Russia’s historic pragmatism and realpolitik approach to the international stage is making it a more dynamic and attractive partner in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to restore Russia’s prestige and displace the United States in the Middle East. Although the region is still a low priority for Russia compared to its near abroad, Russia has bolstered its political, economic and military tools in the region. Mr. Putin has shown a willingness to work alongside different partners, regardless of historical animosities.
Russia has rebranded itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR), embracing traditional Kremlin friends and foes in the process. Boosting its bilateral relationship with states like Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia.Consequently,
Russia is becoming more significant in the economic and security calculus of the Middle East. Russia is forming a much broader network than in Soviet times. For instance, when Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938, as a result of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s killing of the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the close relationship of the 1920s and early 1930s was quashed. Due to the diplomatic spat, formal ties remained broken until 1992 after the collapse of the USSR. Therefore, Putin’s rekindling of relations with Saudi Arabia highlights that re-bridging of older, traditional relationships and is considered a key driver of Moscow’s recent international relations success. This approach stands in stark contrast to the stagnation and aloofness that took place during the Soviet period.
Leadership is, therefore, Moscow’s recent path to success. Even after Stalin’s death, the USSR’s foreign policy objectives were arguably even less constant because of the instability caused by the change in leadership. Overall, this meant that key bilateral relations within Middle Eastern countries were lost. Conversely, authoritarianism in Russia today means that it appears more stable and therefore it is easier for states to interact with Russian core national security objectives.
Moreover, Mr. Putin’s clear-cut approach has increased Russia’s legitimacy in the Middle East. The realpolitik or zero-sum approach towards the United States makes Russia an attractive partner, considering the growing anti-Western sentiment in the region. As the Russia-Turkey rapprochement over the Russian S-400 missile systems and Russia’s protection of Bashar al-Assad in Syria have provided Russia as a sort of alternative power broker in the region.
Furthermore, the Kremlin’s lack of humanitarian goals and rejection of the West’s liberal standpoint, mean that no universalistic or ideological constraints are imposed on Middle Eastern states; something which similar regional authoritarian states whole-heartedly appreciate. This is also facilitated today as Russia has the opportunity to fill the vacuum the US has left as it pivots away from the region. This opportunity was not present during the Cold War. As such, Russia is now better able to use its façade as an honest external broker resolving regional problems as a neutral arbitrator and mediator.
Interestingly, in December 1945, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed to evacuate Iran if Britain evacuated Egypt and Palestine, and only once it was clear that the British would not did the USSR decide to take a more geopolitical stance. After 1945, the Palestinian issue provided Moscow with the opportunity to strike the British Empire’s strategically important territory and exacerbate the Anglo-American divide over displaced Jewish persons. Therefore, Russia attempts to set itself apart from U.S. neo-colonialism today, as the USSR largely did historically against the backdrop of European colonialism.
Moreover, while Russia does not respect the status quo in its’ near abroad, it rhetorically respects the existing order in the Middle East. Its respect for authoritarianism when juxtaposed to the West, often seeking to upend the status quo, aligning Russian national security policy more closely with those of Middle Eastern states. Unlike the Soviets, who exploited nationalism and supported revolutionary regimes as opposed to the conservative regimes aligned with the West, Russia is more anti-revolutionary than the West today. It considers upholding the status quo, as it has in Syria, the most integral part of its strategy to maintain stability and order, making it an attractive partner.
At the same time, even during the Soviet period, ideology was often a secondary factor when dealing with Middle Eastern states. Indeed, as John C. Campbell, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined in The Soviet Union and the United States in the Middle East: “no unchanging aim or strategy ordained by geography or ideology provides a full explanation of the course of Soviet policy.” Strategic pragmatism can, therefore, be seen as exported from the Soviets. For example, despite Turkey’s virulent anti-communist stance, the USSR helped President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, arming him and feeding his support base at the expense of their own Soviet population.
This pragmatism, however, has had positive effects for Russia today. This is because the Russian state has been routed on a clearer path by Mr. Putin who has made some drastic reforms, such as the redistribution of the state’s economic power in a more efficient way. For example, arms sales are all under a single unit, Rosoboronoexport, centralizing the power of the government over exchanging arms, thereby preventing unauthorized transactions.
The sale of oil and natural gas have also been prioritized. The centralization imposed, rather than loose fragmented holdings by oligarchs as was the case in the Boris Yeltsin period, has reinforced Russia’s economic standing in the Middle East. It also highlights an important change from the stagnation of the Soviet period. Russia is, therefore, better equipped today to follow through with its national security objectives in the Middle East.
Additionally, Mr. Putin uses the Soviet Union’s historic neutrality to play many sides. He uses what seems like a historic weakness, as a chip to use alongside all parties to be considered both great power and a neutral arbiter. For instance, the USSR facilitated the creation of Israel, with Jewish emigration to Palestine from Eastern European countries under its control. Russia today has used these historical ties to further their bilateral relationship. Furthermore, the USSR succeeded in making the Palestinian issue a part of the United Nations agenda and forged a coalition against British rule in Palestine. Historically, siding with the Palestinians has increased support for Russia within the Arab community long-term, highlighting how Soviet and Russian national security policies significantly overlap. Moreover, Stalin, during the Yalta Conference, believed that Soviet interests lay in being set on a par with the United States and Britain, highlighting that the USSR, like Russia today, wanted to be considered a great power on the international stage and that the Middle East set the stage for it to do so.
Therefore, today’s Russian grand strategy pragmatically flows from the Soviet Union policies when necessary and does so with a significantly clearer policy direction, making it more successful than in the past. Specifically, the strategic milieu today facilitates Russia’s grander posture in the Middle East, with America’s militarily less willing to remain embroiled in the region.
Krystal is a contributor to TIB.