By Shehab Al Makahleh
On March 18, Russians will go through the process of (re)electing their president Vladimir Putin for a fourth term as recent polls forecast. This foreseeable victory is not only affecting Russia but rather the world including the Middle East region which is close geographically to Russia.
Russian-Arab relations are one of the most important pillars of the Kremlin’s foreign policy which hinges on political, economic and military instruments. The Middle East has become the base from which the rules of the new world order will be launched pursuant to the major powers’ interests, and the race between these supremacies to play the most prominent role in the Arab region will shape the Russian coming role in the next six years.
To achieve Russian goals in the region, the Kremlin will focus on strategically exhausting Washington in the Middle East by dragging it into proxy wars and demonstrations in various places that affect its world reputation. Though Moscow realizes that the Americans regard the Russian army as second in power to their forces; nevertheless, Russia refuses to remain a second class world force and insists on the necessity to reshape the world’s balance of power.
Russian presidential elections, unlike US elections, do not receive wide attention at the official and popular levels in the Arab world. This can be understood in light of the concerns of Arab peoples in general as most of the Middle East countries are western-oriented.
However, the Russian elections are very important for the rest of the world as the winner in the coming elections will shape the relations not only between Moscow and Washington but also between Russia and other regional powers including China.
At present, the Kremlin is giving due importance to the Middle East as it gives to Europe, the US and China in terms of foreign policy. Moscow’s pullout from the Middle East in 1991 marked the demise of the Soviet Union, as a superpower, which has taken Putin more than a decade to restore political and military status of his country back on track.
Russia’s comeback as a pivotal player in the Middle East will target restoring Moscow’s position as a prodigious supremacy coming to the region which the Mideast has already witnessed with Russian army’s intervention in Syria in September 2015. When the Arab Spring erupted, the region has become a testing ground for Russia to return to the global arena through the Middle East gate.
Thus, the coming victory of Putin will help establish Russian influence outside the Russian frontiers to extend to the world’s most capricious regions. The Kremlin will proceed with containing and diminishing extremism and fanaticism in the Middle East that would, had Russia not intervened, expand into its territories and even to former republics in Central Asia and in the Caucasus.
Middle East has become the base from which the rules of the new world order will be launched pursuant to the major powers’ interests
Cementing partnerships with the Middle East
The Kremlin again views 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 insecure socially and politically as the Middle East.
The new Russian tactic will be to support friendly regimes in the region and set up long-term geopolitical coalitions with endeavours to have a military presence in the region with new bases that would include Lebanon, Algeria, Mauritania and Sudan.
The strategy of Russia in the coming era will boost the sales of conventional arms, nuclear agreements for peaceful purposes, and oil and gas deals. Moscow will strive to attract foreign investments from China and the Middle East.
Russia between 2018-2024
Unlike the Soviet era in which Moscow was in support of all revolutions and national liberation movements in the world, Russia did not openly support the revolutions and the revolutionaries in any Arab country. Moscow has remained silent about the Arab Spring until the political scene has become clear. By then, Russia has expressed support for the Syrian regime after four years of civil war.
However, the Kremlin has been keen to maintain open channels of communication with the rebels in a bid to achieve the greatest possible balance, voicing concern for the internal and regional stability of the Arab states. In the coming era, Putin will engineer a Syrian peace deal, expand relations with Tehran and bolster ties with Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, and Tunisia.
However, Moscow will also benefit from its rapprochement with Turkey and Iran and build on its strong ties with Jordan as a key player to the Syrian conflict. The Kremlin will improve relations with Egypt and the Kurds to craft an alignment of partners vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia.
In 2011, the Gulf states and a number of other Arab countries welcomed the Russian stand regarding the Arab Spring. The differences in perspectives with Russians were only in the Syrian case where the Arab and Russian positions differed in light of Russian support for the Assad regime. In all cases, there was no official Arab condemnation of the Russian stand as Russia has been rejecting external interference in Syrian internal affairs.
Over the terms of Putin’s presidency, he is slated to re-launch new forms of cooperation with Moscow’s traditional partners in the Arab world on new bases, and the forefront of these countries will be Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as they are very close to Russian boundaries. Furthermore, he will set up plans to improve conditional Russian-Gulf relations.
Traditionally Russia hasn’t had a special policy toward the Gulf states. The main determinant has been the strategic interest and the pragmatic approach because the Russian influence in the Gulf is determined by American impact in the same region as the Kremlin deals with the Gulf States separately, without considering them as one bloc.
The Russian approach in the Arab region is not restricted to political gains or to play a security or military roles to compete with the Americans, but rather Moscow is seeking strategic economic and technical partnership that secures direct economic returns to Russia in fields such as energy sector and military cooperation. The Russian president seeks to guarantee a minimum price for oil and gas and to increase sales of Russian arms to the Middle East.
The Russian political administration would seek to open up to various countries, especially the countries of the Middle East to boost its trilateral axis (Russia, China, India) with a new diplomacy based on enhancing its role as a mediator acceptable to all parties in resolving international and regional conflicts and crises.
Because the Middle East represents a belt that surrounds the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which Russia considers a vital area, Kremlin has been driven to do the utmost to prevent any threat from the Mideast region by launching preventive measures and pre-emptive procedures.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.