In late 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus launched a multi-year research initiative to study Russia’s increasingly proactive and consequential strategic involvement in the Middle East region. While diplomatic, economic, and military relations between Russia and the Middle East have considerable historical roots, Russia’s current, deepening strategic engagement with the region, particularly since the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011, appear to signify more fundamental shifts in global and regional realignments. The causes and consequences of these broader realignments for regional and domestic actors, along with the modalities through which Russia’s multi-faceted engagement with the Middle East take place, form the focus of CIRS’s research initiative.
Russian—and previously Soviet—involvement with the Middle East is, of course, not new. In fact, the Soviet Union regarded the Middle East as one of the most important regions insofar as its national interests and security were concerned. The significance of the Middle East to the Soviet leadership had to do with the shared boundaries; ethnic, religious, and linguistic affinities between Middle Eastern and many Soviet populations; the massive resources and shipping lanes that pass through the Middle East; and the Cold War competition with the Americans over a strategically located region. The Soviet Union also supported Arab nationalist movements in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Southern Yemen, and Libya and took a pro-Palestine stance towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation found itself in a new predicament as it struggled to keep the fourteen new post-Soviet republics within Moscow’s realm of influence. Simultaneously, Russia’s competition with the United States, and to a certain extent Turkey, was not over. In addition, the Russian economy was facing one of the worst downturns in modern history. The inflation rate reached at one point 2,520 percent in 1991, and by the end of 1995 the GDP declined by over fifty percent in comparison to 1991. In 1998, Russia faced a massive financial crisis, the Ruble crisis, resulting in the Russian government and the Russian Central Bank devaluing the ruble and defaulting on the government’s debt. Occupied with regional politics and competition, and economic difficulties at home, the Russian Federation’s interest in the Middle East declined ostensibly for almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
By the early 2000s, the Russian Federation was in a much better position. The country had succeeded to a great extent in maintaining a sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space through direct interventions, bilateral economic arrangements with its neighbors, and through regional organizations. After a brief hiatus of a few years in the 1990s where Russia and the US enjoyed more cordial dealings, by 1999 the Russo-American relationship had started to fray at the edges. Russia felt the need to re-establish itself once again as a global power, and adopted an assertive foreign policy, particularly after Vladimir Putin came to power. The Russian economy at the time was able to support an active, assertive foreign policy. From 2000 and until the global financial crisis, Russia’s GDP grew on average seven percent per year, and the government retained fiscal discipline with budget surpluses. The Russian economy continues to grow, particularly as a result of the increase in oil prices and the country’s focus on digital transformation placing Russia in the top fifteen global economies, and the twelfth in the world for innovation.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 were Russia’s moment and gave it the opportunity to rise from the shadows, and claim a role in the global arena. When the wave of the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Middle East, and particularly when western countries led a military campaign in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi, Russia became more concerned with the Middle East for two main reasons. First, Russia feared the spillover effect of this regime-change threat to Russia that was witnessing fierce parliamentary and presidential elections at the time. This is in addition to the threat of radical Islamists who have been gaining strength not only in the Middle East, but also inside Russia and its sphere of influence. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example, succeeded in establishing Wilayet Qawkaz in the northern Caucuses, an area of strategic relevance and considered to be very much part of the Russian “near abroad.”
Second, the Western intervention in the Middle East meant that liberal democracy could spread in the region undermining the Russian model of democracy or “sovereign democracy,” that the country has aimed to promote, which is characterized by state-led rather than civil society led public participation. Hence, the Middle East became once again an area of strategic importance to Russia’s national interests and security. In line with these concerns, Russia built stronger ties again with countries such as Egypt, continued to support the Assad regime in Syria, and consolidated its partnership with Iran. However, the question remains whether these relations and partnerships sought by the Russian leadership are attempts to restore a longer term assertive Russian role in the affairs of the Middle East, or merely provisional political measures to counterbalance the United States and European countries.
As far as Middle Eastern states are concerned, Russia is by no means trying to exercise hegemony in the Middle East, but rather to present itself once again as an influential player in the international system. The success of Russia’s backing of the Assad regime against the West, and particularly the Americans, has reflected Russia’s significant capacity and capabilities. Hence, countries, such as Egypt, saw in Russia a potential partner to use as a bargaining chip against the US.
The case of the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf is noticeably different. Russia has not tried to directly influence or intervene in regional politics, and realizes that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf will remain in the American sphere of influence for the foreseeable future. Hence, the Russian approach to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf has been purely economic. Russia aims to enter the Persian Gulf market, attract investments from the rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and coordinate oil and gas production policies with the oil rich states of the Persian Gulf. However, this economic approach is not exclusive to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Russia has been exporting its nuclear energy expertise to a number of Middle Eastern countries including: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Algeria, and Sudan, and investing in industrial zones across the region.
CIRS’s research initiative “Russia and the Middle East” adopted a multi-disciplinary approach, examining a broad range of political, economic, social and geographic dynamics visible in the region. It aimed to explore a variety of topics, among which: the driver’s behind the mutual interest of partnership between Russia and the Middle East; Russian-Middle Eastern economic cooperation; the prospects of a Russian “sovereign democracy” in the Middle East; Islamic extremism and Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East; contemporary migration patterns between Russia and the Middle East; Russia’s “responsibility” to protect; and Russia’s relations with Iran, Syria, Israel, the Maghreb, Yemen, and Turkey. A small number of scholars will be invited to take part in in-depth, critical analysis of the nature of the Russian-Middle Eastern relations post the 2011 Arab-uprisings. This research initiative addresses an increasingly important but largely understudied topic in Middle Eastern studies.
Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS