28.06.2015 Author: Maxim Egorov

Russia’s National Interests in the Middle East

3705144_2880432In memoriam Yevgeny Primakov

The death of Yevgeny Primakov, a remarkable Russian statesman of the second half of the twentieth century, has marked the end of an era in Russian Oriental studies. Therefore, a question on how Russia should move forward within the so-called “Eastern Question”, if we are to use the vocabulary of the late 19th and early 20th century, remains unanswered. To provide a definite answer one must have a profound understanding of Russia’s national interests in the Middle East.

Recently, Russian political scientists have caused a lot of confusion amid public perception in regards to the Middle Eastern region, both knowingly and unknowingly. They claim the Middle East is merely a conundrum, which without elaboration is not helping people understand how various developments in this region can affect Russia. A lot of so-called “experts” in Moscow are only mentioning terrorism as an immediate threat, but then argue that it should be addressed through cooperation with the UN. These people are calling themselves Orientalists, even though they have no proper education or knowledge of oriental languages, and continue merely repeating that the Middle East has become a source of troubles for Russia.

It is obvious that such views can not be considered relevant, but still they are prominently featured by a handful of Russian media sources and can even be heard from people that are being presented as experts on the Middle Eastern region. The majority of those have certain influence in Russia’s parliament, and publish articles both in print and online that affect public opinion and that of the political elite of Russia today.

In reality,such views are hardly benign. For over a century the Middle Eastern region has been occupying center stage regarding the foreign policies of all leading powers. Therefore it is unclear why Russia should neglect or even at times, seemingly abandon it. Back in the Soviet era, Russia was invested heavily in the region and should it lose its gains now, Moscow would be deprived of important leverage in the game with both the West and the East.

In short, it is obvious that today energy prices which still keep the Russian economy afloat are shaped by events in the Middle East. A total of 40% of world’s hydrocarbon reserves are concentrated there, so those who controls them have considerable leverage in the greater global markets. How could Russia be indifferent to such matters? This fact alone is compelling Russia to pursue stability in this extremely divided and chaotic region. Above all, Russia is directly affected by volumes of gas supplies coming from the Middle East to Europe. It has been reported that a number of countries in southern Europe are building LNG terminals that can affect Russia’s positions in the market.

Another issue that is no less important is terrorism. After three terrorist attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia and France that followed one after another in quick succession on June 26, none can ignore this transnational threat which surpasses everything the world has witnessed before. The fight against the “Islamic State” (ISIL) is a top priority for Russia. After all, should ISIL seize power in Syria, a wave of brutal terrorist attacks in Europe and Russia will become a harsh and inevitable reality.

At this point it’s no longer relevant what role Western intelligence agencies played in the creation of ISIL, even if the Islamic State is a Western project for the creation of a “collective Hitler”, then the situation will only turn from bad to worse for Moscow. Islamist activities will then only be targeting Russia and Europe along with a number of Middle Eastern countries. It can seriously endanger a number of integration projects, including the formation of the Eurasian Union.

The importance of the Middle East for Moscow is growing exponentially against the background of Western attempts to isolate Russia under the pretext of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. After all, today the region, especially the Arabian Peninsula, has a staggering amount of financial resources accumulated (up 3.2 trillion dollars), which are being contested by the United States and nearly all European countries. This is a perfect market for military trade and an inexhaustible source of credit. In a situation when Russian banks are cut off from Western financial institutions, obtaining investments from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait is of strategic importance for Russia, and it therefore demands a more active posture in Middle Eastern affairs.

Moscow’s principled position in the region has been paying off handsomely. One can remember the latest meeting of foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Kuwait, when all attempts to adopt an anti-Russian resolution were blocked once again. In addition, all Arab and Muslim states have already refused to follow the US-EU anti-Russian campaign. This counts for something in today’s world.

As Yevgeny Primakov wrote in his study “The World without Russia?” the Middle East needs Russia and Russia needs the Middle East. At this point Arabs are extremely disappointed with US policy in the region, which has led it to  catastrophe.

Regional players understand perfectly well that Washington’s project of “democratization” across the region has failed, resulting in the collapse of at least four states. Now it is followed by the paralysis of the White House under Barack Obama, with the US reluctant to get further into regional affairs in an effort to distance itself from those players and try to counter the growing influence of Russia and China.

The Muslim world is outraged that the United States long persuaded Arabs to oppose Iran in order to subject it to international isolation only to sign a deal with Tehran behind their backs. And the list goes on: from reckless refusals to support old friends of Washington like Ben Ali or Mubarak, to unfulfilled promises of Barack Obama to resolve the Palestinian crisis.

Middle Eastern players are looking for forces that they would be able to rely on to prevent the utter and complete destruction of the region. They know perfectly well that today’s chaos can only lead to a direct Sunni-Shiite confrontation which will have disastrous consequences.

All of this suggests that Russia’s national interests in the Middle East are not simply of vital importance for Moscow, they are also attainable in the foreseeable future. The Middle East knows that Russia is against “double standards”, instead it is promoting consistency and the creation of a multi-polar world. These principles were advocated by Prymakov throughout his career and he was absolutely right in doing so.

Maxim Egorov, a political commentator on the Middle East and contributes regularly for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.