Updated: Aug 28, 2018
The annexation of Crimea in February 2014 marked the beginning of a new Russian assertiveness on the world stage. Beyond the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine, the Middle East has, to a large extent, been the theatre for Russia’s new forward policy. Militarily, Russian air power is heavily implicated in President Bashar al-Assad’s bid to retain power in Syria, while mercenaries with murky ties to the Kremlin operate as far as Sudan; and some reports allege that Russian special forces are backing the oil-rich fiefdom of General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya. Diplomatically, Russia is increasingly active in its old battlefield, Afghanistan; and where the United States has denied aid to Egypt, Moscow has stepped into the breach, signing deals with Sisi on constructing nuclear plants while beginning talks on shared military basing and overflight rights. Through the state oil company Rosneft Moscow has made itself a player in Iraq by purchasing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s oil export pipelines. Moscow is becoming an attractive partner for Middle Eastern regimes; and, unlike Washington, has skillfully avoided taking sides in the region’s internal power struggles, selling strategic air defence systems to Qatar while working alongside Saudi Arabia to control oil prices, and collaborating with Iran in Syria, while co-ordinating its military actions with Israel.
Across the region Putin’s Russia is asserting its influence and acquiring leverage with MENA powers. Russian foreign policy in the Middle East is shaped by a number of factors: economic (particularly in the energy sector) and strategic; the exigencies of security and of domestic politics. These articles focus on two enduring interests which shape Russia’s long, important, and misrepresented history in the Middle East: unstable frontiers, and the quest for great power status.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was misunderstood, event at the level of the British Defence Secretary, as an irredentist advance to take over territory inhabited by Russian speakers. What seems more likely, is that this was a strategic move, prompted by the nightmare prospect of a pro-Western Ukraine allowing NATO bases on the Sea of Azov which would gravely threaten the ‘soft underbelly’ of southern Russia. This is a manifestation of a centuries-old Russian interest in protecting its vulnerable south, which often brought Russia into the affairs of the Middle East. Formerly, this interest was centred on the Turkish Straits: Russian control of this waterway would safeguard Russia’s access to the Mediterranean and secure its Black Sea shore. The strategic urge for the Straits brought Russia into a number of wars with the Ottoman Empire, including the First World War; and in 1947 led Joseph Stalin to demand that the Turkish Republic compromise its sovereignty and grant Russia partial control of the Straits – a decisive push factor in Ankara’s decision to join the NATO camp.
The southern littoral is one weak point among many in Russia’s frontiers. The country has the longest land borders in the world, and throughout history the need to secure its long and porous frontiers has been a driving force in Russia’s foreign policy, in the Middle East as elsewhere.
To the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Middle East was an immediatelyadjoining region and Russia was frequently drawn to the unstable frontier. Iran is one example of this. The restive republic of Dagestan in southern Russia, along with the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, were seized by Russia from its waning neighbour, Qajar Iran. In the interest of securing the southern frontier and control of oil supplies, Russia crossed the frontier and occupied northern Iran during both world wars. When Stalin declined to end the wartime occupation in 1945, two Soviet puppet states were set up on Iranian territory: the Azerbaijan People’s Republic and the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. It was only when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi appealed to the nascent United Nations that, under the implicit threat of Western force, Stalin backed down. The latter republic is still remembered by Kurdish groups opposed to today’s Iranian regime, such as the PDKI, which traces its roots to the short-lived Soviet puppet.
Afghanistan is another example of porous borders bringing Russia into the Middle East. As the former British ambassador in Moscow Rodric Braithwaite has written, the Soviet-Afghan war, often identified as a formative event in the emergence of radical Islamism, was not an attempt to spread world revolution or to acquire warm-water ports, as it was often depicted in the West. Moscow was sucked across the border into Afghanistan by the chaos created by the April Revolution in 1978. When a revolutionary and repressive Afghan government under Hafizullah Amin provoked widespread revolt, Moscow’s reluctant decision to intervene was fuelled by fears that the state would collapse and that the Soviet Union would be left with either anarchy, or a hostile, US-backed Islamist regime on the model of Pakistan on its insecure southern flank.
In an age of transnational security threats emanating from the Middle East, the same interest is a prime driver of Russian foreign policy in the region. The Kremlin’s nightmare scenario would be the bloody anarchy of Iraq and Syria, where several thousand jihadists from Russia and the former Soviet Union are thought to be fighting in the ranks of ISIS and Tahrir al-Sham (or – perhaps more frightening still for a Russian regime paranoid for its own survival – an anti-establishment wave like the Arab Spring) spreading through the Caucasus across the border to engulf the Muslim-majority republics in southern Russia. Hence, stability is Moscow’s watchword in the Middle East: pointing to the catastrophic Western-led interventions in Iraq and Syria and the disarray caused by the Arab Spring, Russia acts to maintain the status quo. As Dmitri Trenin writes:
[Russian policy-makers] basically support the existing states and borders in the region, no matter how artificial and arbitrary those may be; they prefer ruling authoritarians to revolutionary chaos, not to speak of Islamist radicals.
On the ground, it is this that motivates Russia today to support strongmen like Sisi in Egypt, Haftar in Libya, and, crucially, Assad in Syria. Thus, in an age of globalised threats to its frontiers, Russian ‘s defence strategy in the MENA region is centred on efforts to maintain stability by upholding the status quo no matter the ideals of existing leaders.
An archivist specialising in the history of the Middle East in the era of decolonisation
This article represents the views of the author alone and does not reflect the position of MECS.