Changes in the Middle East: A Threat to Russia?


A March 7 visit to Saudi Arabia was going to be Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s first foreign trip after the Russian presidential election. The purpose was to meet colleagues from the Arab Persian Gulf countries. Despite the date having been publicized, the trip ended up being postponed.

Elena Suponina

What Lavrov was hoping to discuss with his Arab counterparts was the crisis in Syria. In February, Russia expressed interest in a consultation on this matter. Yet Saudi King Abdullah’s response was not just a stark „no“ but a reprimand. In a phone conversation with then-President Dmitri Medvedev and in subsequent comments, His Majesty criticized Russia for joining China in vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria on October 5, 2011 and again on February 4.

At the moment, the sides are laboring to overcome the controversy and find common ground. Nonetheless, it seems that the Arabs still prefer to wait and see whether Russia changes its position on Syria in the near future.

The model the Arab rulers are used to–offering Russia their cooperation in exchange for its mediation efforts in Syria–will not work here. It is not because of economic considerations, military contracts (which are not that significant) or the so-called Tartus naval base (which is more like a repair and supply store) hosting Russia’s warships that Russian politicians are worried about Syria.

One real ground for concern is what lurks beyond Syria, in a country with which Russia is far more involved: Iran. Another is Syria’s geopolitical significance for Russia. In parallel, the Kremlin is worried about disruption of the system of international relations that has functioned since the end of WWII.

Russia’s right of veto in the Security Council, which it inherited from the Soviet Union and shares with four other nuclear powers, is part of that system. Yet Russia keeps noticing with concern that the world is changing in ways it never envisioned, for example in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Alas, all too often its voice goes unheard. In fact, at times its involvement leads to effects that are as unexpected as they are undesired, as was the case with Libya in 2011.

Russia tries its best to resist other powers‘ designs–at times without investing much effort in analyzing them. For instance, its 2005 protest against the demand on Syria to withdraw troops from Lebanon was largely an attempt to stand up to the US and France, who were both pushing for the forced withdrawal. Anti-American attitudes lingering from the Cold War, as well as a general distrust of the West and the US in particular, play a role here. „The US is our chief enemy. They are gearing up for a war against us. Once Syria falls, Iran will be next, then the South Caucasus will be destabilized, then the North Caucasus“, stated the Liberal-Democratic presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky in February. The Communist Gennadiy Zuganov, likewise a presidential candidate, expressed a similar view.

Right-wing candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, while not anti-American, said he fears something else: he believes that the Syrian opposition is thoroughly Islamic. This Russian oligarch’s insight into Middle East politics is so limited that he has referred to Syria, the authoritarian state ruled for the past 40 years by the Assad family clan, as „the last secular, non-Muslim country in the Middle East“.

Another factor that helps make Russian policy in the rapidly-changing Middle East inconsistent, contradictory and difficult to predict is the political situation within Russia. But is political stability possible, given the mass demonstrations both for and against the recent election winner, Vladimir Putin? Despite his victory, this question remains open.

As for foreign policy, there were a few cases when then-President Medvedev was much more sympathetic to the West’s course of action in the Middle East than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Back in 2010, Medvedev prohibited the sale of C-300 missile launch pads to Iran, despite the foreign ministry’s statement that Security Council Resolution 1929, outlining new sanctions against Iran, did not explicitly mention such deals, so that the sale would not have been a violation.

Zuganov remarked at the time, in reference to Medvedev’s policy: „Russia bows down to the United States, but this ill serves her. In today’s Russian policy, we can see the dangerous signs of ‚Gorbachevism‘. And does anyone need to be reminded that [General Secretary Mikhail] Gorbachev’s endless concessions ultimately led to the breakdown of the Soviet Union?“ (After offering Iran as an example, the Communist leader went on to complain about Russia’s imports of Boeing aircraft and chicken legs from the US, which, in his opinion, „destroyed the Russian airplane industry and agriculture“.)

Today, Vladimir Putin is showing his constituents that Russia will push its own policy in the Middle East, including Syria, irrespective of the West. Given that this was part of his recent election campaign and not a national strategy, what is of interest here is the attitude itself, not the end results of such a policy. And these, one must admit, are hardly satisfactory: Russia has already failed as a mediator in Libya and is unlikely to succeed at preventing the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime.

Since the very onset of the „Arab spring“, Russian political analysts have split into two camps: those who attribute the revolutions to an international conspiracy and those who believe that these changes spring from within the societies in question. The latter point out accumulated socio-economic controversies and outdated political systems. One can often observe that if a Russian commentator welcomes the changes, he or she leans towards the organic intra-societal change explanation, whereas a political analyst rejecting the changes is likely to believe in foreign intervention and conspiracy.

Some combine the two versions; noted academic Yevgeniy Primakov is a case in point. In one of his recent articles, he conceptualizes the events in Egypt and Tunisia in socio-economic terms while asserting that in Libya and Syria „from the onset, there was armed struggle against the rulers.“ Primakov continues, „Who handed out the arms and advocated for their use will, I am certain, become clear with time,“ adding that „the events in Syria, as well as in Libya, do not match the idea of the ‚Arab spring‘ as [constituting] mass demonstrations against totalitarian governments.“

On the eve of the Russian presidential election, many pro-government politicians and political scientists, as well as loyal opposition members, spoke a great deal of the dangers–not only to Arab countries, but to Russia as well–of foreign conspiracies. National television channels regularly broadcast films about the 1917 revolution, with hints that it was primarily carried out by the Jews, bribed by the German, British and American intelligence services.

Further, the dangers of civil war are being promoted by invoking not only the 1918-1920 Civil War in Russia but also the armed resistance in Syria, continuing insurgency in Libya and terror attacks in Iraq. The Russian Orthodox Church has joined in, too, admonishing Russians that, „Every revolution is nothing but a sin against God and against the government. You rabble-rousers will get nothing but chaos, blood, hunger and death.“

Indeed, since the very beginning of the Arab spring, the Russian ruling elite has been alarmed by the possibility that what happened in the Middle East might transpire in Russia as well. For instance, on February 22, Medvedev, speaking to security forces, pointed out the dangers of „breakup into small pieces“ of a number of Middle Eastern countries, of „fanatics coming to power“ and of „fires that would keep burning for decades“ in that region. „It is the same scenario they have been preparing for us, too, even before this started. Now there is a greater chance they will try to make this happen,“ the president warned, though, „In any case, their plot will not succeed.“

Notably, public opinion surveys carried out around this time (by the Russian Public Opinion Center among others) showed that only two percent of Russians attributed the Arab uprisings to provocations by western intelligence services. Around 45 percent of Russian citizens believed, conversely, that the main reason the Arabs were dissatisfied was the poor quality of life in their countries, including economic and political stagnation and corruption. Many of those surveyed indicated that Russia faced similar problems.

These problems and the way they are addressed in the near future will determine Russian foreign policy.-Published 8/3/2012 ©

Elena Suponina is a Russian political scientist and Middle East expert.