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Putin’s chessboard: where does the Middle East fit in Russian foreign policy?

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A recent BICOM strategic assessment on Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East rightly highlights Russia’s core foreign policy aim in the region as being the re-establishment of its reputation as a great power and setting itself up as an alternative pole of global security. It also points to Russia’s cultivation of arms sales; the expansion and protection of its geopolitical footprint in the Mediterranean; expansion of its energy market; and the strengthening of the Putin regime at home.

The Middle East, however, is but one regional square on Russia’s foreign policy chess-board. Since the mid-2000s the Putin government has been building on its successful domestic consolidation after the chaos of the 90s and has sought to implement an aggressive new foreign policy in its relations with states across the globe. This new foreign policy mobilises the narratives of grievance and patriotism that Putin used to assert control over the country, and its central aim is to revise what it sees as Western hegemony over global security, reviving the multi-polar world of previous eras.

Russia’s post-Crimea foreign policy

The antecedents of Russia’s current foreign policy can be traced back to Russian objections to the deposition of Saddam Hussein, with its concerns crystallised by what Russia perceived as the “mission creep” of UNSC Resolution 1973 towards regime change in Libya. Driven by these concerns, Russian foreign policy began a new phase in 2014, catalysed by the Maiden uprisings in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s foreign policy could and should be described as “revisionist,” as it seeks to re-establish a multi-polar security order. Russia envisages that it will be one of the poles in this new arrangement. The Russians have long felt that they got a raw deal after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which Putin has described as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century) and that the US and NATO took advantage of Russian weakness in the 90s to secure global hegemony and move into the traditionally Russian sphere of Eastern Europe, an outcome Russians see as detrimental to their national security.

Russia is acutely aware, however, that it would be no match for the NATO alliance in a head-to-head confrontation. As such, it has chosen to pursue an opportunistic foreign policy that looks to grab onto openings to advance its core goals where and when it can. This approach can best be seen in Ukraine, where Russian activities are carefully calibrated to maximise Russian gains from the situation while minimising the likelihood of Western retaliation.

Russian foreign policy is also deeply pragmatic and non-ideological. The Russians have no qualms about supporting both the far-right National Front in France and the far-left Syriza party in Greece. The Russians see both as a means to an end, namely a disruption of European political processes aimed at shifting the post-Cold War settlement back in Russia’s favour.

This can also be seen in how Russia approaches different foreign policy theatres. For example, Moscow seeks to portray itself as a constructive presence in the Middle East, setting itself up as an alternative security guarantor and arms suppliers. It plays a similar role in Asia, encouraging greater Eurasian co-operation and the ascension of India and Pakistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCC).

Its presence in Europe, by contrast, is consciously disruptive, with Russia actively supporting disruptive political actors and promoting disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Russia’s lack of commitment to ideology allows it to pursue core state interests in a way which many Western simply cannot.

Where does the Middle East fit into Moscow’s foreign policy?

While prominent, the Middle East is less of a priority for the Kremlin than Europe or Asia. This is partly a result of the Putinist obsession with Russia’s dominance of the former-Soviet sphere and keeping China at arm’s length, and partly from the fact that attacks on Russia have historically originated from these areas.

The Middle East primarily fits into Russia’s foreign policy as a kind of force multiplier. Thanks to the improved foothold it has in the region after its 2015 intervention in the Syrian Civil War, the Kremlin has found itself able to pursue a pragmatic – some would say opportunistic – approach. Russia is rarely bothered by Western concerns like human rights or democracy promotion, which allows it a great deal of flexibility with which actors it can interact with. For example, it sees no contradiction between propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and doing arms and energy deals with the Saudis.

Conclusion

Russia’s Middle East policy is a lens through which its general foreign policy can be understood. Russia’s pragmatic approach to relations with regional actors, aggressive protection of what it considers its core interests in the region, and lack of regard for concerns such as human rights demonstrates that at its core, the Kremlin’s foreign policy has become a deeply pragmatic and non-ideological project.

Russia today act’s in a manner which has not really been seen since the pre-WWI era. Its policy is totally and unapologetically dedicated to its core security concerns, which are practically defined, and Russia is willing to use unrestricted means in order to pursue them.

BICOM’s strategic assessment “Russia in the Middle East” is available here.

Jack Agnew is Research and Communications Intern at BICOM.