Russia and Middle East policy - Lenin to Putin

 

Which of the great or regional powers is rising or declining in the Middle East?

 

It all looks increasingly like a replay of Cold War dynamics. The parallels drawn between today and the Cold War era highlight great power animosity, competition, jockeying for pre-eminence, a frantic quest for clients and protégés, and rising competition in the economic, political, security, military and ideological spheres.

 

But the invocation of such vintage concepts and leitmotifs often fails to take account of many nuances pertaining to Cold War politics in the Middle East. The Cold War was not just a competitive scramble for power and dominance. It was also characterised by dramatic and sudden shifts in the influence of the respective superpowers, regional players instrumentalising the superpowers, as well as interludes of Soviet-American cooperation and self-restraint. (Gaub & Popescu, 11/18, EU/ISS Chaillot report p.13)

 

 

 

4 scenarios of Russia's approach to Middle East policy:

 

 

Russian ME policy as historically checkered

Present-day Russian activism in the Middle East builds upon historical experience. For over two centuries, Russian foreign policy was focused on displacing the Ottoman Empire from

the Black Sea region and the Balkans. Persia was de facto divided between Russia and Britain into respective zones of influence. St. Petersburg’s designs on Constantinople and the

Turkish Straits were a main reason Russia joined World War I. The Soviet Union’s active involvement in the Middle East began in the mid-1950s, and soon resulted in an intense rivalry with the United States. A number of Arab countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Syria, were, for a period of time, Soviet clients and quasi-allies in the Cold War. The Soviet Union helped establish the state of Israel, but later became disappointed with it and backed Israel’s Arab foes and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

 

 

 

Russian ME policy as part of its striving to regain greatness

In the broader universe of Moscow’s foreign policy, the Middle East generally ranks after the United States, Europe, and China and Asia. The Kremlin again sees Russia as a great power on a global scale, and as such it cannot ignore a region so close geographically, so rich in hydrocarbons, and so unstable socially and politically as the Middle East. Moscow’s withdrawal from the Middle East under then president Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of the first Gulf  War marked the decline of the Soviet Union’s superpower status. Russia’s reappearance as a player in the Middle East under President Vladimir Putin has the aim of restoring the country’s position as a great power outside of the former USSR. With the start of the military intervention in Syria in 2015, and the U.S.-Russian diplomatic effort that

accompanied it, the Middle East has become a key testing ground for Russia’s attempt to return to the global stage.  (Dmitri Trenin)

 

 

Russian ME policy as proxy for struggle with US hegemony

Russia’s policy in the Middle East is part of a wider strategy aimed at creating an international order which would shield Russia against Western interference in its internal affairs and would guarantee it an equal footing with the United States. In practice, that means that Russia’s Middle Eastern policy is subordinated to the Kremlin’s global strategy towards Washington. In the Middle East, Moscow seeks to create a regional variant of what it believes to be the best model of the international order, i.e. a concert of powers that would include, apart from Russia, also the regional powers of Turkey and Iran, as well as the United States; provided the latter shows a willingness to co-operate with Russia on an equal footing and give up its ‘hegemonic habits’. The Kremlin’s striving to restore Russia’s great power position in the Middle East has also served to legitimise Putin’s regime in the eyes

of both the Russian elite and Russian population at large.

 

Russia’s policy in the Middle East has been and remains subordinated to Moscow’s global strategy towards Washington. A paradoxical aspect of the ‘US-centrism’ of the Kremlin’s policy is that, while Moscow seeks to undermine the US dominance, it also aspires to achieve Washington’s formal, or at least informal ‘recognition’ and acceptance as a global power standing on an equal footing. (Rodkiewicz, 2017, CES, Warsaw)

 

 

Russia, for whom Middle East opportunity knocks:

Russia’s comeback has also been greatly facilitated by a number of politico-military opportunities. The Arab Spring and the subsequent wars in the region temporarily weakened ruling regimes (Egypt) or led to the collapse of regional powers (Syria, Libya), while the rise of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) put the threat of terrorism firmly back on the international security agenda. The increasingly chaotic situation in the Middle East, coupled with the waning commitment of the US, has nurtured local demand to explore alternative partnerships, and Russia has come to represent an appealing interlocutor for many regimes. Overall this constellation of circumstances provided Moscow with an opportunity to start filling some of the power vacuum left by the absence of US and European leadership, boost its regional diplomacy and reinsert itself militarily in the region under the banner of the fight against international terrorism.

 

 

In the M047 session on Russia and the Baltics, I noted that:

Studies of the post-Soviet space usually present Russia as a regional hegemon because its territory is larger and its natural, demographic, economic, military and political resources are greater than those of all the other former Soviet republics put together. Moreover, most Western analyses argue that Russian policies in the post-Soviet space stem exclusively from Moscow’s imperial ambitions, inherited from the USSR.

 

To some degree and on the basis of aspects of the quotes above,  this seems to be true of  Russia's relations with the Middle east today. namely that Russia at least across the Putin years is managing to consolidate and mediate its relations with various of its Middle Eastern adjacent and non-adjacent countries despite some of them having a) good relations with the USA and/or b) being in conflict with other Middle-Eastern states with whom Russia is friendly. (Katz brings out this point)

 

The current run of the literature seems to point in the direction of Russia successfully managing a complexity of diplomatic, political, and economic ties to Middle-Eastern states in such a way as to put into question the future status and influence  of US foreign policy towards the Middle East. If this is right, we may place some doubt upon Rodkiewicz's point that "Russia’s Middle Eastern policy is subordinated to the Kremlin’s global strategy towards Washington."

 

Perhaps Russia is pursuing a regional policy that will pay dividends in terms of the recognition it craves as a world power somewhat independent of  a diacritical determination under an overarching relationship with America.

 

Q: What is the balance between a discrete highly multi-polar albeit regionalised approach to Russian middle-eastern policy and a necessary bi-polar and zero-sum game (rationale) with America?

 

 

The Past:

 

The long history of the 'Turkish' Straits goes back centuries but assume major diplomatic and military significance in Russo-Turkish arguments mediated by Britain and France during and after the First World war.

 

 

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits is a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control over the Turkish Straits (the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits) and regulates the transit of naval warships. The Convention gives Turkey full control over the Turkish Straits and guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. It restricts the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states.

The United States decided it firmly did not want the straits to fall into Soviet hands, as it would give them a major strategic gateway between the Black Sea and Mediterranean and possibly lead to a Communist Turkey. In a secret telegram sent by US Dean Acheson to diplomats in Paris he explained the American position on the matter.

In our opinion the primary objective of the Soviet Union is to obtain control over Turkey. We believe that if the Soviet Union succeeds in introducing into Turkey armed forces with the ostensible purpose of enforcing the joint control of the Straits, the Soviet Union will use these forces in order to obtain control over Turkey…. In our opinion, therefore, the time has come when we must decide that we shall resist with all means at our disposal any Soviet aggression and in particular, because the case of Turkey would be so clear, any Soviet aggression against Turkey. In carrying this policy our words and acts will only carry conviction to the Soviet Union if they are formulated against the background of an inner conviction and determination on our part that we cannot permit Turkey to become the object of Soviet aggression.

— Dean Acheson, Telegram to the Secretary of State at ParisAugust 8, 1946

 

In the period of months from summer to autumn of 1946, the Soviet Union increased its naval presence in the Black Sea, having Soviet vessels perform maneuvers near Turkish shores. A substantial number of ground troops were dispatched to the Balkans. Buckling under the mounting pressure from the Soviets, in a matter of days Turkey appealed to the United States for aid. After consulting his administration, President Truman sent a naval task force to Turkey. On October 9, 1946, the respective governments of the United States and United Kingdom reaffirmed their support for Turkey. On October 26, the Soviet Union withdrew its specific request for a new summit on the control of the Turkish Straits (but not its opinions) and sometime shortly thereafter pulled out most of the intimidatory military forces from the region. Turkey abandoned its policy of neutrality and accepted $100 million in economic and defence aid from the US in 1947 under the Truman Doctrine's plan of ceasing the spread of Soviet influence into Turkey and Greece. The two aforementioned nations joined NATO in 1952.

 

The half million-strong Turkish army became a component part of NATO, the bloc’s southern flank shifted directly to the borders of the USSR, while American air bases and (from 1961–1963) missile bases equipped with Jupiter nuclear medium-range ballistic missiles were established that could reach the major economic regions of the Soviet Union – the Ukraine and southern Russia, in Transcaucasia and the Volga region.

 

Vassiliev has noted: Soviet policy and propaganda during Stalin’s time did not score too badly in the Arab countries. Additionally the Soviet government, both before and following a short period of flirtation with Israel, offered the Arab countries a number of successful and timely gestures of support. Certainly in the Arab world, the image of the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly positive, as the USSR supported the demands for the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt and for the granting of independence to the Lebanon and to Syria, and later to Libya. Between 1952 and 1955 Soviet representatives at the United Nations Organization invariably and actively participated in discussions on issues concerning Tunisia

and Morocco, and supported their struggle for independence (p.37)

 

As such in Stalin's period after the 2nd world war, foreign policy towards the Middle-East proved to be rather mixed bag:

 

a) the aggressive pursuit of claims over the straits has pushed Turkey into the arms of NATO

 

b) due to (a), the Soviets were obliged to back off from any claims over the straits and of course, accept the 1936 Montreux Convention.

 

c) the Leninist legacy of a critique of imperialism has become an axiom of society ideology that infected readings of the 'correct' foreign policy - which in Lenin's time was a rather simplistic condemnation of western imperial policies in the Middle East but in the latter years of Stalin had perhaps rather serendipitously, become rather appealing to the more radical nationalist forces that were appearing in Middle eastern states notably Egypt under Nasser. (Gaub and Popescu p.13): "Despite Lenin’s 1919 appeal to the populations of the region to ‘wake up’, Soviet ideology held little attraction for Arab nationalists and Russian influence was very limited")

 

It is this latter that to some extent is still being milked today by Putin's Russia.

 

 

 

In the 50s:

On the political front, the Middle East and North Africa appeared quiet in the early years of the Cold War.

The first Soviet legations opened in Arab countries towards the end of World War II; however by 1950 the local institutional landscape did not appear ripe for revolution.

Nasser's success in Egypt in 1952 opened the door for renewed society M-E policy:. although not communist, it was anti-bourgeois and anti-imperialist. Moscow’s Marxist-Leninist discourse; and communism’s redistributive vision was appealing to populations struggling with low levels of development, high levels of poverty and quasi-feudal structures. After all, land reform was one of the first policy priorities of Nasser and his comrades – in 1947, more than 65% of the land in Egypt was owned by less than 6% of the population

 

Russia ’s return to the Middle East

The US refused to deliver weapons to the new Nasser  regime and Cairo turned to the Soviet Union:

1955, Egypt secured arms worth $250 million from Moscow. This, plus the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, led British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to the conclusion that ‘Nasser, whether he likes it or not, is now effectively in Russian hands, just as Mussolini was in Hitler’s’, as he wrote to US President Eisenhower

The Suez crisis saw Britain and France lose regional influence, whereas the Soviet Union’s footprint in the Middle East expanded along with Nasser’s idea of Arab socialism did.

 

1960s into 1970s

By the early 1970s, more than half of the Arab monarchies had been removed and replaced by governments keen on profound social and political change; more than 20,000 Soviet military advisors (who arrived in Egypt in civilian clothing, then switched to Egyptian military uniforms) now worked in Egypt. They were tasked with ensuring Egypt’s air defences against Israel and they did so successfully, thereby erasing much of Israel’s air advantage.

 

Moscow had access to Egyptian support bases at Alexandria and Mersa Matruh, and a naval base in Tartus, Syria. Friendship agreements had been signed with both Damascus and Cairo in 1971, and with Baghdad the year after.5 Moscow also expanded into the Maghreb: Algiers received technical and financial assistance, as well as several loans for the purchase of military equipment, and Russian relations with Gaddafi’s Libya grew closer, too. Seemingly, the Soviet Union was succeeding in making the states in the region increasingly more dependent on it both economically and politically.

 

Nasser warned of getting too close the Soviets confidently said  to Foster Dulles, US Sec of State n the early 1960s: They went into Eastern Europe because they had common frontiers, so they could send their armies in. But the Red Army is a long way from Egypt.

 

The point here is that Soviet exchange with its new Middle east friends was not one-way; the ME countries sought to exploit Soviet ME ambitions in the not unreasonable belief that they were not going to be particularly easily invaded.

 

As a result, leaders in the region managed to not just obtain what they wanted from Moscow – arms, money and even Soviet troops.

 

 

The Soviet Union through the 70s has reason to feel that at best its ME interlocutors were..slippery. Sheehan in the NYT (1972) commented: Arabs can be bribed, but never bought; they can be bullied, but never bound; they can be fervent, but not always faithful.

 

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war is a good example of how relations between the Soviet Union and its Middle Eastern interlocutors were often characterised by this kind of ambiguous and manipulative behaviour.

 

 

But the USSR was playing both ends again the middle as well:

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, the U.S.S.R. had become more deeply involved in military support for the Arabs, not only massively rearming them, but assuming a more direct role in the operation of their armed forces. At the same time, however, the Soviets had made extensive efforts to achieve a settlement of the conflict, repeatedly attempting to cooperate with the United States for this purpose, bringing considerable pressure on the Arabs to negotiate, and exercising notable restraint and caution in the transfer of arms.

USSR tried to dissuade the Arabs from going to war in 1973 (against the Israelis - Yom Kippur war)...but Egypt hoped that the presence of Soviet troops already 'advising' in Egypt would drag the USSR into the fight should things turn sour for Cairo. The Soviets refused to fight Israel directly, Cairo was disappointed. In Egyptian eyes, the 1973 war left a ‘legacy of mutual distrust and suspicion. The Arabs accused the Russians of coming with too little and too late, both in respect of arms and diplomatic support’. The USSR military refrained from getting directly involved in the war (though they supplied the Arabs with arms).

 

Equally: Syrian-Soviet interaction was another example of local disregard for Soviet geopolitical preferences. In 1980, for example, the USSR and Syria signed an agreement which stipulated that ‘if a third party were to invade Syrian territory, the Soviet Union would become involved in the events’. The USSR sent in 5,000-6,000 military advisors (roughly as many soldiers as at the height of Russian involvement in Syria in 2016-2017) and massive amounts of weaponry. But when the Soviets requested a naval base in Latakia-Banias (in addition to their facility in Tartus), the Syrians refused.

 

Brezhnev is reported to have said: ‘They [the Arabs] can go to hell! We have offered them a sensible way for so many years. But no, they wanted to fight. Fine! We gave them the latest technology. They had double superiority in tanks and aircraft, triple in artillery, and in air defence and anti-tank weapons they had absolute supremacy. And then what? Sadat woke me up twice in the middle of the night over the phone, “Save me!” He demanded that we send Soviet troops, and immediately! No! We are not going to fight for them. The people would not understand that. And especially we will not start a world war because of them.’ And so the USSR ended up siding with the US in joint attempts to impose peace on the warring parties, but also losing a good degree of credibility with Egypt.

 

In other words, and this went for the US policy as well, the USSR may want to build up and consolidate it revival of Middle eastern influence partly shaped by the bi-polarity of the Cold War, but the Soviets were not going to get involved in a potentially escalating major conflict for the sake of Arab countries.

 

The ambivalence of Soviet-Arab relations is for some primarily an ideologico-religious problem - Arab peoples by dint of religion and form of agricultural life (rather than industrial workers) are not particularly given to communism - an attitude that was insufficiently understood by Breznev's USSR. Tunisian President Bourguiba noted in an op-ed for Foreign Affairs in 1957, ‘the struggle for national independence served as a restraint and a deterrent’ against communism

 

Impact of Sadat's expulsion of the USSR military advisers: July 1972

The expulsion had dealt a major blow to the U.S.S.R. It had deeply embarrassed and humiliated the Soviets, demonstrating to the entire world the fragility of the Soviet position in the Middle East. It had deprived the U.S.S.R. of what some viewed as uniquely important strategic facilities, vital not only to the Soviet Union's presence in the Mediterranean, but also to its operations in Africa and the Persian Gulf. Sadat's explanation of his action had created an image of the U.S.S.R. as an unreliable ally for third-world countries and had left the Soviets vulnerable to Chinese accusations of superpower collusion to obstruct the forces of national liberation. A number of military leaders maintained that if the U.S.S.R. failed to come through, Egypt and Syria would completely cut their ties with the Soviets and turn to the Americans to negotiate the return of their territories. The disintegration of the entire Soviet position in the Arab world— maybe even the third world as a whole—might follow unless Arab demands were met and Soviet willingness to support progressive forces were demonstrated.

 

Sheehan in the NYT in 1972 explaining why Sadat in Egypt expelled the Soviets notes:

Despite intense Egyptian pressure, the Russians steadfastly declined to furnish their client with the offensive missiles or bombers that could strike Tel Aviv. the Russians have been pursuing a pure Marxist strategy of building an industrial base, of creating the conditions for Sovietstyle Socialism, and of waiting pa tiently for the day when Sadat would fall—or their friends in Egypt would overthrow him—and they could raise up another, more powerful, more Marxist Aly Sabry in his place.

For Sadat has always been fundamentally anti-communist. He distrusts the Soviet Union and detests Communism primarily because he is deeply religious and because they are atheistic. In the Islamic Middle East, such a motivation is still enormously important, far more important than most Western liberals or Soviet leaders can comprehend. For the greater part of the Egyptian people—and this includes their army—think exactly as Sadat does. Soviet advisers are known to have told Egyptian officers that Islamic values were weakening their military effort, and that when they give up praying they will win their war. Such suggestions touched the deepest and most sensitive Egyptian nerve, and it is small wonder the Russians were so resented.

Mind you, others have suggested that there were other reasons for the Sadat's decision: Raymond L. Garthoff's view, it was the agreements reached between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1972 Moscow Summit, which effectively put the Arab-Israeli conflict on the backburner, that became the "last straw" for Sadat. ....And Nixon's decision to suspend the supply of aircrafts to Israel at the end of June, and his decision to aggressively press for the reopening of the Suez Canal as part of an interim agreement between Egypt and Israel had just as much to do with getting the Soviets out of Egypt...

Whatever, Sadat's expulsion of Soviet military advisers most likely not only weakened Soviet diplomatic advance in the Arab world but also advanced preparations for the 1973 war with Israel (which the USSR was disinclined  to join and pushed Egypt towards the US thereby beginning the road towards a US mediated set of Egyptian-Israeli accord after Camp David talks between 1977 and 1979.

and then there was "most importantly, the Soviet Union failed to become the region’s patron because of  its unwillingness to take clear sides in the conflict with Israel" (Gaub & Popescu, p.19)

 

Dina Spechler has an interesting way of putting the dynamics of Soviet foreign policy in the late 60s to the early 70s.

 

She suggests that: Moscow placed much emphasis on the pursuit of a new, more constructive relationship with the United States. The Kremlin leadership devoted considerable effort and attention to a search for means to mitigate and regulate U.S.-Soviet competition. It evinced great eagerness to inject into that competition a substantial element of collaboration for the sake of avoiding confrontation and war. In subsequent years, however, that quest was gradually de-emphasized and eventually largely abandoned.  At the same time, there began to be a notable lessening of restraint in the conduct of competition with the United States, particularly in the third world.

 

"Until February 1973, the Soviet attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict was shaped primarily by the requirements of Soviet global policy at the time—i.e., by the desire to avoid a superpower military confrontation and to develop the new relationship of detente. The decision to end the policy of restraint appears to have been taken with full knowledge that both a confrontation and the rupture of detente could result." (p.457)

 

" the Soviet Union adopted a number of critical measures or rules of restraint in order to prevent Egypt and Syria from undertaking an offensive against Israel" (and this chimes in with Sheehan's analysis in the NYT 1972)

 

Spechler argues that intra-politburo elite competition - roughly dividing between the ideologists (antagonists) and  the pragmatists (co-operativists/detente-ists) - can explain why turn around in Soviet policy in the ME. (Spechler; The U.S.S.R. and Third-World Conicts:

Domestic Debate and Soviet Policy in the Middle East, 1967–1973 World Politics / Volume 38 / Issue 03 / April 1986, pp 435 - 461)

 

" It would appear that the expulsion greatly strengthened the hand of those who viewed the United States as an unalterable and dangerous antagonist. They were now able to argue more convincingly than before that too much was being sacrificed for detente. " (p.453)

 

and as the 70s wore on;  with the US interventions in Chile to overthrow Allende and support for anti-communists forces in Angola as well as ballistic missiles in Europe in the early 80s - all these US 'aggressions seemed to justify the change round in Soviet foreign policy generally towards an antagonistic course towards the US rather than one of co-operation.

 

Spechler's analysis is problematic - it at once wants to offer a dramatic identification on February 1973 as a turnaround in Soviet policy towards a much more aggressive competitive approach vis-a-vis the US at the same time as she acknowledges that actually the USSR played more of a game of making promises and never quite delivering fully - particularly true of arms to Egypt n 1972/3. As such it is difficult to wholly accept her suggestion that in giving arms to Egypt in February 1973 they had in effect precipitated the Yom Kippur war. She too gives less than the dram of her initial story promises!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Afghanistan adventure:

 

In the summer of 1973, Mohammed Daoud, the former Afghan Prime Minister, launched a successful coup against King Zahir. Although Daoud himself was more nationalist than socialist, his coup was dependent on pro-Soviet military and political factions. Since 1955 Moscow had provided military training and materiel to Afghanistan; by 1973, a third of active troops had trained on Soviet soil. Additionally, Daoud enjoyed the support of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), founded in 1965 upon Marxist ideology and allegiance to Moscow.

 

Daoud hoped to mitigate the  threat of a split between his supporters and the opposing radicals in his party by steering Afghanistan away from Soviet influence and improving U.S. relations, while decreasing the influence of radical elements in the government and military.

However, the radical faction took control in Aril 1978 and executed Daoud. USA was alarmed by a communist takeover in Afghanistan. But the Carter administration decided upon  a course of recognising the new regime and nurturing good relations with Kabul in an effort to assuage soviet influence. Within Afghanistan there was resistance in the Islamic countryside to the communist regime in Kabul.

 

By the winter of 1978, this program was met by armed revolt throughout the country. In response, Amin and Taraki traveled to Moscow to sign a friendship treaty which included a provision that would allow direct Soviet military assistance should the Islamic insurgency threaten the regime. This insurrection intensified over the next year and it became increasingly obvious to the Soviets that Taraki could not prevent all-out civil war and the prospect of a hostile Islamic government taking control. By mid-1979 Moscow was searching to replace Taraki and Amin, and dispatched combat troops to Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul

 

By the winter of 1979, the Afghan Army was unable to provide basic security to the government against the onslaught of Islamic fighters nearing Kabul. By that point the Soviets were sending in motorized divisions and Special Forces. Washington demanded an explanation, which the Soviets ignored. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the invasion began. Soviet troops killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as the Soviet’s puppet head of government.

 

 

At the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country. This event began a brutal, decade-long attempt by Moscow to subdue the Afghan civil war and maintain a friendly and socialist government on its border. It was a watershed event of the Cold War, marking the only time the Soviet Union invaded a country outside the Eastern Bloc—a strategic decision met by nearly worldwide condemnation. This intervention was the culmination of growing Soviet domination going back to 1973. Undoubtedly, leaders in the Kremlin had hoped that a rapid and complete military takeover would secure Afghanistan’s place as an exemplar of the Brezhnev Doctrine,

 

In their wake, the Soviets left a shattered country in which the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, seized control, later providing Osama bin Laden with a training base from which to launch terrorist operations worldwide.

 

To quite a degree in the last days of  Breznev's variable approach to Middle east policy shifting between detente with America and relatively aggressive interventionism, the US left the USSR to get on with their Afghanistan adventure that went  happily for the US, disasterously wrong. A policy considerably driven by a all too ideological commitment to the expansion of communism was flawed.

 

 

 

Gobachev's policy

 

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Soviet policy in the Middle East was in crisis, first and foremost because of the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan, and then because of the internal decay of Soviet society (with the

paralyzed state of the leadership), and finally because of the USSR’s flagging military and strategic competition with the West.

 

The task of Soviet policy in the Middle East was still determined by the need to prevent or at least reduce any military or strategic threat from the south and to weaken Western positions in the region. The framework of this task encompassed

support for those governments or political forces opposing the United States or at least striving to strengthen their political independence from the West.  Moscow sympathized with attempts to unite the Arab countries on the basis of the

principle of “anti-imperialism” and championed the slogan of “Arab unity” in its anti-Western version as well as supporting certain nationalist or fundamentalist movements in Turkey and Iran that were aimed mainly against the West. In the

Arab-Israeli conflict the USSR was unconditionally on the side of the Arabs, thus providing a basis for real political cooperation and a platform for political declarations to that effect.

 

Support for the Palestinian national movement became an indispensable component of the USSR’s policy in the region. Certainly the Camp David process had proved that the Soviet Union had no means at its disposal through which to influence the key countries of the Middle EastEgypt, with which diplomatic relations were frozen, Israel, with which relations had been broken off, and Saudi Arabia, where there was no Soviet embassy. Of course, the USSR could act through other less important, though far from insignificant, actors on the Middle Eastern stage – Syria, the Palestinians, on some matters Iraq, Algeria, Libya and South. However, it was already unable to make any positive contribution, or at least an independent one, to a settlement of the Middle East situation.

 

The Iranian revolution was welcomed in the USSR because of its anti-Americanism, it created serious economic difficulties for the Soviet Union (such as termination of gas supplies from Iran) and inflicted substantial losses.

 

The events in Iran strengthened the waves of Muslim revivalism in the Soviet Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics.

 

The Iran-Iraq war created difficulties in Moscow’s relations with both Baghdad and Teheran, led to the strengthening of the US navy in the Indian Ocean and once again inflicted economic loss by hampering Soviet cooperation with both countries. Politically the centre of gravity in these conflict situations shifted twice from the sphere of the Arab-Israeli confrontation to the first from 1980 to 1988 as a result of the Iran-Iraq war and Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, and second after August 1990 because of the Iraqi aggression in Kuwait.

 

In the Third World the USSR began to give up its preferential cooperation with the so-called countries of “socialist orientation” and to expand its ties with the more moderate conservative regimes. The experience of Afghanistan and the necessity of putting an end to the military intervention there implied that the Soviet Union was unlikely to send any more of its troops to Third World countries.

 

 

Gorbachev's strategy of pulling back from ideological adventures

The trade turnover between the two countries increased significantly when Soviet natural gas began to be supplied to Turkey in 1987. Towards the beginning of 1990 the annual turnover reached $1.3 billion, four times the 1986 level. Turkey gave the USSR bank credits worth $300 million for the purchase of consumer goods and a credit worth $350 million for funding the construction and modernisation of food and light industrial enterprises in the Soviet Union, and a number of joint ventures were created. In 1990 both countries signed agreements on cultural cooperation, prevention of drug smuggling, fishery cooperation, legal aid and investment protection. Edvard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, visited Ankara in December 1990 and the following March the Turkish president, Turgut Ozal, visited the USSR and signed a treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation, remarking that this treaty had put bilateral relations on to a new legal basis within the framework and spirit of the pan-European process.

 

Although the war in Afghanistan was still not over, the Soviet-Egyptian rapprochement that had begun with Husni Mubarak’s accession to power continued under Gorbachev. An important step was the exchange of ambassadors in 1985. Both parties were seeking for compromises and mutual understanding, and an agreement was reached that Egypt would repay the military debts that Sadat had frozen within a period of 25 years: this paved the way for the development of further economic ties. Naturally Cairo was not going to revise its policies which were closely tied to the United States. However, the normalization of relations with the USSR gave Mubarak a somewhat greater range within which to manoeuvre in his relations both with Washington and with other Arab countries. The USSR and Egypt exchanged parliamentary delegations, and the Egyptian deputy prime minister and foreign minister Abd al-Meguid visited the USSR.

 

Soviet cooperation increased with Jordan, to whom the USSR supplied some air-defence devices. Even so Jordan’s close ties with the United States remained unchanged, although its agreement with Moscow provoked some irritation in Washington.

 

In June 1985 president Asad of Syria visited Moscow and he and Gorbachev met to coordinate the efforts of both countries in Middle Eastern affairs. The Syrian leader was also keen to explore the new Soviet leader’s intentions. As usual,

he was counting on a fresh increase in arms supplies. At the end of 1985 Moscow supplied advanced war launches, and at the beginning of 1986 sent several hundred new T-80 tanks to Syria, followed at the end of 1986 by SS-23 missiles; their

range of more than 500 km could seriously impair the effectiveness of Israel’s main airfields.   The Syrian president visited Moscow again in April 1987, and was told by Gorbachev that the lack of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel “could not be considered as normal”.  There was nothing new in this statement but the signal given to the Syrians was clear. The Syrian leaders who were experienced enough and had a keen nose for details, were quick to understand that the Soviet Union itself, as well as its policy, was changing and that the USSR would therefore no longer play its former role of protector of Syria’s interests. Accordingly they began to adapt themselves to the new international realities and to turn slowly towards the US and the West, a change of direction that was to become more visible during the Gulf crisis. The Syrian vice president visited the USSR in May 1988 and notwithstanding the communiqué that spoke of “confidence between

the leaderships of both countries. Soviet arms supplies to Syria were gradually decreasing.

 

Such a view of the thawing of soviet approaches towards the Middle east in terms of that old imperial ambition of Russia at the centre of world affairs towrd a softer policy of cooperation with the ME countries and generally good diplomatic relations is supported by Galia Golan (Gorbachev's Middle East Strategy' ( Foreign Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Fall, 1987), pp. 41-57)

 

She argues that Gorbachev's USSR recognised the limitations of the  soviet union as a major foreign policy player and tt it had lost mucy ground to the US especially over Afghanistan.

 

Now the USSR endorsed the policy of Glasnost and Perestroika - an opening up of friendship towards those countries, notably Israel, with whom it had had strained relations for many years. Gorabchev's statement about Israeli relations with the USSR...to the Syrian President in 1987 was very telling in its own right about reviving proper relations with Israel. Equally the USSR made far more constructive stances over the cease-fire of the Iran Iraq war. Perhaps even more surprising  and a clear advance of Glasnost was the openess to self-criticism by the USSR over their mistakes about their relations with Israel from 1967 onwards. And all of this was endorsed officially in the \programme of the CPSU which heralded the determination of the Party to encourage good relations with developing countries even if they were capitalist.

 

Under Gorbacehv, the USSR was fostering a foreign policy of support5 and trade with non-aligned sometimes conservative and moderate arab states as well as Israel and clearly abandoning its usual practice of supporting  only more radical states.

 

 

 

Post-Gorbachev:

By the fall of the USSR in 1991, Soviet authorities had created a solid foundation for the development of fruitful cooperation with the Arab world and Iran. The Soviet Union had relatively good relations with Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and the Palestinian Authority. Moscow’s dialogue with Iran and Kuwait

had substantial and positive potential. from the political point of view, the USSR was quite appealing for Middle Eastern countries as a certain ideological alternative to the capitalist West and as a counterbalance to the American presence.

 

By 1991, the track record of Soviet accomplishments in the region included 350 industrial projects. All in all, the Arab states received about 20% of the technical assistance allocated by Moscow to countries of the developing world. In addition to this, by the fall of the USSR, the annual volume of Soviet trade with the Arab countries reached $7–12 billion. This figure comprised about 30% of USSR trade with developing countries and made economic relations with the Middle East an important source of income for the Soviets. The military cooperation between the USSR and the Arab countries was also impressive. The largest part of this sum was related to the Soviet–Iraqi ($24 billion) and Soviet–Syrian ($11 billion) deals. However,

Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and libya could also be named among the clients of the military-industrial complex of the USSR.1 Apart from that, Moscow was an important creditor of the Arab regimes. The real volume of the debts of Middle Eastern countries to the Soviet government is still unknown. According to the most moderate estimates, by 1991 the USSR had $35 billion of unreturned credits out of which the large part belonged to Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Egypt.

 

Yet, after 1991, Moscow largely neglected the potential for development of its ties with the region that had been created during Soviet times. In other words, from the fall of the Soviet Union until our current decade, Russian cooperation with Middle Eastern countries has had a relatively low profile. This can be explained by domestic political and economic turmoil in Russia during the 1990s and by the Western orientation of Russian diplomacy under President Boris Yeltsin (1991–1999).

 

By the mid-1990s, the share of Arab countries in Russia’s volume of trade was less than 1 percent.3On the other hand, political and economic cooperation with the Middle East contradicted the new ideology of the post-Soviet elite of the Russian federation, who saw their country as part of the Western world and refused to develop those vectors of diplomacy that they viewed as non-Western. As a result, the Middle East was considered a region of secondary importance for the new Russia. The only exception was Israel, whose relations with Moscow improved considerably during the 1990s (mainly due to the strengthening of the political and business positions of the Jewish community in Russia and the fact that this country was considered a Western splinter in the Middle East).

 

During the 1990s and 2000s, the development of constructive dialogue with Washington was still unofficially considered a top priority of Russian diplomacy. This intention was supported by the gradual strengthening of semi-official and unofficial ties with the West by the Russian economic, political, and cultural elite. Such an approach, in turn, determined Moscow’s perception of the Middle East as a leverage and trade item in Russian relations with the United States and Europe. In fact, Russian authorities have played this card during periods of both U.S.–Russian rapprochement and severe tensions between the two countries, by either freezing their cooperation with the opponents of America in the Middle East or boosting it, respectively.

 

For instance, in 1995, Russia and the United States signed the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement. According to this confidential document signed in the wake of reconciliation between Moscow and Washington, the Russian government agreed to stop the  implementation of existing military-supply contracts with Iran by 1999 and not to conclude new deals with Tehran in this field.

 

the two countries was determined not only by their difficult relations with Washington. The substantial role in bridging relations between the two countries was played by Khatami’s firm intention to implement his doctrine of “the dialogue of civilizations,” Khatami’s cultural and diplomatic strategy that implied the development of contacts between Shia Iran and other countries of different religion and traditions. On the Russian side, Putin’s plan to develop Russian ties with non-Western countries as a part of his doctrine of the multi-polar world also pushed the two countries towards each other. In the early 2000s, the Russian president for the first time formulated the idea that Moscow should not be solely focused on its dialogue with the United States and Europe but try to have equally intense relations with the countries of the Middle East, Asia and South America.

 

The tense relations with the United States still remained the main factor determining the dynamics of the Russian–Iranian rapprochement of the early-2000s. Thus, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent improvement of both U.S.–Russian and U.S.–Iranian relations slowed down the tempo of the interaction between Moscow and Tehran. It again intensified after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, when both Russia and Iran were dissatisfied with the U.S. decision to occupy this country. Nevertheless, the U.S.–Russian reset of 2009 once again offset the Russian–Iranian dialogue, compelling Moscow to adopt a harsher stance on Tehran and its nuclear program. The Russian vision of the Middle East as the region of the secondary importance has changed after 2012.

 

Prior to 2012, a serious attempt to return to the Middle East was undertaken by the Kremlin just once. This sluggish effort took place in 2003–2008, when Putin decided to test the ground for the development of future relations with the Middle East and made a number of visits to the regional capitals. Yet, relatively modest gains of his trips stalled during Medvedev’s presidency (2008–2012); like Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Putin’s successor was not interested in building ties with the region.

 

The Russian population wished to see Medvedev’s successor more actively protect their perceived national interests and cement relations with non-Western powers. Under these circumstances, Russian support for Damascus, closer relations with Tehran, and rapprochement with Egypt were supposed to symbolize a return to the old traditions of the Soviet Empire for those missing the superpower glory of the USSR.

 

After 2012, Russia has substantially increased its presence in the region of the Middle East. Its foreign policy also became more consistent. Moscow not only improved its relations with traditional Soviet/Russian partners in the region (such as Iran and Syria), but also  re-established ties with those countries where its leading positions were believed to be lost for good (Egypt, libya, Iraq). The Russian authorities made several attempts to increase their presence in those sub-regions that were believed to be the zone of exclusively Western (primarily U.S.) influence (for instance, the GCC countries). Moscow also intensified its interaction with regional organizations, paying special attention to the development of ties with the Middle Eastern members of the OPEC (an organization from which Russia deliberately distanced itself prior to 2012). finally, for the first time since the fall of the USSR, Moscow deployed its military forces in the Middle East when it started a military operation in Syria in 2015.

 

The Russian leadership has adopted a more strategic approach to the Middle East by seeing it as a region of growing importance for achieving Russian political, economic, and security goals.

 

By intensifying its current activities in the region, the Kremlin is pursuing the following three groups of goals:

 

• Economic: compensating for the negative effects of sanctions on the Russian economy; securing existing sources of income; protecting the interests of Russian energy companies and their share in the international oil and gas market.

 

• Political: avoiding complete international isolation; creating leverage which can be used to affect U.S. and EU behavior outside of the region; propagandizing Moscow’s conception of the “right world order”; shaping Russian popular opinion.

 

• Security: reducing potential security threats for Russia and the post-Soviet space posed by the situation in the Middle East.

 

 

Kozhanov offers us three key elements of Putin's current strategy:

 

1) Moscow is persistent in defending what it sees as its red lines in the region. It does not welcome forced regime change if it leads to the destruction of  existing state mechanisms. The Kremlin is also concerned about any change of borders in the Middle East. Moscow’s flexibility has enabled it to talk to different forces in the region and, if necessary, play the mediator’s role.

 

 

2) Russia seems to be trying to reclaim its Cold War role as a counterbalance to the United States in the region. The Kremlin does not directly oppose Washington, but rather exploits the region’s pre-existing disappointment with the United States through practical moves, which contrast with Western behavior. Thus, Moscow’s stubbornness in protecting the Assad regime, and its readiness to help the police and authoritarian governments of the Middle Eastern countries with weapons supplies, allowed Russia to garner additional respect and popularity among the local elites when compared to Obama’s attempts to promote democracy in the region and his intention to disengage from regional affairs

 

 

3) Moscow avoids using ideological rhetoric in its official dialogue with the countries of the region. It remains extremely pragmatic. Russia does not raise the question of political freedom in Iran, and tries not to be vocally critical of Israel’s policies in Palestine and Gaza, in spite of its support for a two-state solution. finally, in its economic efforts, the Kremlin focuses on those areas where it has market advantages: nuclear energy, oil and gas, petro-chemicals, space, weapons, and grain. Although the Middle Eastern share of overall Russian trade and investment remains small, the region still holds great interest and, in some cases, even key importance for selected Russian industries, including the agricultural and military industrial complexes, and the petrochemical, space, and oil and gas industries. Israel and the UAE buy up to 16% of the precious stones and metals exported by Russia. The Middle East is the main destination for exports of Russian grain; by 2016, the largest buyers of Russian wheat, rye, and barley were Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, respectively.

 

 

Convergent security interests with the West:

There are several issues where Russian interests fully converge with those of the West. These include protection of the non-proliferation regime in the Middle East, the stabilization of Iraq and Yemen, and counteracting the spread of jihadism. Success on these issues would create further grounds for cooperation. Thus, Russia has been working hard to secure an effective dialogue between Iran and the West on the settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. The main reason for this is that Russia appeared to be actually interested in the outcome of its efforts and not only in what it could gain during the process. An Iran armed with a nuclear bomb is not desirable for Russia, 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. This, in turn, would pose a genuine threat for Russian security

 

Russia also believes in the success of its current Middle Eastern strategy based on the principle of balancing among different regional players. Success in Syria, rapprochement with Iran, the strengthening of ties with Egypt, and the development of dialogue with Israel and the GCC add to the Kremlin’s confidence. As a result, Moscow demonstrates its readiness to defend its interests in the region with the use of not only diplomacy but by military force, if necessary.

 

In the case of the GCC: Relations between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have undergone significant changes over the past two decades. In the early 2000s they were frequently strained and occasionally fractious, due in large part to Moscow’s suspicions that the Gulf monarchies were lending support to the Islamist insurgency in the Northern Caucasus. After Russia regained control of the situation in Chechnya and following the economic rebound of the mid-2000s relations began to improve. The Kremlin notably altered its perception of Saudi Arabia as the chief sponsor of international terrorism following the visit of Crown Prince Abdullah to Moscow in September 2003.

 

 

And of course the Syrian conflict into which Russia has poured so much military effort whilst largely avoiding any serious conflict with the West beyond condemnation - perhaps because they  are doing the West's dirty work for them - may also ever more deeply connect Iran to Russia.

 

Together with Russia, Iran is Assad's second main external backer, and has invested even more heavily in his regime's survival – perhaps as much as US$6 billion a year, while as many as 2 000 Iranian fighters have lost their lives in Syria. Tehran therefore has every reason to welcome Moscow's intervention.

 

Another factor which brings Russia and Iran together is the two countries' shared animosity towards the US. Historically, tensions with Washington have tended to drive Moscow and Tehran closer together. Those tensions have risen lately, due to harsh American sanctions against both countries and Washington's withdrawal from the May 2018 Iran nuclear deal.

 

 

With embargoes banning EU and US weapons sales to Iran, Russia has become Iran's main arms supplier. Over the past ten years, two-thirds of Iranian defence imports came from Russia - mostly accounted for by a US$800 million transfer of Russian S-300 air defence missiles.

 

However, in line with its overall strategy of maximising its Middle East influence, Russia is keen to cooperate with countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Iran sees as adversaries. For example, responding to Israeli concerns, Russia has refrained from selling some of its most sophisticated weapons to Tehran; has put pressure on Iran to keep out of areas close to Syria's border with Israel; and has not retaliated against Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.

 

Such differences mean that the Russian-Iranian relationship should be seen as a tactical alliance based on specific issues where interests converge, rather than a longer-term strategic partnership reflecting fundamental similarities in the two countries' world views.

 

 

Conclusions:

Despite the seeming substantialisation of Russian policy towards the Middle East in the later Putin years, Kohzonov opines that:

 

"It is still unclear, however, how substantial Russia’s declared turn to non-Western countries really is. There is a suspicion in the region that Moscow may once again change its policy towards the Middle East as soon as its conflict with the West is over."

(Russian Foreign Policy in the Middle East: New Challenge for Western Interests?, p.124)

 

 

but Stepanova (2019) suggests:

The upgrade of Russia’s role in Syria as a result of its military campaign since 2015 has helped bring Russia back to the Middle East. While few now doubt that Russia is in the region to stay, the main question is in what forms and to what extent.

 

 

But whatever, all have agreed that Putin's renewed interest in MiddleEast policy has brought with it an abandonment of ideology and a forceful real politik of a pragmatic kind yet avoiding direct conflict with the USA as far  possible unless under the duress of a public opinion that wants to see that old tendency towards Russian Imperialism rear its head.