By Amin Bagheri
Following the effects of the Arab Spring on Russia’s foreign policy in 2011 and its successful mediation in the agreement between the West and Syria on the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles (September 2013), the question arises as to whether Russia has a strategy for the MENA region. Concerning this question, there are three ways of thinking in analyzing Russia’s activities in the Middle East:
1. Russia has had a strategy for the Middle East that has been largely successful.
2. Russia had a strategy for the region, but things did not necessarily go as expected.
3. Russia has no strategy for the Middle East.
Russia’s goals and tools in the MENA region
The main impellents of Russia’s policies in the MENA region are economical and geopolitical. Russia’s goals are multiple and can be categorized on several levels. Globally, Russia seeks to regain its global power and return as an essential independent geopolitical player and regain its position as a significant foreign power in one of the world’s most volatile regions. Russia, meanwhile, knows it cannot replace the United States as a significant player or major provider of security in the MENA region. Still, it could downplay the role of the United States. In addition, Russia is trying to show that the US strategy against terrorism, in support of color revolutions and the policy of regime change, has failed.
Russia’s primary goal is to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria at the regional level. In other words, internal security is maintained by maintaining security in the surrounding environment. Russia’s primary goal is still to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria at the regional level. In other words, internal security is maintained by maintaining security in the surrounding environment. Mediation between the West and the countries of the MENA region and the application of economic diplomacy, and the use of arms and energy sales agreements as a tool of geopolitical influence and attracting investment, especially from the Persian Gulf countries, are all sub-branches of this approach. The intervention in Syria reflects Russia’s long-term strategic goals in the MENA region. Its overall goal seems to be to prevent instability in the region and support certain minorities in the breakaway countries. At the domestic level, Russia’s active participation in the MENA region is aimed at reviving the power of the imperial era and fostering national and anti-Western sentiments. However, according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, only 30% of Russian respondents agree with the continuation of military operations in Syria.
But what tools does Russia have to implement its strategy? Russia’s emerging strategy is the art of adapting to changing circumstances and with limited means to achieve goals. Russia’s tools in the region are military, economic, political, and diplomatic. The Russian military has been an effective tool in Russian foreign policy. While Western leaders sought to convince the world that there was no military solution to the civil war in Syria, Vladimir Putin showed that no political solution would be possible without military support.
Russia’s main interests in the MENA region are geopolitical and security. However, economic exchanges between Russia and the countries of the MENA region have expanded since 2000. Energy, arms, and food (especially grain) have ready markets in the region, and Russian imports have been mainly fruits, vegetables, and textiles. Russia has a clear strategy for its geographical economy. This strategy uses economic, trade, and asset tools to achieve geopolitical goals. Given that Russia is the second-largest arms exporter in the world and one of the most important exporters of fossil fuels, it is expected to succeed in achieving its geopolitical goals in this way, but it will not necessarily succeed in achieving its economic goals.
There are almost no major players in the entire MENA region that Russia has not been able to contact. Friendship and the use of all formal and informal actors, regardless of their political orientation and constant conflicts with each other, have made it possible for Russia to play a mediating role in the region. References to examples of this action include Russia’s approach to relations with Israel and Syria, Iran and Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries, and Turkey and the Kurds. Russia’s policy is driven by the support and sometimes use of existing governments and its non-ideological approach. Nowhere in the region is Russia a full-fledged ally or staunch enemy. And while it does not ignore the differences in the Middle East, it knows that conflicts can be deadly. Hence, it tries to establish relations with the opposition parties based on its interests in the MENA region.
Unlike the United States, which has protected Israel and disagreed with Turkey, a NATO ally, Russia builds opportunity-based alliances that serve its interests first and then other actors to some extent. In addition, the covert anti-American approach in the region and Russia’s friendly approach and pretense of using military force to support allies have made it a key player in the region.
In the end, Russia is a strategic player that will remain in the MENA region for the foreseeable future. The EU and the United States should engage with Russia based on cooperation on issues of common interest, such as the fight against terrorism and ensuring that no country dominates the region. But a more ambitious program, such as democracy, will require a strategy to prevent Russian influence in the Middle East. However, Russia’s role in strengthening governance structures and promoting democracy is still unclear. Due to the crisis of the political system, the MENA region is in a deep process of political transformation. Democracy is difficult to achieve, but it is unclear whether Russia’s formula in support of current governments to ensure regional stability is a long-term political solution.
*Amin Bagheri is a member of the Iranian International Studies Association in Tehran. His research focuses on Iran and the Middle East.