After 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 of whether Russia has a strategy for the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa) was raised. Concerning this question, there are three ways of thinking in analyzing Russia’s activities in the Middle East:
- Russia has had a strategy for the Middle East that has been largely successful.
- Russia had a strategy for the region, but things did not necessarily go as expected.
- Russia has no strategy for the Middle East.
Russia’s goals in the Mena Region
The main drivers of the Kremlin’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 position of 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 knows that it cannot replace the United States as an essential player or effective provider of security in the MENA region, but it could downplay the role of the United States. The Kremlin is trying to show that the US strategy against terrorism in support of color revolutions and the policy of regime change has failed. In addition, the intervention in Syria distracts the West from the conflict in Ukraine. It balances the situation on the Eastern NATO front (Baltic-Black Sea), Russia’s long-term interest.
At the regional level, Russia’s primary goal is to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 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 from the Persian Gulf countries are all subdivisions of this approach. The intervention in Syria reflects Russia’s long-term strategic goals in the MENA region. The Kremlin’s overall goal is to prevent instability in the region and support certain minorities in the breakaway countries.
But what tools does Russia have to implement its strategy? In fact, Russia’s emerging strategy is the art of adapting to changing circumstances and with limited tools 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 as there is no military solution to the civil war in Syria as Western leaders try to convince the world; Vladimir Putin showed that no political solution would be possible without military support.
Russia’s main interests in the MENA region are mainly geopolitical and security related. However, economic exchanges between Russia and the countries of the MENA region have expanded since 2000. Energy, arms, and food 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, using economic, trade, and asset tools to achieve geopolitical goals. Given that Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter 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.
Regarding Russia’s balancing actions in the region, it can be said that its relations with Turkey are a clear example in this sense. Turkey’s relations with Moscow have historically been skeptical, but the two countries have had a significant economic relationship since the Cold War and have significant economic partnerships. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been at loggerheads with the United States over the Syrian Kurds since 2014. Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 led to a confrontation between Turkish and Russian policies in that country. The two countries had conflicting interests in Syria. The downing of a Russian bomber by Turkish fighters in November 2015 was an example of several controversial events. In response to the incident, Moscow refused a military attack, but it put Ankara under economic, political, and intelligence pressure. Finally, in mid-2016, Turkey was forced to redefine its policies in Syria which changed Turkish- Russian relations.
In conclusion, there are almost no significant players in the entire MENA region that Russia has not communicated with. Friendship with all the actors in the region, regardless of their political orientation and constant conflicts with each other, has made it possible for Russia to play a mediating role in the region. Referring to examples of this balancing act, we can mention Russia’s approach to relations with Israel, Syria, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf countries. Russia’s policies are driven by support for existing governments and its non-ideological approach. Nowhere in the region is Russia a full-fledged ally or a staunch enemy. It does not ignore differences in the Middle East, it knows that the numerous conflicts can be deadly, and therefore seeks to establish relations with opposing parties based on common interests. Overall, Russia’s ideological approach to the region has transformed it into a major player in the region.
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About the author:
Amin BAGHERI is an Iranian research fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran, Iran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, political science, and conflicts in the Middle East. You can see more of his work on Twitter @bghr_amin.