The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on February 26, 2017, which explored the motives fueling Russia’s foreign policy, especially after the approval of Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept. The panel included Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council; Majed al-Turki, president of the Center for Media and Arab-Russian Studies; and Thomas Frear, research fellow at the European Leadership Network. Beverley Milton-Edwards, visiting fellow at the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Kortunov explained Russia’s worldviews on the global order, noting that, to Russian politicians, the difference between good and evil in international relations is not between democracy and authoritarianism; it’s between order and chaos. Russian policymakers have a similarly skeptical perspective on globalization, he continued. While the Western perspective asserts that globalization is a good thing; it creates new opportunities, opens societies, empowers individuals, and promotes social progress. Russia believes globalization also has many side effects—exemplified by the struggles faced by initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the European Union. Kortunov finally questioned Western hegemony, wondering if we are in fact entering a post-Western era. While still important, he argued, the West is not as important as it was in the past. According to Kortunov, we are indeed, entering a new stage in international politics.
Kortunov noted that those distinctions could aid us in understanding Russia’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. A commitment to order justifies Putin’s continued support to Bashar al-Assad. When Russia intervened in Syria, it was due to geopolitical reasons; they wanted to defeat ISIS and they feared that Syria would turn into another Libya or Iraq. Russia was always suspicious and cautious about the Arab Spring, its threat to order, and its agenda of chaos. Kortunov described the limits of Russia’s role in the region asserting that it cannot replace the role of the United States as a major security provider. Russia has limited capabilities. Eventually, the two powers will have to cooperate, but that depends on the position of the White House.
In his opening remarks, Majed al-Turki described Russia as an influential, yet realistic player in the Middle East. Before expanding on Russia, he expressed dismay regarding the role of international players in the region in general, particularly during the decades that preceded the Arab uprisings. International players, he argued, rendered the region’s leaders to puppets, making them lose legitimacy in the eyes of their people. In doing so, those actors influenced people’s behavior towards their leaders in a region where deference to authority has long been entrenched in customs and traditions. In the end, they prioritized their narrow interests over the interests and well-being of the people in the region.
When the Arab uprisings emerged, al-Turki continued, a policy of “creative chaos” finally materialized, allowing those international actors to guide and shape the future of the region. Here, Russia carved itself out a role, particularly when it came to Syria, where it sought to achieve two things. First, a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis, and second, the establishment of a firm presence in the region. However, given the country’s desire to act in the region, al-Turki wondered why Russia remains absent from the Iraqi scene. He added that their neutral role in Yemen is perceived positively in the Gulf and that regional players are eager to see the effects of its newfound interest in Libya, where General Haftar is expected to visit Moscow again soon.
In response to Kortunov’s remarks, al-Turki noted that contrary to Russia, the Gulf states do not believe that a rigid dichotomy between order and chaos can lead to a sensible conclusion on the region’s well-being. Today, good and evil in the regional order lie in the gray area between the two concepts.
Adding to the discussion on perspectives, Thomas Frear noted that the West should not be perceived as a single actor, but as a multiplicity of players that act both as states and as multinational organizations. Therefore, Western appraisals of Russian foreign policy are not monolithic. Nevertheless, the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula marked a major change in European security. This was the first time a European state added to its national territory through military action since World War II. The action thus challenged a host of international accords aimed at preserving global stability and spurred a number of military deployments and a cycle of sanctions and counter-sanctions throughout Europe. This explains the West’s general wariness and opposition to Russia’s foreign policy, including in the Middle East.
Frear noted that the election of Trump adds an aspect of uncertainty to this complex situation. While Trumps’ promises of better cooperation on Syria may have been welcomed by Russia, his remarks about expanding U.S. missile defenses focused on Iran and North Korea and his hostility toward the Iranian nuclear deal were most certainly not. Overall, any attempts to improve relations between Russia and the West, come with the caveat of an expectation that Russia will abide by its obligations under international law.
The current conflict, Frear continued, has brought to surface the underlying differences between Russia and the West in interpreting international law. The two parties virulently disagree on matters such as self-determination and the right to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state. Unfortunately, those differences will continue to pit Russia and the West against each other for the foreseeable future.
The discussion concluded with questions and comments from the audience about the future of Syria, the interest of the Gulf states in working with Russia, and the nature and extent of Russia’s relations with Iran. The panel further pondered Russia’s aspirations for the rest of the region, including in Palestine and Libya, and whether it has the economic capacity to fulfill its global ambitions, particularly given the recent drop in oil prices.
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That engagement [with Hungary] appears to have led nowhere. … It looks like enabling policy. They [the Hungarians] already are deeply engaged with both Russia and China, and it’s not apparent to me that what this administration calls its engagement policy has changed that.