Russia in the Middle East: 10 Years After the Arab Spring

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Large-scale changes in the domestic and international political configuration of the Middle East, dubbed the “Arab Spring” in popular culture, coincided with the return of Russia to world politics. In this regard, Moscow’s intervention in the conflict over Syria has played a much larger role in strengthening its global position than its reaction to the coup in Ukraine or to Georgia’s aggression in South Ossetia in 2008. In these two cases, Russia responded to the hostile actions of the Western countries and fought what were in fact defensive battles within the near abroad, adjacent to its sovereign territory. In the Middle East, in Syria and later Libya, Russia has demonstrated its ability to project its national interests and values far beyond the modest zone of influence it retained after the end of the Cold War.

The immediate reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria is well-known — in the event of the fall of the legitimate government, the territory of the country would have become a zone controlled by religious extremist organisations. Most of these groups are banned in Russia, and by the nature of their ideology, would have provoked instability throughout the countries of the Middle East and its neighbours for many years. The distance between the region and Russia’s borders is, in reality, insignificant. A victory for the radicals in Syria would become a reliable instrument in the hands of the United States to keep in suspense not only Washington’s allies in Europe, Israel and the Gulf countries, but also to destabilise Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The secular regimes of all countries in this region neighbouring Russia would be under threat. It’s well-known that a significant number of extremist recruits from Central Asia participated in radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Thus, Russia has once again fulfilled its mission as the main supplier of security for the states of the southern part of the former USSR and, indirectly, China. Despite the fact that for Moscow, such a mission was difficult and costly, it was also inevitable due to the geographical proximity of these countries to the industrial centres of Russia in Siberia. Moreover, helping the Central Asian countries counter external challenges is a tool Russia uses to avoid the temptation to return to direct control over them, in the interests of Russia’s security.

We must understand that for the United States, instability and military conflicts in the Middle East and its environs do not pose any threat to national security at all: the United States is separated from the most problematic region in the world by thousands of kilometres.

Unlike Russia, China or Europe, the Americans can look at regional processes from the point of view of a diplomatic game, rather than taking steps to ensure their own security. Therefore, for Russia, preventing such a development of events by the mid-2010s was an important task in the framework of the competition between the great powers and the prevention of a hostile influence on its periphery.

Moreover, by this time Russia had acquired the military and diplomatic resources to implement such a policy. The events around Ukraine in 2014 demonstrated the readiness of the armed forces to carry out complex operations; the technical equipping of the army with modern weapons was actively promoted. The operation in Syria helped Russia better understand the real tasks of the naval forces for such a continental power as Russia, given the latest advances in military technology.

Russia’s forceful intervention in the Middle East made it possible to significantly improve relations with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. These states are quite archaic in terms of mentality and their ideas about the balance of power and cooperation in international affairs.

As the diplomatic practice of recent years confirms, Russia’s ability to exert military influence far beyond its borders provided a convincing argument for the policy of the Gulf monarchies to be more prudent.

The situation in the Middle East itself has gradually returned to a state of new normality. Only one country in the region — Tunisia — is moving, albeit very uncertainly, towards more stable institutions of state power, based on the principle of democracy. Other states that found themselves at the centre of the “Arab Spring” returned to those forms of statehood that were historically characteristic of the Middle East. The game of big and medium external powers is gradually returning as the most important factor in the development of the region.

In this game, Russia’s partners are not only the West, but also regional forces such as Iran and Turkey. The national interests of these countries may not coincide with Russian ideas and even come into conflict with them. This, however, is not an obstacle to building a working relationship with them. The most important factor is that Iran is not, and Turkey is less a part of the collective institutions and community of the West, which has set the goal of undermining Russia’s existing political system. The more Turkey becomes involved in regional security issues and plays an independent role in them, the better it is for Russia’s interests.

Preventing a threat to Russia was not its only task in returning to the Middle East and, therefore, to big international politics. Moscow’s active participation in regional affairs is an indispensable attribute of a great power capable of defending its idea of justice on a global scale. At the centre of these ideas is the moral imperative of preserving state sovereignty as the only factor guaranteeing stability and cooperation in international politics. Despite its scale and military power, Russia has traditionally taken a conservative, value-based approach to international affairs. Therefore, the stake on sovereign states as participants in international cooperation is natural for Moscow. Syria, thanks to Russian politics, is the only modern example of the preservation of such a state, despite the pronounced intentions to destroy it, which have at one point emanated from a significant group of great and middle powers.

In fact, in the Middle East the strategies of Russia and the West clashed over the most important issue for the modern world — the right to violate the formal principle of the sovereign equality of states within the UN system. After the Cold War, the United States and its allies have arrogated the privilege of dictating the interpretation of this principle in their selfish interests. This privilege became, in fact, their main acquisition, much more important than territorial conquests in Eastern Europe, or presence in the territory of the former USSR.

In 2011, the United States and Europe were able to act at their own discretion for the last time: when they achieved the overthrow of the Libyan government by military means. Syria and the Russian intervention there on the side of the legitimate government put an end to the history of the unipolar world.

Russian involvement in the affairs of the Middle East has solved this problem of international politics inherited from the short era of Western domination. Now any sovereign state, when assessing the possibilities of its survival, can assume that there is not one, but several sources of power in the world on which to rely. China has not yet demonstrated a convincing ability to act similarly to Russia. However, its economic ties can potentially become an alternative source of development funds for countries that are not ready to rely on the mercy of the United States and Europe.

The results of the “Arab Spring” were positive for Russia and were able to compensate to a certain extent for the damage suffered from the diplomatic defeat in Ukraine in 2014. Following its success in Syria, Moscow has been more confident in its response to the crisis in Belarus in the summer and autumn of 2020, which could theoretically lead to a dramatic outcome for European security. Unlike Russian policy in Asia, where a presence must be backed by years of economic gains, in the Middle East, Russia shows its best side in terms of diplomatic skill and military resolve. The current situation in the region inspires optimism — these properties will remain in the foreseeable future; they are the most important for achieving results.

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