Nikolay Kozhanov
Academy Associate
The Kremlin uses its presence in the Middle East as leverage to handle its bigger problems with the West, but that does not preclude useful partnerships – if approached cautiously.
A banner displays  a welcome message on Cairo's landmark Qasr al-Nil bridge during Vladimir Putin's visit to Egypt in February 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A banner displays a welcome message on Cairo's landmark Qasr al-Nil bridge during Vladimir Putin's visit to Egypt in February 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Russia’s main goal in its engagement in the Middle East is to exact leverage over the West, as Moscow’s assistance may play a crucial role in the settlement of major issues such as the Iranian nuclear problem, the Syrian conflict, the stabilization of Afghanistan and violent jihadist groups. Its engagement is also a part of a strategy aimed at avoiding international isolation in the wake of sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. It can still be a helpful partner in the region, but only where its interests already align with international goals.

Where it works

Russia has managed to persuade the international community of its indispensability in handling major Middle Eastern issues. Moscow’s participation in the P5+1 group dealing with the nuclear talks with Iran is part of advancing this narrative. Its ‘global meeting’ of Syrian opposition members with representatives of the Assad regime in January and periodic pitches in support of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine are similarly coloured by this main goal of securing leverage. Even the modest results of these efforts are often portrayed as substantial achievements for Russian mediators.

Russian involvement is not necessarily detrimental. In March, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, argued that Russia can be helpful because only Moscow (and Tehran) speak directly to Bashar al-Assad. He was also positive about Russian efforts to arrange the aforementioned Syrian dialogue in Moscow. In addition, some high-ranking EU officials see the Kremlin as an important player in the Middle Eastern Quartet on Palestine. But neither of these conflicts is expected to be resolved anytime soon, and here is part of the problem of Russian engagement.

Moscow is not always interested in reaching the endgame as it exploits the Middle Eastern agenda for its own needs. In the case of Palestine, it is more important for the Kremlin to create the buzz around the diplomacy than to actually try to settle the issue. Russian influence and economic resources are obviously insufficient to bring the sides to agreement, but the Kremlin profits just from participation. A solution would automatically mean that Moscow is no longer needed.

Meanwhile, the Russian authorities do not want to sacrifice their political and economic contacts with Israel. Bilateral trade reached $4.6 billion in 2014. Russian industries are interested in some technologies that Israel may provide. Thus, Israel has been neutral over Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine and abstained from joining the Western sanctions. Any intensification of Russian efforts towards Palestinian independence may make the Israelis reconsider their ties with Moscow. 

Close contacts with Middle Eastern countries also allow Russia to dissuade regional elites from joining the ‘anti-Russian’ camp. For example, Egypt’s attempt to diversify its foreign policy away from the US was warmly welcomed in Moscow and supported by Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cairo in February. Moscow has managed to receive some support, as Egypt, Israel and Turkey have made known their objections to Western sanctions on Russia.

Still helpful?

Russian foreign policy motives in the Middle East do not necessarily preclude cooperation with Moscow over regional issues. Indeed, the Russians have proven at least semi-successful in dealing with some regional crises – cooperating with the international community over the Iranian nuclear issue for example.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2012 proposals for the settlement of the nuclear issue with Iran set the stage for the current round of negotiations. Since then, the Russians have been working to secure an effective dialogue between the authorities in Tehran and the West. Even the Russian-led construction of nuclear power units in Bushehr is considered by some Moscow analysts as a positive development which helped, at least temporarily, to allay tensions over Iranian demands for technologies to produce its own nuclear fuel. According to the same Russian experts, the Russian−Iranian agreement also paved the way for Iranian uranium hexafluoride (used in the process of enrichment) to be transferred outside of Iran.

The key to ‘success’ in this case is that Moscow was actually interested in the outcome of its efforts, not only in the process. An Iran armed with a nuclear bomb is not an option for Moscow, as this would change the balance of power in the region and encourage other, even less stable, Middle Eastern regimes to join the nuclear club.

Given this, it would be logical for the West to carefully choose issues for cooperation with Moscow where the Kremlin is genuinely interested in settlement. For instance, such ground for interaction can be found in issues related to the containment of Islamic State and the stabilization of the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan and, to much lesser degree, Syria may also offer opportunities for dialogue aimed at reaching concrete results.

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