Under both the previous Soviet government and its new Russian Federation, Moscow has sought to play a major role in the Middle East. Except on rare occasions, this aspiration has been thwarted. In recent years, Russia has been largely sidelined from the Arab Spring, the Arab–Israel negotiations, and now the renewed US–Iran talks. Russian officials may not like their marginal role, but they are unwilling to expend more resources on a region that ranks of considerably lower importance to Moscow than Europe, Asia and especially the former Soviet republics.
In 2004, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov revealingly said that “Russia’s policy is neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israel. It is aimed at securing Russian national interests.” These interests include earning income through arms sales, distancing Moscow from unpopular Western policies, and otherwise attempting, thus far unsuccessfully, to reestablish Moscow as a pivotal player in Middle Eastern affairs.
In determining their policies towards the Middle East, Russian policymakers most often assess how their decisions will affect Moscow’s goals in other regions. Russia has repeatedly sacrificed the interests of its partners in return for other priorities. For example, Russia cancelled the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran in return for Israel’s ending its military cooperation with Georgia.
Russian leaders have not viewed the Arab Spring with any enthusiasm. They had decent relations with many of the Arab world’s authoritarian leaders. Now Russian officials are scrambling to develop good relations with their successors. With the notable exception of Syria, however, Moscow has done little to defend its allies from domestic revolutionaries. Russian officials attacked Western countries for using excessive force in Libya, but kept their opposition declaratory.
Russia’s modest interest in Libya was evident in how the country’s two most senior leaders at the time, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, publicly differed regarding how Moscow should respond. Similarly, in Iran, Russian policy is often overly shaped by certain key interest groups, including the influential arms and energy lobbies.
Moscow’s preferred role in the Middle East is that of a well-positioned mediator that, unlike Western governments, is able to communicate with all parties. Russian diplomats have long justified their retaining good ties with Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and even Hamas as allowing Western governments a means to engage these groups.
Russians find the mediatory role attractive. It allows Russia to credibly claim global influence without having to push too hard for any particular negotiated solution. It also positions Moscow well to manipulate the tensions of the other parties to its advantage. The Russian government has strived to keep its prime role in the Israel–Palestine peace process as a member of the Quartet. More recently, Moscow has been seeking to boost its international prestige by hosting a Middle East peace conference.
But Russian diplomatic mediation efforts failed to avert Israel’s recent wars with Hamas and Hezbollah. Typically, the local actors have shown little interest in using Moscow’s mediation services. They have striven to talk directly with the United States and its allies.
Under now President Putin, Russia has adhered to a “realpolitik” approach toward the Middle East that strives to advance concrete Russian interests while eschewing the “value-based” diplomacy of Western governments. Russian officials have treated the Western approach as hypocritical (attacking Iran but not Israel) and counterproductive (since compromising on values is hard).
Meanwhile, Moscow’s realpolitik approach allows Russian officials to collaborate with Israel as well as a diverse range of Arab states. They also declare their opposition to nuclear proliferation while shielding Iran from Western and Israeli counter-proliferation threats. Russian diplomats castigated what they saw as the US failure to bring peace to Iraq, but then objected that the Pentgaon was rushing to leave before its job was done (the same pattern is reoccuring now with respect to Afghanistan).
Although Russian leaders often describe their country as facing the same Islamist terrorist threat as Western countries, they attack what they call the West’s religious crusade against Muslims. Russians, beset by internal tensions between Muslims and others, have sought to eschew entangled in any war of civilizations while depicting their country as a bridge between them.
Russians are quite comfortable with the status quo in Iran. They oppose Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons but also a Western or Israeli attack that could encourage Islamist extremism or lead to unpredictable regime change in Tehran, which could produce a more radical or a more pro-Western Iranian government, both of which would harm Moscow’s interests.
The frictions between Iran and Western countries leave Russia as one of Iran’s major economic partners, exclude Iran from contributing its territory or oil and natural gas to Western-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipelines that would reduce European dependence on Russian supplies, help elevate world energy prices by keeping Iranian oil and gas off international markets, and sometimes make Moscow a mediator between Iran and the West.
Russia does have commercial interests in some Middle East countries, which buy Russian weapons and invite Russian investors, but these should not be exaggerated. The major purchasers of Russian arms are China and India. Russian defense companies have a massive backlog of foreign contracts, and can withhold some weapons from Iran or Syria without much cost. Russia’s overall trade with China, India, and several major European countries exceeds that with Middle Eastern countries.
Words are cheap. Russian leaders offer them freely while expending few resources to advance Moscow’s modest goals in the Middle East. The Kremlin prefers to free ride on others’ exertions while manipulating regional tensions to Moscow’s benefit.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.