by removing undesirable political regimes’, and that this method would be used to overthrow the Russian government and its allies.
One aspect of Russia’s interest in Syria in regard to national security is to prevent such an event from transpiring. Indeed, a report published by the Levada Centre found that thirty-eight per cent of Russians believed the so-called ‘Egypt scenario’ was likely to happen in Russia, whilst a Public Opinion Foundation found forty-nine per cent of Russians were ‘prepared to participate in protest demonstrations’.
In fact, protests sparked in Russia during 2011-12 due to disgruntlement over ‘electoral vote-rigging, and a general dissatisfaction with the corrupt and authoritarian nature of Russian politics.’ For the Kremlin, protecting against not only against radical Islamic groups, but also against political unrest domestically, is paramount for Russia to establish itself as a so-called great power.
Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle is no doubt multifaceted. Moscow has been throwing its weight around in the Middle East, embarking on a mission to establish itself as a stout opponent to the powers of the West. While it would be an exaggeration to say this the Cold War 2.0, Russia is no doubt becoming more assertive in international politics.
This is unlikely to stop, and the West needs to find ways of contesting Eastern powers without funding proxy wars in the Middle East. However, as mentioned above, diplomatic options are limited; both the West and Russia have differing views on how world politics should be conducted, particularly on issues surrounding humanitarian intervention and regime change. Nevertheless, the balance of power is changing – Russia is on the rise.
Photo by Kremlin.ru on Wikipedia.