American Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Russia and the Middle East Working Group II


On August 25-26 2019, the Center for International and Regional Studies held the second working group under its research initiative on “Russia and the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, the convened scholars presented and received feedback on their papers that tackled a wide array of issues, including: Russia’s Middle East Policy, Russia and GCC relations; Russia and the Yemeni civil war, Russian-Iranian relations, Russia and the Maghreb, migration between Russia and the Middle East, Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s state-Islam relationship.

Leonid Issaev initiated the working group discussion with his paper, on “Domestic Factors in Russia’s Middle East Policy.” In his paper, Issaev argues that analyses of Russia’s policy towards the Middle East need to be aware of the influence of Russian domestic politics on foreign policymaking. Particularly during President Putin’s second presidential term, domestic politics has been significant in determining Russian foreign policy. Following the end of the Cold War, Russia’s desire to avoid confrontation with the United States and as well as their preoccupation with internal matters meant that the Middle East occupied the periphery of Moscow’s attention. The Middle East began to draw significant interest from the Russian leadership Moscow with the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2011-2012. Domestic factors such as the protests against the results of the State Duma elections as well as the impact of lower oil prices on the Russian economy served to make the Middle East more important for Russia. Issaev suggests in his paper that Vladimir Putin also needed a new narrative for public mobilization during his third term in office, and engagement in the Middle East served this purpose well. For a number of reasons, Putin’s foreign policy on the Middle East has gained popularity and support from the political elite. However, Issaev concludes his paper by suggesting that in the current moment, the Russian public, especially the youth, are less interested in foreign policy and more concerned with critical domestic matters.

Elizabeth Wanucha presented Viacheslav Morozov’s paper on “Russia’s View of the Post-Cold War Global Order and its Policy in the Middle East.” The paper examines the significance of the Middle East for Russia as it has emerged within the Post-Cold War global order. The author argues that, despite the end of the Cold War, Russia’s relations with the West continue to influence its view of global affairs, and this includes how Russia positions itself in the Middle East. The chapter provides a genealogical account of Russia’s current engagements in the Middle East and focuses particularly on the drivers behind Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. Supporting the core argument of Issaev’s paper, Morozov suggests that Russian foreign policy is also influenced by domestic factors. As historical evidence of this, Morozov draws attention to Russia’s backing for the US intervention during the first Gulf war, suggesting that this was possible as at that time domestic political forces in Russia were decidedly pro-Western. The decision to support President Bashar Al-Assad against the general tide of the US and Western states backing the Syrian opposition was also partially made possible due to a change within Russian domestic politics and the anti-Western sentiments on the rise. The author concludes that Russia’s relationship with the United States and its allies will continue to drive future Russian foreign policymaking. However, challenging internal economic conditions, mounting strains on the social security system and increasing domestic protest might mean that Russian authorities are less able to confront the United States and will need to adopt a more measured approach.

Sergey Markedonov’s paper also combines domestic issues with foreign policymaking, as his paper examines “Russia’s State-Islam Relationship: Significance for the Middle East.” Markedonov studies the evolution of Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East through the lens of the state’s complex relationship with domestic Islam. Russia’s position of deliberate non-intervention in the Middle East has transformed considerably over the years, as its direct role in Syria clearly demonstrates. Markedonov suggests that one of the drivers for Russia’s activist role in the Middle East is the concern that Russian leadership has over the transnational mobilization capacity of political Islam. For the Russian state, transnational political Islam is seen as threatening primarily due to its indigenous Muslim population. The paper suggests that while there is a lack of adequate data regarding certain estimates suggest that the Muslim population of Russia is around 16-25 million people. The Russian state has a strong role in controlling Islam within the state and has clear red lines regarding what it considers to be unofficial Islam versus “traditional” or state-recognized Islam. Russia’s relationship with Middle Eastern states is at least partially based on its desire to control external influences that might influence its population of Muslim citizens, and particularly to suppress any political mobilization or radicalization on the basis of Islam. 

Zahra Babar presented Mark N. Katz’s paper entitled “Different but Similar: Comparing Moscow’s Middle East Policies in the Cold War and Putin Eras.” In his paper, Katz examines and compares the Soviet era and Putin’s foreign policies towards the Middle East. Katz argues that the successes and failures of Moscow’s Middle Eastern foreign policies have occurred not only as a result of their deliberate efforts or mistakes but also because of the contexts and conditions in which they were developed and launched. Russia’s efforts in the Middle East have either been hampered or aided by policies pursued by the US and other actors. Katz also suggests that despite the great efforts that the Soviet Union made to engage in the Middle East, it can be argued that the Putin regime has actually managed to develop a better position for itself than the USSR ever did. With its clearly defined strong alliances that were ideologically based, the Soviet Union suffered in its ability to reach out to many other states that were in the US or Western alliance system during the Cold War. Some of the successes of Putin’s foreign policy in the Middle East can be attributed to the fact that Putin has managed to establish cordial relations with many different Middle Eastern states and stakeholders, through its strategy of balancing its multiple relationships without any ideological drivers. However, Katz does conclude that whether all these relationships will actually enhance or strengthen Russian interests in the region remains unknown at this stage. Russia today does not demonstrate the means or capacity to ensure resolution to regional conflicts it is engaged in, and without that and a return to stability the investments it has made may not necessarily pay off in any meaningful way.

Andrei Korobkov shifted the discussion to “Migration between the Middle East and Russia and the Post-Soviet Space: Structure, Scale, and Dynamics.” Korobkov’s paper looks at the forces at work in terms of migration flows between the Middle East and Russia as well as parts of the former Soviet Union (FSU). The collapse of the of USSR created six Muslim majority states that resulted in the creation of inter-regional migration patterns that have evolved into forms of international migration today. The author focused on flows of migrants from the Middle East to both Russia as well as other parts of the FSU. Korobkhov suggests that there is a potential for the development of existing chains of migration between the two regions that include emigration, immigration, and migrant transit. The types of migrant exchange that exists between the two regions include, trade migrations, both forced and voluntary, refugees, elite migrations such as students and highly skilled migrants, investment migration, labors, as well as traditional migration for settlement which primarily relates to Jewish Russians emigrating to Israel. The paper maintains that majority of these migration patterns are newly created and the percentage of exchange is currently low, with small numbers of people migrating from the Middle East to Russia and the FSU, and vis versa. These new migration corridors have a potential for expansion and diversification. However, this would require the formation of supportive migration policies, internal reforms, and simplification of visa and work permit acquisition in Russia. 

Ghoncheh Tazmini presented a paper on “Iran: A Strategic Partner or a Provisional Counterweight?” Tazmini’s paper, which provides an in-depth discussion of Iranian-Russian relations, states that despite consistent contradicting strategic and ideological stances and frequently conflicting interests, Russia and Iran share a similar critical view of a global order that exists under Western hegemony. These similar views are shaped by both states’ historical experiences as ex-Imperial powers, geographic realities, and worldviews that stand in contrast to those imposed by Western-mandated norms of international relations. The author argues that within Russia’s challenge to the universality of the US-led liberal international order, Iran stands as a critical partner. Tazmini highlights that there is a methodological gap in the existing literature that does not factor in the role of ideas and identity in foreign policy, which is key to understanding Iran and Russia’s complex relationship. The paper sheds light on different areas of cooperation and solidarity between the two nations and looks at the patterns of convergence. The author concludes that for Russia, Iran is a strategic partner, and more than a bargaining chip to be leveraged to as part of Moscow’s mission to challenge the Western liberal international order.

Samuel Ramani discussed his paper on “Russia and the Yemeni Civil War.” Ramani’s article looks at the Russian policy of strategic non-alignment in the Yemeni civil war, which is in contrast to their military assertiveness in Syria. Russia’s stance of non-alignment has made it stand out from other nationals involved in the conflict and enabled it to have amiable diplomatic relations with different factions involved in the civil war i.e. President’s Hadi’s coalition, which is recognized by the UN as the legitimate government in Yemen and is backed by the Saudis, the Houthis, who control Northern Yemen and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has UAE’s support. The author states that this has helped Moscow gain the image of a potential referee and dialogue facilitator, as well as an important partner to reach any post-conflict resolution to the civil war. This has also situated Russia in a better situation to assume a greater role in securing oil exports through Bab el-Mandeb. The chapter also analyses Russia’s role in the Yemeni civil war and the impact it is having on its strengthening relationship with Iran and the impact on Moscow’s partnership with different Gulf monarchies. The paper concludes that though Russia has gained achievements through its stance of non-alignment in the Yemeni civil war, its successes are not entirely unquestionable and articulates how their policy would convert into an actual vision of peace settlement in Yemen.

Misba Bhatti presented Roy Allison’s paper on “Russian Normative Claims for its Intervention in the Syrian Conflict since 2015.” Allison argues that analyses of the Russian intervention in Syria, since 2015, lacks attention to legal and normative claims that the Russians have used to justify the major use of force in Syria. These claims are important, as they are not just abstract and juridical but have political and policy consequences. Moscow has tried to construct a convincing legal and normative case to gain the support of the states from the region and international community under the banners of counter-terrorism and upholding the Syrian state sovereignty. Russian leadership asserts that their intervention in Syria is “lawful” and “rightful” on the bases of intervention by invitation by the legitimate Syrian government. Moscow uses this card to question the legality of western state’s military strikes on Syrian territory, to deflect negative criticism received on the annexation of Crimea and to convey the legality of their intervention to its domestic political elites and public. Despite these efforts, Russia has received heavy critique from the international community, regarding the political legitimacy of the military operations, the legal authority of the Assad’s invitation and the gross violations against civilians by Assad regime. Allison states that despite Russia’s diplomatic response to these criticisms, Moscow has suffered serious reputation damage among many Middle Eastern states and its legal and normative claims have had little impact in convincing Middle Eastern public of the legitimacy of Russia’s military involvement in Syria. 

Nikolay Kozhanov discussed “The Drivers of Russia-GCC Relations Post-2011.” Kozhanov discusses that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, a complex mixture of factors drive and impact the Russian-GCC relations. These include the ever-changing US-Russian relations, evolution of the energy markets, growing Russian presence in the region, regional rivalry and GCC-US relations. The author looks at Russian relation with two Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar during the Arab Spring and Russia’s active support to Assad’s regime and states that though there was a period of geostrategic opposition, the channels of dialogue resumed in 2015 and now demonstrates a tendency of normalization. Russia’s growing involvement in GCC is concentrated in three arenas; first is political, to promote Russian option and stance on the world order, and create leverage to affect US and EU behavior, second economic, to ease pressure on Russian economy due to sanctions, involvement in OPEC+ and protect Russian interests in energy market and lastly security, to reduce and counter-terrorist threat emerging from the Middle East. The paper concludes that there is a limit on Moscow’s capacities to develop these relations further, as they are closely tied to Western approaches to the region and Moscow’s ability to fulfill its role as the regional broker. Also tied to this is Russia’s domestic policies that might affect the political relations with the GCC.

Yahia Zoubir shifted the discussion to “Making Up Lost Time: Russia and the Maghreb.” Zoubir draws attention to Russia’s increasing involvement in the Maghreb and argues that the Russian involvement in the region never completely ceased to exist but only diminished during the period when Russia was going through internal domestic problems. The paper looks at the history of Russian-Maghreb relations, particularly the central Maghreb, i.e., Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and states that Putin has been able to capitalize on Soviet efforts in the region, to build a stronger Russian presence. Moscow has reestablished associations with Algeria and establish ties with traditional pro-Western allies, such as Morocco and Tunisia. Zoubir highlights that the main reasons for Russia’s growing presence in the Maghreb is its aspiration to reaffirm itself as a superpower and align countries in the region towards its anti-hegemonic sphere against the West. Moscow’s interest in the Maghreb also lies in its counter-terrorism efforts as well as being a market for Russian armaments and military equipment. For the Maghreb, Russia provides a credible counterweight to the US and is better received, as it does not impose any ideological conditionality. Zoubir concludes that though Russia cannot compete with China in terms of the resources it can provide, it is establishing a strategic presence in the Maghreb.

It is worth mentioning that CIRS plans to publish the aforementioned papers in an edited volume in the near future.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Leonid Issaev, National Research University in Moscow, Russia 
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Andrei Korobkov, Middle Tennessee State University, US
  • Nikolay Kozhanov, Qatar University 
  • Sergey Markedonov, Euro-Atlantic Security Center at the MGIMO Institute for International Studies, Russia
  • Joshua Mitchell, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Samuel Ramani, University of Oxford, UK
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ghoncheh Tazmini, London Middle East Institute at SOAS, UK
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Yahia H. Zoubir, KEDGE Business School, France

Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS