OLD AND NEW
Russia, and or Sovietskaya Vlast, has been allegedly anxious and or eager, according to those in Western Europe and elsewhere, to 'expand' into the Near and Middle East, since the reign of Catherine II. Either seeking to destroy the decaying Ottoman Empire (the 19th century horror story), or seeking a 'warm water port' (the 20th century horror scenario). It has been contended for more than two hundred years that the regime in Petersburg or Moskva has been seeking to expand south, and 'take over' the Near East, and, shut out, the Western powers for the same. With the end of Sovietskaya Vlast in 1991, it would appear that Moskva's appetite for warm, southern lands had ended. And, indeed, the period from 1991 to 2005, was remarkable by the virtual absence of a Russian diplomatic footprint from the regime. With the end of Communism, and the economic crisis of the 1990's, Moskva had cut the economic cord, that tied it to 'friendly' regimes in the region such as Syria, Iraq, South Yeman, the PLO, et cetera. All of them, were forced to live without Russian assistance, economic and military, in the new climate of unchallenged American hegemony in the region. A state of affairs, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003, appeared inexorable and unchangeable for the considerable future.
What a change a few years can make indeed! In light of the twin debacles: the Americans in Iraq, and, the Israelis in the Lebanon, as well as the recent perceived rise in Persian, Shiite influence, as well as the revival of Russian Great Power ambitions, much talk has been made of a revival of Russia as a Near Eastern Power. According to some, Russia's revived role is nothing more than an atavistic search for Great Power influence, in an area of declining American ascendancy. According to others, Putin's recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, with his meetings with important State officials, is nothing more than an attempt to lobby for a greater community of interests among energy exporting countries. A secondary interest on Putin's part, being hoped for, military sales, among cash rich, Near Eastern Arab states. All of whom, in light of talk of a Persian menace, are actively expanding their arms purchases. Russia, the world's second largest arms exporter, is quite content and happy to oblige them. Deals over possibly exporting nuclear reactors to the same states, also concerned about Persia's nuclear ambitions, are icing on the cake for Moskva, revenue wise. Others argue, such as Mr. Athanasiadis, below, that Russian aims in the region or a combination of the above elements: a search for energy partners among the energy exporters in the region, looking for potential markets for the semi-ailing, Russian military and nuclear energy industries, combined with a wish to expand Russia's diplomatic presence in the region, by adopting a somewhat different role, diplomatically than the United States in the region. As the Roma-based online journal Power and Interest argues:
"Russia is moving powerfully in other contexts to play a greater role in the global geopolitical system. Putin's recent trip to the Persian Gulf is an example of this....The strengthening of relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is part of Russia's strategy for achieving this goal. Russia wants to use its role as a weapon and energy supplier as well as a supplier of nuclear technology, to enhance its relations with all the regional actors involved in the balance of power. It wants to use its relations with these states to place pressure on its geopolitical competitors, especially the United States" (see: "Russia's new initiatives in the Persian Gulf", in www.pinr.com).
How true does this analysis seem, and, how indeed atavistic or 'age-old' are Grazhdanin Putin's diplomatic maneuvers in the region? Insofar as it delineates both the commercial (the primary) and the great power (secondary) motivations for Moskva's diplomatic gambits in the region, Mr. Athanasiadis' analysis (see below), seems to be sound. It is however, only when it contends that contemporary Russia has ambitions akin to those of the Sovietskaya Vlast era, that it becomes unstuck. It is good to remember the diplomatic chessboard of the Near East, circa 1986, for our younger, or less than well read, readers: Russia with its allies in Syria, Iraq, South Yeman, and the PLO, as well as 'friendly' relations with the governments in Algiers, and Tripoli, was a major player in the region. While perhaps not as an important or key player as the United States was, after the latter managed to steal Sadat's Egypt, from the Soviet camp, no one doubted that it exercised via the alignments mentioned above, a major influence in the region (for an example see John Campbell's article in 1982, in "The Middle East: A House of Containment built on shifting Sands", in Foreign Affairs).
Today none of this is true. Russia has no ally worthy of the name, in the sense that Assad Pere's Syria could be said to have been such, or for that matter, pre-1990, Iraq, or Egypt in the 1960's. It is useful to remember of course, that up to 1974, Egypt's air defence network was supplied and operated by Russian personnel, and, that there were a good number of cases in which Russian pilots fought air duels with their Israeli counterparts in the early 1970's. And, while supplying Persia with the some of the components necessary for its nuclear programme, allows Moskva to some extent to exercise a role, outside of the American orbit, its failure to block American sanctions resolutions in the Security Council, clearly show that it is unwilling to complete break with the Americans over the matter. As the Russian analyst Pavel Abelsky, noted last summer during the war in the Lebanon, notwithstanding Russian rhetoric of its new found role in the region, the fact of the matter is, that Moskva's position was that of a political eunuch. With no capacity to influence or even interact closely with either side (see: "No Solution in Sight", in www.russianprofile.org). In the short to medium term, Russia's role in the region, will be similar to that of the larger Western European great powers: France and Britain. All three are members of the UN Security Council, so all three are intimately connected with both the ongoing Persian nuclear negotiations, as well as member of the Quartet handling the Israeli-Palestinian question. All three powers have well established and important arms industries, which manage to survive by exporting x billions of Euros, each year, and, much of that to this very region. The only difference among the three, is that: a) Russia is not dependent upon oil shipments from the region (neither is Britain, yet); b) Russia does not have any military footprint to speak of in the region. Britain of course has close to fifteen thousand troops spread out in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as bases in Cyprus and Turkey. France has troops in Afghanistan and bases just over the perimeter in Djioubti, in the horn of Africa. Both, West European powers, still have some ability to project their military into the region, without too much difficulty, independent of the United States. In the case of Russia, it does not appear, that it possesses even the limited power projection capability that London and Paris have (for the comparative figures, see: www.globalsecurity.org). A fact of course which is well known to all the players in the region. To recapitulate, to mistake Putin's recent diplomatic 'grand tour' to the region, for a revival of the Superpower role, once exercised by Sovietskaya Vlast in the region, is to mistake the power of oil for that of grapeshot. Or in other words to misread the calendar by about twenty years. As the Moskva-based, Russian scholar, Dmitri Trenin, has recently argued in an important article (to be the subject of a future posting), one of the key differences between Tsarist Russian / Sovietskaya Vlast and present-day Russia is that:
"Whereas the Empire was predominately about Eurasian politics and the Soviet Union promoted a global ideological as well as political project backed up by military power, Russia's business is Russia itself....Values are secondary or tertiary issues, and even traditional military power is hardly appealing. Fluctuating energy prices, not nuclear warheads, are what really matter to Moscow" (see: "Russia Redefines Itself and Its Relations with the West", in www.twq.com).
With all those caveats being expressed, I urge you to read Mr. Athanasiadis, journalistic effort:
Middle East Influence
TEHRAN, Iran -- What was the Soviet ambassador's car doing, parked inside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, during the height of the Cold War?
Relations between staunch U.S. ally Riyadh and committed adversary Moscow were at an all-time low, as Soviet arms and funding were being delivered to a number of Arab nationalist, anti-royalist regimes, such as Nasserite Egypt, Marxist Southern Yemen and Baathist Syria.
"What is the ambassador doing in our embassy?" Abdurrahman Ar-Rashed, the current editor of Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat, recalls asking of then-Saudi Ambassador to London, Sheikh Nassir Al-Manqoor. "We do not even shake hands with the Russians!"
As Ar-Rashed related in a recent column, Al-Manqoor replied sarcastically that the Soviet ambassador had parked his car at the Saudi Embassy because there was no space at the Kennedy Center next door, where he was headed. After that quip, the Saudi ambassador presumably introduced Al-Rashed to the Russian representative.
"Matters were much clearer when the world was divided into two camps, between the left and the right, or between Washington and Moscow," Al-Rashed concluded.
This month, Russian President Vladimir Putin's royal welcome in Riyadh must have begged the question: What is the Saudi monarch doing hugging the Russian President?
The week after the visit, Moscow announced it will delay starting Iran's first nuclear power plant. The announcement came a day before a Pentagon bombing wish list was leaked to the BBC, on which, for the first time, the Russian-constructed Bushehr power plant appeared as a target. The Saudis have been terrified at the prospect of large-scale regional radioactive contamination in the event the Bushehr power plant is bombed after it becomes operational. In light of these fears, the Russian move can only be interpreted as further evidence that Moscow has decided, for the time being and despite the Cold War rhetoric, to march in step with the West....
More than 20 years have passed since then, and I grew up and started covering the Middle East. One of the first consequences of this career choice was my loss of any remaining vestiges of innocence. But last week, as I watched Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands with a series of Arab leaders on a rare tour of the Middle East, that childhood incident impinged on my consciousness. I had the distinct feeling that the Russian leader was taking advantage of the new Cold War between the region's Sunnis and Shiites to make a double profit.
"Moscow is a good dealer and will be happy to convince the rich Arab countries of the region to buy the Russian weapons by using their fear of Iran," said Hossein Bastani, the former general secretary of the Association of Iranian Journalists.
Sure enough, Putin tempted longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia by hinting at the possibility of a Russian-sponsored nuclear energy program and suggesting Moscow help rearm the country against "threats." Riyadh currently perceives its greatest threat as coming from neighboring Iran.
"Russia is willing to look into cooperation opportunities in the area of atomic energy," Putin told Saudi businessmen during his visit. At the same time, he announced Russia will launch six Saudi-made information satellites for Saudi Arabia this year.
At the same time, Russia is the primary foreign backer of the Iranian nuclear energy program, and has built the Bushehr power station on the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf. Russia also has been heavily involved in Iran's aeronautics program, launching at least two of its satellites. Finally, Moscow prompted American and Israeli indignation last month when it delivered the sophisticated TOR M-1 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, which promptly deployed it around its nuclear facilities.
"The Russians are playing a double game with Iran," said Bastani. "Despite all their oral support for Iran, they have not voted in favor of Tehran on different sensitive international occasions, especially in the Security Council, whereas they have had many profitable economic contracts with Iran, and Iran always buys low-quality Russian products and services to confront American sanctions and gain Moscow's cooperation against the USA."
The relations between Russia and the Arab world or Iran can hardly be characterized as based on mutual affection or common values. In a predominantly Muslim region, Russia's recent incarnation, the Soviet Union, was traditionally viewed as a Trojan Horse for godlessness and an oppressor of Allah-fearing people everywhere. Moscow's exploits in Chechnya since the 1990s acted as a clarion call for militant defenders of Islam.
So it was unsurprising that Putin's visit raised eyebrows in the region.
"It's a very simple equation: Russia is a nuclear country with a nuclear excess, and Saudi is an oil country with an excess in its budget," opined Saudi blogger Mohammed al-Shehri.
But there are other factors as well. With a considerable and growing Muslim minority numbering 20 million, offset by a plunging demographic rate among Christian Russians, the Kremlin's foreign policy is being forced to acknowledge the country's impending future. In addition, Moscow has been making noises recently about establishing a body regulating the sale of natural gas. Iran believes it is an excellent idea, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even said so in public. Critics in the West have attacked it as a sinister plan to set up an OPEC-style cartel that keeps prices artificially high.
Just as Washington's push into the region followed the collapse of the carefully balanced regional system after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, so does Russia's latest foray coincide with flagging American influence in the Middle East.
Moscow is enjoying record foreign currency profits through its natural gas sales and is finally able, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, to think about resuscitating its foreign policy role in the region. This it has begun doing in controversial style. It was the only Western government, for example, to welcome sanctioned Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah to Moscow shortly after his election last March. Saudi King Abdullah has also been through Moscow, as have the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. With the world's biggest gas reserves, and as the second net exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia, Moscow can now finally afford to resume projecting power.
Russia's first step in doing so is to return to the world's most strategically important region, the Persian Gulf, and Moscow has pluckily gone knocking on doors that were always firmly shut to it. All three of Putin's destinations -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan -- are firm Western allies. For Arab leaders, Russia's advances benefit by comparison with recent U.S. foreign policy. "Relations between Russia and the Arab world are flourishing today and we greatly value Russia's policy in the Middle East," Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said in Moscow recently. "The policies of other countries regarding our region have not proven as successful perhaps," he added in a thinly veiled jab at Washington....
"If Russia, being the main supplier of the Iranian nuclear energy project, played the role of a guarantor that prevents Iran's nuclear armament on the basis of commitments from Tehran itself, this alone would bring the most critical crisis that we are about to experience to an end," wrote Ar-Rashed the Saudi editor, in his column, titled "The Return of Russia." "We all need a positive, counterbalancing Russian role rather than a negative one in the tug-of-war with Washington and high-level bargains."
Certainly, Moscow is freer to maneuver today than in Soviet times. "In the Soviet era, Moscow also had to make a pretense of exporting its ideology," the veteran Indian diplomat Melkulangara Kumaran Bhadrakumar perceptively pointed out last week in Asia Times. "Moscow . . . was bogged down with the baggage of ideology during the Soviet era, [and] didn't have such a freedom to be in the vanguard of Arab aspirations."
With Russian involvement in the Middle East set to grow, the sight of Russian diplomatic sedans parked inside the embassies of countries with claims to defending the Islamic faith will become an ever less shocking sight.
Iason Athanasiadis is a Tehran-based analyst and writer.