x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Is Russia going to be a major player in the Middle East? No

Russia denies the intention or ability to replace the US as it reduces its role in the Middle East and pivots towards east Asia.

Washington’s allies in the Middle East are perplexed at the direction President Barack Obama is taking. Washington makes no secret of its long-term goal of scaling back its involvement in the region and focusing on East Asia. The rapprochement with Iran suggests to some that the US is ready to sign, at almost any cost, a nuclear agreement that would allow Tehran to pursue the Shah’s old aspiration to be “gendarme of the Gulf”.

Washington’s abandonment of its old ally, Hosni Mubarak, almost three years ago seems to have ushered in a period of what the French call “fuite en avant” – a headlong rush to make things better by making them worse. The glib assumption in Washington that the Syrian leader, Bashar Al Assad, would soon be history, without Washington doing anything to achieve that goal, has raised questions about its strategic grasp.

So it is not surprising that states in this region have been showing intense interest in Russia. Could the Kremlin be a source of stability to counteract the restive spirits in Washington? Or is President Vladimir Putin only interested in tripping up Washington, as he defends his beleaguered Syrian ally?

Diplomatic traffic has been intense between Moscow and the region, exemplified by the joint visit of Russia’s foreign and defence ministers to Egypt to rekindle a relationship that died when former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers in 1972.

Russia’s goals in the region are is still unclear, but some clues were offered this week by Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. For more than a decade Mr Margelov has been a Kremlin troubleshooter for the Arab world and Africa.

Answering questions at Chatham House in London, Mr Margelov was at pains to stress Russia’s reliability as a partner, in implicit contrast to the changeable winds in Washington. It had relations with all countries in the region, including Israel, but its politics were not skewed by the Israeli lobbyists who hold so much sway on Capitol Hill.

He was clear on what Russia was not: Russia had interests from the North Pole to the South Pole, but it was not “a second edition of the Soviet Union” with an ideology or agenda to export. Nor did it have an open wallet to buy influence.

He was asked what Russia could offer Egypt to match the Aswan Dam, the lasting testament to relations in the last century. Such largesse was not on the agenda. Building grand projects abroad as a token of friendship, it seems, is just for China these days.

The goals of Russian foreign policy, he said, were strictly internal. “We have to have a neighbourhood which is either friendly or neutral, which gives us a chance to put our house in order, to concentrate on modernising our economy and society.”

In this, Mr Margelov should be given the benefit of the doubt. Russia has always worried about being encircled. But the issue is how broadly the “neighbourhood” is defined. It clearly includes independent former Soviet states such as Georgia, where the Russian army is slowly tightening its grip on two regions inside Georgian territory. It also includes Ukraine, where Moscow has been exerting economic pressure to discourage it from aligning itself with the European Union. The Arctic, which Russia has neglected since the 1990s but where Mr Putin is now building up military facilities, is seen as Russia’s stamping ground. And there is no doubt that Syria is too.

Mr Margelov strained credulity by asserting that Russia had no vision for the future of Syria except that the Syrians should decide it. But he was crystal clear on what Moscow would not tolerate in Syria: a “safe haven for all kinds of international terrorists” or a “buccaneer state like in the Caribbean during the time of pirates”. With 15 per cent of Russia’s population being Muslim, it could not allow its youth to be infected by radical, jihadist forms of Islam.

In case there was any doubt, he stressed that Russia would never allow Mr Al Assad to be excluded from the peace talks, supposedly being reconvened next month, as all political actors had a right to participate.

The concept of Russia’s neighbourhood is both illuminating and a cause for concern. From the point of view of Mr Putin, foreign policy is indeed domestic. Russia’s economy may be slowing down but Mr Putin is standing taller on the global stage these days, at least in comparison with Mr Obama. Strength at home and abroad is indivisible. In the Kremlin view, Mr Obama’s lack of control of Congress (though this is an abiding feature of US politics) is part and parcel of American decline. Wielding a veto in the UN Security Council is an important strand of Mr Putin’s authority.

Ultimately, however, the goal for Russia cannot be to supplant the US in the Middle East; it does not have the money or the military force. It has a big arms industry and it can help the Egyptian military diversify its sources of weapons, which it is doing as much for political as military reasons.

It also sees the containment of jihadism and the support of secular regimes as a vital interest, given Mr Putin’s long struggle against instability in the majority Muslim lands of its southern border.

But is it really going to be a major player in the Middle East? No. Russia’s key goal is to be accepted as a superpower to partner the US, as is happening in the Iran talks. Being sidelined and ignored, as when the Obama administration saw Russia as no more than a regional irritant, is worse than being seen as an enemy. The regional issues that concern Mr Putin are closer to home – the battle with Europe over Ukraine and, though not publicly mentioned, the unstoppable encroachment of China into Russia’s old fiefdom in Central Asia.


On Twitter: @aphilps