Russia’s Middle-East Gambit
The Syrian civil war puts Moscow’s relations with the West, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel to a serious test
One obstacle is that Russia has insisted in involving Iran in Syria-related discussions, to which the Gulf Arabs and the United States strongly object. Moscow is frequently referred to as Tehran’s ally and advocate. Indeed, Russia has built a nuclear power reactor in Bushehr and has supplied Iran with a range of weapons systems. Russia, for its part, sees Iran as not so much a theocracy bent on developing nuclear weapons to terrorize the region as a power that has been in the region forever and that is likely to play a more important role in the future.
Russians appreciate that the Iranian theocracy has more checks and balances than the old Soviet system. As to nuclear weapons, a country with Iran’s resources and self-image should be able to build them, if its leadership decides to do so. Tehran, they think, is probably aiming for an outcome in which it stops at a relatively small step before reaching a nuclear capability and trades its restraint in exchange for dropping all sanctions against it and respect for its security interests. Moscow interprets Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas as both part of a low-level conflict between Iran and Israel and as an element in the Shia-Sunni competition in the Muslim world.
Yet Russia’s view of Iran, while not as bleak as Israel’s or the West’s, is anything but benign, due to history and the current lack of trust. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is more than troubling for Moscow: Even today, Iranian missiles can reach many parts of southern and central Russia. According to U.S. diplomats, Moscow cooperates more with Washington on Iran than it is usually given credit for in the mainstream Western media. Unlike many in the United States, however, Russians believe that pressuring Iran has limits of usefulness: Beyond a certain point, it becomes counterproductive, undercutting the pragmatists and empowering the bad guys that one seeks to isolate.
At the same time, despite the baggage of history, and its current relationship with Iran, Russia’s attitudes toward Israel are overwhelmingly positive. Many Russians admire the social and economic accomplishments of the Jewish state and its technological and military prowess. Intense human contacts under conditions of a visa-free regime and the lack of a language barrier with a significant portion of Israel’s population help enormously. What also helps is Putin’s positive disposition toward the Jewish people in general and toward the State of Israel, even if he does not always see eye to eye with its leaders.
The meeting in Sochi in May between Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu has predictably failed to resolve the issue of the Russian S-300 air-defense systems to be delivered to Syria and maintained with Russian technical support. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it is those systems that hold the bar high for outside military intervention in Syria and thus help achieve Moscow’s main objective. The Russians also appear to be more confident than many Israelis or Americans as to the nature and degree of control over those systems: Essentially, operating them would require Russian technicians. Finally, Putin knows that denying or withdrawing air-defense cover is the ultimate argument he needs to hold in reserve to make Assad buy into a real power-sharing deal, should Moscow and Washington decide to play a “Dayton for two” in Syria.
To speak of a coherent Russian strategy in the Middle East is therefore premature. What is clear is that Moscow is beginning to step out of its post-Soviet self-absorption. Its main preoccupation is with security—and Islamist extremism features as a primary threat. This is a big issue. By contrast, Russia’s interests in the Middle East are relatively modest. They are centered on oil and gas exploration deals, pipeline geopolitics, and pricing arrangements; other energy opportunities beckon in the nuclear area. While Russia’s position in the regional arms bazaar has suffered in the last decade as a result of developments in Iraq and Libya (and may yet suffer more in Syria), Moscow is clearly determined to stay in the arms business. Finally, as Russia recasts itself as a defender of traditional Christian values as well as a land of moderate Islam, it is discovering a range of humanitarian causes in the birthplace of both global religions.
To address its concerns and promote its interests, the Russian Federation is seeking both to bolster its defenses against imports of Islamist radicalism and extremism from the Middle East, and to help settle conflicts in the region in cooperation with the United States and other world and regional powers. It is using the U.N. Security Council to limit the liberty of the United States to intervene militarily and to block all attempts at regime change from the outside. Such defense of traditional international law and state sovereignty is linked not only to the Russian leadership’s generally conservative worldview but equally, if not more, to the Kremlin’s wariness toward Western democracy promotion. In an effort to upgrade Russia’s role in the region itself, Moscow has revived, albeit on a small scale, the Russian Navy’s permanent presence in the Mediterranean. To prevent the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran, Russia prefers international negotiations but with the military option kept off the table.
To further its economic interests, Russia prefers government-to-government agreements allowing its state-owned and private companies to operate in individual countries. In the energy sector, Russia has accommodated to Turkey’s new role of a regional energy hub but has worked hard to protect its own share of the European Union’s natural gas market. Gazprom’s very expensive pipeline project, the South Stream, to be built across the Black Sea and traversing the Balkans en route to Austria, may indeed evoke comparisons with the 19th-century Russian encroachments on what was then the Ottoman Empire. But it also demonstrates how much has changed in both Russia and the Middle East.
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