SINCE the early 1970s, Russia experienced gradual decline of its influence in the Middle East. The outburst of civil war in Syria in 2011 and Syria’s close partnership with Russia became a reason for few analysts to start perceiving the event as an opportunity that might restore Kremlin’s lost influence by placing Russia at the centre of the region’s geopolitical map. The questions that need to be addressed in this context are; whether or not Moscow is concerned about having influence in the Middle East? Why and why not Russia wishes to establish bilateral regional ties with the Middle Eastern states at a level parallel to US? The effort to try to answer these questions would probably help understand if the possibility of new cold war is evident from the situation in Middle East. To start with the first question, as far as Russia’s interests in the Middle East are concerned, apart from Syria-Russia cooperation, Russia does not maintain strong bilateralties with other regional states when equated with the level of US’s involvement with them.
As a major energy exporter, Russian stakes in Middle East are not economical in nature, compared to US who had relied heavily on the import of cheap crude. Moreover, with regards to Russia’s role in major Middle Eastern conflict between Israel and Palestine, Russian financing of the Palestinian political groups has decreased considerably. Among Russia’s strategic resurgent policy approaches in the Middle East, what concerns the Western powers most is Moscow’s diplomatic and military backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For that reason, Russia is often accused of playing the “spoiler role”. But Russia’s inflexible position with regards to Syria has its own reasons. Since the formation of Damascus-Moscow alliance under the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the coalition between two states has developed as the most durable strategic partnership. During the spread of unrest in the Middle East, Syria was the only ally that Russia was left with, which was also hosting Russia’s only naval base in the region.
Additionally, Russian interests to protect in Middle East relates to any spill over of the Syrian conflict and the rise of inter-regional and intra-regional Islamic extremism that could eventually affect the majority-Muslim areas of the Russia’sCaucasus region. To that extent, being the diplomatic supporter of the Assad regime, Russia can be held responsible for continuing bloodshed in Syria. Apart from this security concern, it is uncertain to argue that in the realm of political gains, Russia would use Syria as a launching pad for building inroads into the Middle East.
As far as Arab anti-government uprisings in Middle East are concerned, Russia maintained the position that the collapse ofauthoritarian regimes could lead to political vacuum that might empower hardline Islamist groups. From that position, some of the analysts, seeing the public suspicions over US’s alleged support to Muslim Brotherhood, have deduced that sensing the decreasing influence of US in the Middle East, Moscow may try to place its foot into the region. Might be in the same effort, recently in June 2015, high-level Saudi delegation led by deputy crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, met Putin in St Petersburg and signed a series of agreements including peaceful nuclear cooperation. As far as cooperation with Iran, as a regional ally is concerned, Russia is Iran’s important partner in the development of the country’s nuclear program. However, neither it serves Russia’s interests to see Iran acquire nuclear warheads, nor in this context it would support any military action against Tehran.
As the aforementioned analysis suggests Russia is far from maintaining an influence in Middle East that can even be compared with US’s interests. Comparatively such Russian attempts exist as resurrecting the image of the US in Middle East as the ‘great evil’; Putin’s labelling of the US and European Union as ‘new crusaders’ for their military operation in Libya; Lavrov’s statement that Russian government was eager to teach Americans a ‘lesson’ in Syria; citing the visit of John Kerry to Sochi as American political surrender on the basis that it needs Russian assistance on a number of issues including Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s civil conflict after Washington’s realization of failure to isolate Russia; accusing Washington of being responsible for the creation of Al-Qaeda and the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State by supporting anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then invading Iraq in the 2000s etc.
From the discussion, it might be summed up that the revival of cold war is rather a big event to predict because US and Russian interests seem to be diverging and existing in different regions. Instead of Middle East, at the moment, Moscow’s real strategic backyard is in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where a rising China poses far greater challenge for Russian policymakers. Hence, the possibility of clash of interests between US and Russia in the Middle East does not appear to be an immediate threat.
—The writer is Assistant Research officer, Islamabad Policy Research Institute.