In autumn 2015, just over two weeks after the start of the Russian military operation in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the annual Valdai International Discussion Club forum. A Russian participant asked the head of state whether it made sense to get involved. After all, the risks were high, losses inevitable and combat actions unpredictable. In addition, there was no exit strategy, which could entail long-term negative consequences. “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one rule: If a fight is inevitable, you have to strike first,” Putin responded without missing a beat.
This quip was later often cited as a typical example of how the Russian leader understands political actions and the essence of international politics. However, it is equally important to note that it was said specifically about the Middle East.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, that region remained on the periphery of Russian diplomacy for a time. Foreign policy was so focused on trying to make Russia a part of the “expanded West” and integrate it into the “community of civilized nations” that it simply retreated from many parts of the world (both intentionally and due to a lack of resources). This was especially true of regions that had been an area of stiff competition between the USSR and the West. The Middle East was not only one such region, but was perhaps the most important arena of ideological and geopolitical confrontation, second only to Europe. And it is fairly symbolic that the Syrian conflict became a pretext for Russia’s military-political return to the international arena as a full-fledged superpower and top player. This has been a Russian foreign policy goal – at times tacit, then openly declared – since the early 1990s.
The Great Game of the second half of the 20th century played out to a considerable degree in the Middle East. It was not a periphery, since it was close to Europe, the main arena of a systemic confrontation between the East and West. Meanwhile, decolonization had created almost limitless possibilities for competition between the new “masters of the world” – the USSR and the US. The sociopolitical systems that the leaders of the regional states embraced (capitalism or socialism) did not play a principal role – both were given a markedly local flavor. However, competition for geopolitical loyalty oriented toward either Moscow or Washington took on very harsh forms. The region was rocked by political cataclysms – coups, wars, religious and ethnic persecutions. However, despite it all, this bipolar confrontation paradoxically ensured a kind of stability. To be more exact, the dividing lines were clear, and were enforced not so much by the [local] governments as by the “big brothers.”
The Middle East was supposed to be the beginning of a “new world order” as envisioned by optimists at the end of the cold war. The first proving ground was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which was met with unprecedented rejection by the entire global community. For the first time (which turned out to be the last), Moscow and Washington acted together in favor of an international military operation to liberate Kuwait and punish Iraq for its aggression. Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 seemed to mark a new era of postconfrontation, ushering in a joint approach to solving global problems, including through force. Even a few years earlier, such a thing was impossible in principle: The region, and in fact the entire world, was divided into spheres of influence in which the global patrons guaranteed military and political protection to their protégés against their opponents and the opposing superpower.
Routing Iraq from Kuwait did not usher in an era of new global politics, for the simple reason that the system of two superpowers ceased to exist when one of them disappeared. The balance of forces that had determined the situation in the world for more than four decades was suddenly replaced by the dominance of the US, the only “hyperpower” (to use the terminology of French politician Hubert Védrine). Russia, the legal successor of the Soviet Union, withdrew from the competition. Meanwhile, the Middle East was left hanging: The powerful wave of democratization that shook the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Eastern Europe, Central Eurasia, the Far East, Africa, Latin America) essentially passed this region by.
However, stability [in the Middle East] turned out to be illusory. The disappearance of the cold war hastened what Zbigniew Brzezinski called a global awakening. The rise of international terrorism, whose most obvious roots can be traced to the Middle East, combined with the hobbling of the entire system of regime-states born of decolonization in the early and mid-20th century to turn the region into a ticking time bomb and then an inferno of global significance. After Sept. 11, 2001, events began to develop incredibly quickly. In the 15 years between 2001 and 2016, the Middle East experienced just about all forms of turmoil – outside interference, civil wars, an explosion of religious extremism, the collapse of political systems and the disintegration of entire states. As has always been the case historically, these changes were largely driven by the great powers. Their interventions – especially those undertaken by the US – destroyed the existing order and provoked a chaotic and practically uncontrollable transformation.
Why was the Middle East the specific place where Russia returned to the stage as a global player? There are several reasons. The first is Russia’s vulnerability to the threat of the Middle East’s radicalization – something that Russia, given its large Muslim population, has faced since the 1990s. In this sense, Putin’s aforementioned remark easily fits the logic of countering distant threats before they inevitably reach Russia.
Moreover, the Middle East is the region that best fits Russia’s foreign policy “toolkit,” so to speak: i.e., sufficiently effective modern Armed Forces and the ability to use them (especially after the reforms of the late 2000s and early 2010s); a solid knowledge of the region gathered during the Soviet Union’s activity there; a strong and professional diplomatic tradition; the Middle East’s weariness of unopposed US dominance, which had become increasingly dysfunctional since the start of the 21st century; post-Soviet Russia’s lack of ideological dogmas that would limit room for maneuvering; and an adherence to realpolitik, which suits the Middle Eastern states much better than any other approach.
All these factors came together in the mid-2010s, when all the concepts that various players had been trying to implement in this part of the world simply fell through. Meanwhile, the region itself had descended into the chaos of deconstruction, with the possibility of a complete loss of control. Russia unexpectedly became a game-changer that altered the dynamics of the situation.
Of course, only time will tell whether it changed or simply stalled that momentum. Six to eight years ago, it seemed that the Middle East was a festering wound in an otherwise steadily developing world. The feeling is different today – the Middle East is both a reflection and the quintessence of the highly complex changes affecting the entire world order.
This collection of articles presents views and findings from the best Russian experts, standing diplomats and statesmen, prominent politicians and public figures. Contributors include the late Yevgeny Primakov, dean of the Russian diplomatic and intelligence corps; current Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov; current Minister of Energy Alexander Novak; Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and others.
While each article in our collection deals with a specific issue or element related to the Middle East in general and Russia’s foreign policy in the region, in their entirety they provide a window into the dynamic evolution of attitudes and views espoused by the Russian expert community and policymakers. They fit together within a comprehensive system of analysis, forecasts and scenarios of foreign relations in the region and beyond.
Editor in chief, Russia in Global Affairs
Chairman, Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Research Director, Valdai International Discussion Club
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