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Russia's Middle East conundrum

June 13, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Recognising that it may soon be holding its lasts thread of dignity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Russia has reportedly been taking appropriate action. According to a report by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, senior Western diplomats have said that in a secret meeting held to discuss security threats in the MENA, when the Russian representative was asked about Moscow’s view of a post-Assad Syria, his reply was, “What concerns Russia is to safeguard its strategic interests and secure the future of minorities.” He didn’t even mention Assad’s security, let alone give him any priority. It is also claimed that Russia has pulled 100 diplomatic and strategy experts out of Damascus and sent them back to Moscow, with no immediate plans to replace them. Moscow, it seems, is also trying to increase economic ties with the Gulf.

This report sparked controversy, and because it contradicts mainstream Russian rhetoric with its anti-Gulf and pro-Assad stance, many have looked at it with scepticism. It doesn’t help that Al-Sharq Al-Awsat itself is famous for its pro-Saudi narrative and the credibility of the “senior diplomatic sources” can be questioned due to their anonymity. When contacted about the report, the Russian embassy replied with a generic message that Russian policy towards Assad has not changed, and directed me to sources that naturally match the narrative of state propaganda. With their officials being deceptive about their motives in public, also evidently leading them to lie in response to innocent enquiries, a more academic approach must be taken to understand the validity of the report and the Russian standpoint.

The Syrian army has been suffering significant losses recently. With ISIS controlling 50 per cent of Syria and, according to opposition forces, 80 per cent of Syrian oil and gas, the regime is now in a weaker position than ever. In his speech last month Bashar Al-Assad himself changed his tone for the first time in four years since the uprising started and admitted to the severe military drawback. “Before we were fighting a battle, now we are fighting a war,” he told his remaining supporters solemnly. His regime has little, if any, legitimacy in the international community, and he has to rely on his allies – mainly Russia and Iran – for the military support that is vital to sustain his rule. For Russia, this tactic is becoming increasingly risky due to the losses being inflicted on the Assad regime.

Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has also taken a toll on its ability to spoon feed the Syrian regime. Its weakened economy due to the sanctions placed on Russia by the EU and US mean that no Russian bank is allowed to give out long term loans in the EU and exporting dual use military equipment to Moscow is banned. Sanctions on oil exports have played their part, as has the sharp fall in oil prices. A travel ban on high-ranking Russian officials has been imposed. The Russian government reacted by imposing a travel ban on 89 European politicians and senior military figures; it is unlikely that this would have happened if Moscow was not feeling the pinch. It thus makes sense for Moscow to turn to apparently controversial means to help their economy to recover from these knocks; according to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat‘s report, one of these is through Russia’s attempt to establish economic relations with the Gulf.

For those who understand the history of tense relations between the Gulf and Russia, this claim seems utterly ludicrous. There was a brief period of diplomacy, and the Soviet Union (USSR) was the first to establish ties with the then Kingdom of Hijaz in 1926, which became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932; six years later, in 1938, the Saudis closed their legation in Moscow and refused to maintain diplomatic links. Saudi Arabia took a fiercely anti-communist stance (Soviet communism being intrinsically atheistic), which was amplified during the Cold War, as it posed a clear strategic and ideological threat to the kingdom. The government in Riyadh, therefore, aligned itself with the US, which remains the case to this day.

One of the most significant battles the Saudis and America fought together, from which both countries are still suffering the consequences, was the training and funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. Both had a shared interest in crushing the communist threat in such a strategic location.

Even in the post-Cold War era, President Vladimir Putin’s role in funding states and groups that Saudi Arabia believes are a direct threat to its security has expanded its anti-Russian sentiments. Putin may not have changed his official narrative about his links with Iran and Assad, but he has attempted to look over to the other side of the fence.

In 2007, he flew to Riyadh, making him the first ever Russian president and highest ranking Russian official to visit Saudi Arabia. That year, the Saudis granted Russia’s second largest oil company, Lukoil, a contract to build a gas field in Rub Al-Khali. However, with Moscow staying loyal to its longstanding ally Iran, the improvement in relations did not last long. It was apparent that the competitive nature between the two oil economies overran any economic co-operation due to the fall in oil prices in mid-2008.

In April, Saudi’s King Salman called Putin to thank him for abstaining on a UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on the Houthis in Yemen rather than vetoing the resolution. Putin invited Salman to Moscow, an invitation which is outstanding but is unlikely to be accepted.

The UAE has also been reported to be considering the use of Russian technology in its space programme. This is an attempt to diversify its economy away from oil and gas, upon which the UAE relies heavily.

However, Russia’s relations with Iran have not been compromised, as Putin defied the arms embargo on Tehran and provided it with the S-300 air-defence missile system, on the pretext that the Yemen conflict was a direct threat to Iranian territory.

When looked at within the context and history of the subject matter, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat‘s report and the claims it contains do not seem all that far-fetched, nor do the accounts from senior diplomats seem to be biased. Putin’s record in the region makes it clear that he is not blindly loyal to his allies as is commonly perceived, but he is an opportunistic leader. He understands that Moscow’s interests lie in ensuring that his alliance with Tehran is not compromised, but he does want to push Russian influence in areas of the region that are less likely to accept him. Such games are evidently nothing new to Putin, but they show that Russia recognises the turbulent situation it is in and is trying to adapt by securing all options, both strategically and economically.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.