The Soviet legacy is a factor that shapes Russian foreign policy, in the Middle East and elsewhere, in a number of ways. Arms sales – to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and recently Qatar – are a cornerstone of Russian policy. The Cold War also created a highly-trained cadre of advisers and interpreters who were dispatched across the globe. Moreover, Wagner, the private military company with murky ties to the Kremlin, is now operating in resource-rich areas of Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.Crucially, however, the Soviet decades have left Russia with a policy-making class – up to and including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin – schooled in the geopolitical logic of the Cold War.
Part i saw Stalin demanding joint control of the Turkish Straits and setting up puppet states in northern Iran in the late 1940s. In the same period, Stalin demanded a Soviet mandate over Libya, and pushed for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine at the nascent UN while shipping arms to Jewish settlers in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This marked the beginning of Russian activity in the Middle East beyond its immediate borders.
Stalin’s hopes that Israel would become a Soviet satellite were quickly dashed. The USSR was quick to re-establish itself in the region on the other side of the conflict however, by selling arms to Nasser’s Egypt to fight Israel. In the decades thereafter, the Soviet Union was actively involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Soviet mis-intelligence has often been described as the spark that ignited the Six Day war in 1967; while during the War of Attrition in the 1970s, Soviet and Israeli pilots could be seen engaged in dogfights above the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Soviet arms, aid, and according to Dmitri Trenin, some 80,000 advisers flooded into a host of Middle Eastern client states, including Nasser’s Egypt, Ba’athist Syria and Iraq, and the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Simultaneously, some 55,000 Arab officers passed through Soviet military academies – including Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria and father of Bashar al-Assad - who spent 10 months training in the USSR during his time in the Syrian air force; and the warlord currently in control of eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar.
What underlay Soviet policy in the Middle East, was not the spread of communism. Former minister Primakov wrote that:
[by the 1960s], nothing could mask the reality that communism was a lost cause in the Middle East.
From very early on in its history, Soviet foreign policy had abandoned world revolution and acted instead in pursuit of national interests: the security of Soviet borders and resources. Baathist Iraq, which supplied the USSR with oil in exchange for arms to pursue its own national goals, is a prime example of the USSR’s mutually instrumental relationship with Middle Eastern regimes. To the Kremlin, Arab states were pieces on the Grand Chessboard; the Middle East a battleground in a zero-sum struggle for global influence against the United States to keep Russia itself from being dominated. This thinking continues to shape Russian foreign policy.
Great Power Ambitions and the Soviet Legacy
Since almost immediately after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1992, Russia has opposed the US global hegemony. When Putin took power in 2000, Russia was already dreaming of recuperating its great power status.
It seemed for a brief moment after 9/11 that the old enemies would bury their hatchets, faced with the common foe of transnational jihadism. Yet, the Bush administration’s aggressive post-9/11 foreign policy was perceived by Russia as an attempt to reshape the world in America’s image and ensure US global supremacy. ‘Colour Revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space and the Arab Spring, in which Russia sustained heavy economic losses, were viewed in Russia as “new Iraqs”. Whatever popular support the uprisings in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East had were irrelevant: in Moscow, these were perceived through a Cold War lens as US-backed regime change, with American global hegemony the ultimate goal. Russia’s initial support for Assad’s Syria, and veto of any UN motion that would allow Western intervention against Damascus, was a reaction to this. Thereafter, the Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2013-14 was the final straw for Moscow: was seen as an attempt to contain Russia and bring US dominance right up to the edge of Russia’s heartland. The annexation of Crimea and a new global assertiveness followed. This forms the background to Russia’s present activity in the Middle East.
Since Stalin intervened in Palestine in 1947, Russia’s actions in the Middle East have been determined by its relations with the West. Moscow’s assertiveness in the region waxes and wanes in reaction to US-Russia relations. In moments of detente, such as Russia’s first, hopeful days of democracy in the early 90s, and the solidarity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Russia has been prepared to align its Middle East policy much more closely with that of Washington. The possibility remains that if relations with the West improve in future, the same will happen again.
Certainly, Moscow’s determination not to be contained by what it sees as an aggressive, hegemonic US informs Russian actions in the Middle East. Today, a resolution to the crisis in Syria – probably the greatest challenge to international security today – is unthinkable without Russian involvement. Increasing its diplomatic clout in the country and the region, Russia is now leading the return of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Golan Heights. Elsewhere, in stepping up its activities in Afghanistan; supporting the warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, a country whose stability is vital to the security of Europe; and acquiring the oil pipelines of Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has made itself a stakeholder in a number of the world’s most pressing crisis areas. It seems that Russia’s strategy –in which it benefits from the presence of ISIS as a common threat - is to make itself an indispensable partner to the international community.
Putin’s top foreign policy priority is to see Russia accepted a great power in a multi-polar world; retaining hegemony in its own post-Soviet backyard, crucially Ukraine; and not allowing it to be contained or dictated to by a hegemonic West. The road to this goal leads through the Middle East.
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.