Russia, the Middle East and Shaping the Future


2013-9-29 By Robbin Laird

Clearly, when one looks back on 2008, the actions against Georgia were the beginning of a more assertive Russian policy.

A line in the sand was placed on NATO expansion, and neither the United States nor Europe have really crossed that line since then.

With the return of Putin to the Presidency, the centrality of energy policy has been reaffirmed and with it Russian Arctic policy.

Unlike the United States as a reluctant Arctic power, the Russians have figured out that the Arctic is a centerpiece of their 21st century strategy.

And also have figured out that energy flows from the Middle East and the Arctic are two parts of a global picture.

We are back!
We are back!

Most recently, the Russians have re-opened military facilities in the Arctic as part of an overall strategy of expanding their role and presence in this significant strategic region.

According to Reuters:

Russia is reopening a Soviet-era military base in the Arctic, President Vladimir Putin said on Monday, part of a drive to make the northern coast a global shipping route and secure the region’s vast energy resources.

Two decades after abandoning it, Russia has sent 10 warships behind four nuclear-powered ice breakers to the base on the Novosibirsk Islands, a show of force as it resumes a permanent naval presence in the thawing region.

The flotilla was led by Russia’s flagship nuclear-powered cruiser, Peter the Great, along the Northern Sea Route, which connects Europe to Asia across Russian waters from the Kara Gate to the Bering Strait.

“Our troops left there in 1993, and yet it is a very important location in the Arctic Ocean, a new stage in the development of the Northern Sea Route,” Putin told a meeting of Russian defense officials.

“We will not only reopen the military base but restore the airfield to working order and make it possible for the emergency services, hydrologists and climate specialists to work together to ensure the security and effective work of the Northern Sea Route.”

Russia has staked future growth on mining the Arctic’s vast energy resources, and reviving the Soviet-era shipping route is an integral part of that plan.

The “return” of Russia (rather than the reset) has been evident in the Middle East as well.  The Russians are seeking ways in the Euro crisis cracks to expand influence, and the Syrian crisis has provided a very significant opportunity to return center stage.

The Russians have been a key patron of the Assad regime, but in spite of this, Putin has now positioned himself as an arbiter of the outcome of the Syrian crisis.  This is rather a slick move.

In a recent report by Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian point of view on their return to center stage in the Middle East is well articulated and presented.  The report is entitled, The Middle East: The New Great Game and the title alone should remind one of the nature of global power.

(The full report can be found on the Russia Direct website:

The executive summary to the report provides a good overview on the argument:

During Vladimir Putin’s tenure in power, Russia has been seeking ways to become the most important external force in the Middle East, or at least, a counterbalance to U.S. power in the region.

As a result, Moscow has settled on a “many friends” approach to the region, in which it has emphasized pragmatism and non-interference in the internal a!airs of sovereign nations.

The Arab Spring gave Moscow’s policy a stern test. During the events in Libya, Moscow felt misled by its Western partners, who used (in the Kremlin’s view) the resolution on the no-fly zone to legitimize military intervention.

This predetermined Russia’s position in respect to Syria: Moscow resolved not to allow a repeat of the Libyan scenario under any circumstances.

Despite the current friction in Egypt and Syria, Russia does not seek to jeopardize regional cooperation with Washington on important matters such as stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.

However, to overcome the differences on other issues, both sides need to re-think how to balance the competing approaches of pragmatism and idealism in determining the future of the Middle East.

One of the more interesting propositions developed by the author is that Russia’s position in support of Damascus has made it the most important external force in the Middle East.

A map inserted in the article provides perspective on the nature of geopolitics in the Middle East, something which has always been significant to Russian analysts.

From: The Middle East: The New Great Game
From: The Middle East: The New Great Game

The author underscores that Russia’s policies in the Middle East have been “steadfast and consistent” unlike some other external powers and the author sees this is a key element for influence in the Middle East.

Even critics of Russia’s Syrian policy point to the consistent and principled approach that has always been highly valued in the Middle East. Russia has no desire to abruptly change horses in midstream, and in most cases, errs on the side of caution and prudence, which is why it sometimes delays painful, yet inevitable decisions.

Consistency and discretion are what distinguish Moscow’s policies from the overwrought and messianic exhortations of some global actors that are prone to intervention and quick to “hand over” former allies and deceive local leaders counting on “absolution” in exchange for having made substantial concessions to the West (such as Muammar Gaddafi’s abandonment of his nuclear program).

Not only that, but innocent neighbors are often unwitting victims, such as the Sahel countries [mainly Mali and Niger — Ed.], which after the fall of Gaddafi, were flooded with weapons smuggled over the border from Libya.

The return of Russia is clear; and simply recognizing their return is hardly enough.

But how will Europe and the United States shape an effective Middle East policy in light of Russia’s return and role in the region? 

Notably, many American friends in the region the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel are well aware of Russian aspirations in the region and the willingness of the Russians to arm states which are not favorable to Western interests.

As the current phase of the Syrian crisis is managed, the Russians are clearly looking to gain advantage on the other side of the crisis and to augment their position.  Simply acceding in this process is hardly a policy.  What is needed is a clear reinforcement of relationships with the GCC and Israel as part of the management of the Syrian crisis.

What do Washington and European capitals have in mind to do?

Beyond of course attending the UN circus for discussions without end.

For the first part of the series see the following:

The photo was published in the following article and hereby credited: