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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Russian policy in the Middle East region can probably be considered one of areas of most significant achievement for President Putin in recent years. With relatively small material investments and minimal combat losses, Moscow managed to transform itself from an almost imperceptible supernumerary on the Middle East scene into one of the region’s main actors, without which not a single major issue of regional security can be resolved today. Russian successes are even more impressive if one compares the results of the Russian operation in Syria with those of the intervention of the US and its allies in Iraq in 2003.

Russian achievements in the region require some explanation. Some observers believe that Moscow’s victories are related to the fact that, after its unsuccessful involvement in Iraq, the US essentially abandoned new interventionist actions in the region during the Obama years, leaving behind a geopolitical power vacuum. Russia has filled this vacuum promptly and without excessively high costs.

The question then arises: is Moscow capable of preserving the current status quo in Syria – and indeed in the region as a whole – in the long term, even if this status quo is in Russia’s interests? At the time of this writing, such preservation would seem unlikely not only over the long term, but even over the medium term. This means that Moscow must look for solutions to the problems of the Middle East that would allow Russia to convert its current military successes into more sustainable – even if more contestable – political influence in the region.

The official position of Moscow is that the best solution to the challenges of the Middle East would be to create an inclusive regional collective security system. Such a system would be tantamount to a Middle East version of the European Helsinki process of the 1970s, with the active support of the UN Security Council and the formation of a regional counterpart of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe. Perhaps such a design, while not possible in the foreseeable future, would be a solution to the security problems of the region – although it is worth noting that, in Europe itself, this model did not prevent the Ukrainian crisis of 2014.

Russian policy in the Middle East region can probably be considered one of areas of most significant achievement for President Putin in recent years. With relatively small material investments and minimal combat losses, Moscow managed to transform itself from an almost imperceptible supernumerary on the Middle East scene into one of the region’s main actors, without which not a single major issue of regional security can be resolved today. Russian successes are even more impressive if one compares the results of the Russian operation in Syria with those of the intervention of the US and its allies in Iraq in 2003.

Russian achievements in the region require some explanation. Some observers believe that Moscow’s victories are related to the fact that, after its unsuccessful involvement in Iraq, the US essentially abandoned new interventionist actions in the region during the Obama years, leaving behind a geopolitical power vacuum. Russia has filled this vacuum promptly and without excessively high costs.

Another explanation comes down to the fact that the Kremlin has outplayed its Western rivals due to a higher standard of expert advice in respect of its Middle Eastern policy. Unlike American strategists, the Russian leadership continues to rely on a highly professional community of Orientalists who know and understand the region well.

The third explanation is that the main advantage of President Putin was the consistency and stability of his policies in the region – policies that earned Russia, if not love, then at least respect not only from Moscow’s Middle Eastern partners, but also from its Middle Eastern adversaries. By contrast, Western countries, which have often changed their positions over the course of the development of the Middle Eastern drama, have largely lost credibility with the leaders and political elites of the region.

Another explanation for the successes of Moscow is that, in contradistinction to other influential international players, Russia was able to maintain constructive relations with almost all sides of the Middle East conflicts – with the Israelis and Palestinians, with the Sunnis and Shiites, with the Turks and Kurds, and with Iran and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. In all likelihood, this peculiarity of Russia’s positioning in the region is directly related to the country’s initially marginal status in the Middle East (in the post-Soviet context): prior to the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring,’ Russia was, unlike the US, not burdened by rigid frameworks of close, allied relations with individual regional forces. Moscow is therefore now better suited to play the role of ‘honest broker’ in the region than Washington.

Having said this, in terms of actual engagement in Middle Eastern affairs, Russia’s comparative advantage remains tenuous. This is especially evident in Syria, where the preservation of the numerous ‘intra-Syrian’ equilibria has become increasingly difficult. Moreover, with the military defeat of ISIS, a common enemy has disappeared for many players in the Syrian theatre. Bashar Al-Assad is becoming increasingly tough and uncompromising in his dialogue with the Syrian opposition, demanding unconditional surrender. Iran, having thoroughly entrenched itself on Syrian territory, is also less inclined to compromise with its opponents. For its part, Israel, fearing a growing Iranian presence and the strengthening of Hezbollah, and relying on the almost unconditional support of the Trump administration, is expanding its air operations over Syrian airspace. Turkey is in a hurry to consolidate successes in the west and in the north of the country, creating a buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. Syrian Kurds are nervous – not without reason – and await another betrayal by their tactical allies and partners.

The question then arises: is Moscow capable of preserving the current status quo in Syria – and indeed in the region as a whole – in the long term, even if this status quo is in Russia’s interests? At the time of this writing, such preservation would seem unlikely not only over the long term, but even over the medium term. This means that Moscow must look for solutions to the problems of the Middle East that would allow Russia to convert its current military successes into more sustainable – even if more contestable – political influence in the region.

The official position of Moscow is that the best solution to the challenges of the Middle East would be to create an inclusive regional collective security system. Such a system would be tantamount to a Middle East version of the European Helsinki process of the 1970s, with the active support of the UN Security Council and the formation of a regional counterpart of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe. Perhaps such a design, while not possible in the foreseeable future, would be a solution to the security problems of the region – although it is worth noting that, in Europe itself, this model did not prevent the Ukrainian crisis of 2014.

First published in Global Brief Magazine.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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