As the world focuses on Vladimir Putin's attempts to break up the EU and NATO, overlooking how he has already done the same with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is done at our peril.
On 11 July 2017, Yuri Barmin of the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council, a propagandist think tank set up by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote for a London-based Middle Eastern news website that "the Qatar crisis clearly does not meet Russia's interests."
Only a month before, however, American investigators had visited Qatar to help their ally understand who had hacked the servers of the Qatar News Agency (QNA), and placed the infamous fake stories that initiated the embargo in the first place. All the evidence pointed in one direction – Russia.
Whether we are to believe an apparatchik of the Russian foreign ministry, or the tried and tested methods of Western law enforcement, is a question Donald Trump has famously floundered on this week already. What is clear is that there has been near-identical hacking, combined with the use of fake news, not just in the most recent US presidential election, but also in France, Germany, Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, and now in Qatar.
The Russian state, now controlled by gangsters and ex-spooks, wants to break all functioning economic, military and diplomatic co-operation blocs outside its immediate sphere of control so it can increase its power in its nearby regions. It wants to do this so it can continue the largest functioning kleptocracy in the world. A small hack of a Qatari government server is a tiny price to pay for becoming the richest men in the world.
So Russia's 'mafia-state' has split the GCC open like a watermelon, just like they hope to do with NATO and the EU.
As ever, the genius of Russian espionage has rested on both cyber-expertise and a keen psychological understanding of its enemies. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was already identified as an imminent de facto successor in the Saudi Arabian monarchy, but was looked down upon in Moscow for being young and impetuous. They correctly judged his childish character and that he, and the equally moronic Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, would respond with hot heads to the fake news story Russian hackers placed on QNA. Fast forward a year or so, and MBS is now threatening to build a canal along the Qatari border, which will be militarised and laced with nuclear waste dumps. It is hard to think of a more boorish piece of diplomatic behaviour.
Despite playing a key role in starting the crisis, Russia has positioned itself to benefit. As Doha's alienation from the GCC looks set to become permanent, it is pushed closer towards Iran, the closest Russia has to a true ally in the region, alongside Syria. That means the top, second and third largest gas producers in the world will become a unified diplomatic bloc. Doha has also softened their position on Syria, again aligning themselves with their new friends. This is important, because Russia's gas reserves have often been used to unduly influence its closest neighbours in central Asia, eastern and central Europe – as part of what is broadly called 'pipeline politics.'
While Putin's efforts to bully his neighbours with the threat of withdrawing access to gas have been successful in many cases, it has been harder to reach other more distant foes, like the United States and United Kingdom, because of their lack of reliance on Russian gas. Instead, nearly a third of British gas imports come from Qatar. So if Doha does decide to bow to the Kremlin, or is somehow forced to do so, it could eventually impact Britain in the same way that Germany's reliance on Russian gas has impacted Berlin's decision-making towards the Kremlin.
Whether Doha will do this or not is unclear. Qatar has plenty of diplomatic and economic capital built up over many years with both Russia and the West, and could feasibly steer a strong middle course. It was telling that the Pentagon leapt to Qatar's defence when it came to the Trump administration's brash entry into the embargo crisis on the side of Riyadh. It is Qatar's quietly pivotal role in American defence infrastructure – the airbases and quiet backwaters which act as staging posts for various Western militaries – which make it a truly valuable partner.
Unfortunately, that is exactly why Putin, and his hackers, are so interested in turning Qatar towards Russia. The EU and NATO should look on at what has happened to the GCC thanks to one simple hack. Russia knows what it is doing – whether installing second-tier New York businessmen in high office, or playing off impetuous crown princes against gas-rich power centres. The collapse of the GCC has made collapsing the EU and NATO look that much easier.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.