Russia’s return to center stage in the international theater has forced American and European security officials to review their strategies. One of Russia’s most important aspirations, besides the establishment of a stable, pluralistic model of the world order, is to recall its presence in the Middle East arena in general, and through support for the Assad regime in Syria in particular, anticipating a qualitative transformation in the region.
In the past 24 months, Moscow has been able to change the direction of the six-year war in Syria by providing support to its ally, Bashar Assad, as well as its intervention to support Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar, which saw special military units deployed in western Egypt. All this coincides with the decline of US engagement in the region, accompanied by the turbulence that resulted from the transition of power after last year’s election in Washington. The expansion of Russia’s role raises important questions about the country’s interests in the Middle East.
Most Russian activities can be traced back to traditional, national concerns about national security rather than short-term aspirations to cause problems or divert the attention of the international community — a very clear example being the conflict in Ukraine. Moscow sees the Middle East only as a source of instability, threatening its own national security and safety, which no world power has so far successfully contained. After many years of US unilateral policy in the region, which Moscow considered dangerous, it presents itself today as the alternative safety valve.
It was clear to Russia since the beginning of its intervention in Syria that Bashar Assad cannot achieve a military victory as he wishes, and only through increased Russian military commitments can Moscow turn the agenda of Geneva negotiations in favor of their ally.
Some analysts and politicians in the West believe that Russian interests in Syria, and the Middle East in general, are in two lines or directions: “Russia wants chaos” and “Russia wants stability.” The first view is that Russia intervened in Syria, leaving the US and other powers with fewer options to intervene against the Assad regime, thus putting an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in that country. The Russian intervention will have another side effect that will help Russia contribute to the weakening of its opponents: If continued instability leads to the disruption of oil supplies to the world market, Russia will benefit because it will lead to a sharp rise in oil prices. Instability will also increase the flow of refugees to Turkey and Europe.
Many influential people within the Kremlin view Washington’s Middle East policy as short-sighted, destabilizing and naive. Such views confuse the short-term benefits of strategic aspirations, and in the long run it will be difficult for Russia to isolate itself from Middle East unrest, as the region is geographically closer to Russia than to the US. Some Russian policy experts point out that Russia differs from the United States, which is surrounded by water to the east and west. Russia is not separated from the world by such natural barriers, meaning instability in the Middle East poses a threat in the geographical proximity to Russia in the same way that instability in Latin America can pose a threat to the interests of the US.
Russia is on the front line, with the North Caucasus, Central Asia and even the central Volga regions all threatened.
As for the Kremlin, the primary and fundamental threat to Russian interests has always come from the West, in the form of NATO expansionist policies and Western support for protests and revolts in former Soviet republics. Russia has partly been able to contain the threat from the West, but conflicts fueled by separatists are still burning, as in Ukraine for example, and their involvement in NATO is like someone who wants to sell an insurance policy for a burning house.
Russia is increasingly dependent on the economic and diplomatic components of its foreign policy. On the economic side, the oil company Rosneft recently acquired 30 percent of Egypt’s largest gas field, Zohr. Previously, in February, Russia signed a contract with the Libyan National Oil Company relating to investment in and the purchase of crude oil. On the diplomatic side, Russia has expanded its role as an intermediary and has been able to deal extensively on a number of issues, mostly bilateral, with Turkey, Israel and Iran. The international media have focused their attention on Russian support for Libya’s national army leader Haftar, who is a party to the internal power struggle with the UN-backed government in Tripoli. It can be said that Russia, like the US, is discovering that entering the Middle East is easier than getting out of it.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme