On December 9, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion on Russia’s role in the Middle East. Speakers assessed Russia’s political objectives in the region, its perception in the Arab world, and Moscow’s involvement in the Syria crisis. The panel featured Dr. Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Adnan Hayajneh, professor of political science and international affairs at Qatar University. The discussion was moderated by BDC Deputy Director Ibrahim Sharqieh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, business, and media communities.
Vitaly Naumkin opened the discussion with an overview of Russian relations with the Middle East. He argued that Russia’s interests in the region have grown considerably in the last few years, especially following the advent of the Arab Spring. Given the region’s “strategic importance” and its growing “turbulence,” Russia has significantly increased its diplomatic activities in the Middle East. In spite of this, he claimed that Russia’s economic ties with Arab countries are weaker than its trade relations with Turkey and Iran, while noting that Russia’s overall presence in the Arab world is “not significant.”
Naumkin explained that views of Russia’s response to the Arab Spring have been distorted by a number of misconceptions. Russia “cautiously” welcomed the Arab uprisings and was not, as many believe, merely seeking to maintain the status quo out of a fear of change. Compared with the U.S., he explained, Russia is simply more conservative and slower to take positions on world developments. While hesitant to do so at the outset, Russia eventually supported revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia. The Libyan uprising, on the other hand, “was a different story.” After abstaining from voting on U.N. resolution 1973, which authorized the establishment of a no fly zone in Libya, Russia felt “cheated” by foreign powers when “a no fly zone turned into direct military intervention.” This clashed with Russia’s world-view, he noted, a perspective built on respect for national sovereignty and international law, and opposition to military interventions without a Security Council mandate.
In view of this, Russian policy on Syria was guided by “philosophy” and not “pragmatic interests.” He downplayed the importance of Russia’s trade relations with Syria or its base in Tartous, arguing that Russia had no ambitions of maintaining a military presence in the Arab world. Russia’s stance on Syria is driven by lessons learned from the Libyan intervention rather than by blind support for the Assad regime. According to Russia, the Syrian crisis should be resolved “by Syrians,” without external intervention, through a process of broad national reconciliation and dialogue.
When asked to clarify Russia’s objectives in Syria, Naumkin explained that Russia wants to avoid a “Somalization” of the conflict, ensuring that Syria remains a unified country. The only possible scenario, for Russia, is an agreement between conflicting parties as “we are against the logic of toppling regimes.” He praised Russia’s involvement in Geneva 2 and the chemical weapons agreement, while citing its efforts to reach out to both the regime and opposition. At the same time, he noted that, with more than 500 Russian jihadis fighting in Syria, Russia feels increasingly threatened by the growing role of such foreign fighters in the conflict. Their goals and objectives are not democracy, he said. Russia also fears for the fate of minorities in Syria, worrying that Christians will be persecuted in Syria as in Iraq.
Turning to Egypt, Naumkin explained that Russia initially struggled with the Muslim Brotherhood victory, as the organization had been blacklisted in Russia due to its involvement with and support for the Chechnyan cause. Russia has been concerned with the Brotherhood’s ideological influence on the country’s large Muslim minority (roughly 20 million), especially regarding their views on statehood and relations with the Christian majority. Still, Putin strove to establish relations with the Morsi government, inviting Morsi to Moscow where the two discussed financial aid and Russian-Egyptian cooperation in the economic and energy sectors. According to Naumkin, the July coup and the subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Egypt relations opened up new possibilities for Russia, including a possible arms deal. Naumkin described this development as a “very good and positive transformation.”
Adnan Hayajneh, on the other hand, took a very negative stance on Russia’s role in the region. He argued that the Arab Spring is not a Western conspiracy “as Russia seems to think,” but the result of Arab sacrifices and aspirations. Russia should seek to understand this, instead of seeking to “contain” the uprisings through coups and counter-revolutions. Russia’s policies, he argued, are not based on sound ethics, calling Russia’ stance on Syria a stain on its image. Hayajneh explained that Russia had played a major role in preventing a U.S. strike on Syria, while blocking other forms of intervention in the U.N., such as the establishment of a no fly zone or humanitarian corridors. “Without the Russian veto we would not be speaking about a Russian role in the Middle East,” he asserted.
Despite Russia’s growing involvement in the region, following Putin’s accession to power in 2000, Hayajneh said that Russia would not be able to play a constructive role in the region, or be able to counter American influence. “Russia does not think as a superpower,” he said, describing relations between Arab countries and Russia as mere “diplomatic niceties.” He portrayed Russia as a declining power, one that does not represent a model of democracy for the Arab people. Russia has never sided with Arab countries, stood up against U.S. interests in the region (particularly in the case of Iraq) or played a constructive role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore, he added, any weapons deal between Russia and Egypt would be detrimental to the region.
When the floor was opened for questions, a member of the audience asked whether Russia could support an agreement between the Syrian regime and the opposition at Geneva 2, which excluded Assad. Naumkin cautioned that Geneva 2 is “only the beginning of the process,” expressing skepticism regarding its success. It won’t be easy to reach a long-lasting agreement, he said, “but negotiations are better than killing.” He then explained that Russia is not personally allied with Assad. Assad is a partner of the international community, he stated, referring both to Geneva 2 and the chemical weapons deal. Russia is not working to keep Assad in power permanently, he said, but “we need this partner for the next six months.”