Moscow’s Middle East Resurgence
By Anna Borshchevskaya
The Russian military intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015, took many by surprise, but was years in the making. To evaluate its origins, success, and implications, it is necessary to understand how Russia's domestic and foreign policies have developed under President Vladimir Putin and the ways in which they affect Moscow's Middle East policy.Russian presence in the Middle East is hardly new. Imperial Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, both asserted interest in the region and used it as an arena of competition with the West. It was not until the 1990s, during Boris Yeltsin's presidency that Russia briefly retreated from the region.
When Putin officially came to power in May 2000, he sought to restore Moscow's image as a great power in the context of renewed zero-sum anti-Westernism. Within this framework, he has aimed from the start to return Russia to the Middle East. Syria was a critical piece of the puzzle.
Putin has multiple goals and interests in Syria, but his overarching concern has always been his regime's survival. In Russia, domestic and foreign policy blur into one another, and foreign policy often becomes more aggressive at times of domestic discord.
Putin believes his own political longevity will require a deft handling of his relationship with the West, involving simultaneous confrontation and engagement, and it is within that context that his Syrian intervention should be viewed. His interest in Syria has less to do with the country itself than with the gains it represents for the Kremlin both domestically and vis-à-vis the West.
Ultimately, it was years of Western enabling—perceived by Moscow as weakness—that emboldened Putin to intervene.
Cooperation with Russia will not bring stability to Syria because Moscow's priorities lie elsewhere.
Putin embarked on an authoritarian path as soon as he came to power, going after Russia's fledgling free press and creating a 'vertical of power.' At first, Putin took small steps, and many in the West were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, particularly as the Cold War had ended, and Russia was no longer a priority.
However, a look at Russia's major official documents during Putin's rule reveals that on a fundamental level, the Kremlin viewed the West with hostility and distrust from the very beginning. Moscow's January 2000 Foreign Policy Concept—which, among other goals, aimed at returning Russia to the Middle East highlighted "attempts to create an international relations structure based on domination by developed Western countries in the international community, under US leadership" while asserting that NATO expansionism was among the major threats facing Russia. Fast forward to Moscow's most recent version of this document, dated December 2016, which expresses the same sentiment: "Systemic problems in the Euro-Atlantic region that have accumulated over the last quarter century are manifested in the geopolitical expansion pursued by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union."
These anti-Western ideas were rooted in the vision of a 'multipolar world' advanced by the skilled Arabist and former Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who believed Moscow should not let Washington dominate any region least of all the Middle East. This thinking guides the Kremlin to this day.
Moscow's anti-Westernism and siege mentality originate in czarist Russia, the government of which often pointed to the West at times of trouble to distract the public from its own failings. The Soviet Government continued this tradition. At the same time, of course, the Russian leadership from Peter the Great to Joseph Stalin relied on Western technology and expertise to help the country develop and stave off economic difficulties.
Taking on the West
Russia cannot take on the West directly; indeed, it needs it to survive. Moscow seeks instead to slowly undermine the Western global order through engagement and corruption of its elites. The title of Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova's March 2017 article sums it up: Russia cannot live with the West or without it.
November 2003 marked the beginning of the 'Colour Revolutions'—peaceful uprisings against corrupt regimes that swept the post-Soviet space, beginning with Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of late 2004-2005. At the time, the Middle East was also touched by change: Lebanon underwent the Cedar Revolution in February-April 2005.
Putin saw the hand of Washington behind these events. As a KBG man in the Soviet security agency, he watched the Soviet Union itself instigate uprisings to undermine unfriendly regimes. Putin, whose understanding of the West and especially the United States has always been limited, could not imagine that the West would behave any differently towards him. As far as he is concerned, the only difference between himself and the West is wealth. According to one Russian political analyst, "Putin sincerely believes the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine was instigated by the US State Department and he hates the West for it."
That year, Putin became noticeably more aggressive in the foreign policy arena and more authoritarian on the domestic front. To justify the domestic measures, he used the September 2004 terrorist seizure of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, although it was Moscow's rescue attempt that led to the deaths of more than 300 hostages, the vast majority of whom were children.
When the Arab upheavals began in December 2010, the Kremlin viewed them the same way it saw the Colour Revolutions and by this time Putin had become much more belligerent. Kremlin-controlled media referred to the uprisings as "chaos." For the Russian public, the turbulent 1990s that followed the Soviet Union's collapse became synonymous with chaos; the message resonated with Russians and indirectly supported the dichotomy of chaos vs. order that Putin had worked on establishing since his ascent to power.
In October 2011, following a UN-led campaign, Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi met a gruesome end after Western-backed National Transitional Council forces found him hiding in a tunnel in Sirte. Putin, who was now Prime Minister, saw in those events a UN-approved and US-led colour revolution that had ousted another authoritarian leader. Later that year, Russia was swept by the largest anti-government protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin blamed US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for having "given the signal" for protesters to come out. Given this mindset, it is hardly surprising that Putin backed Bashar al-Assad when protests broke out in Damascus in March 2011. Putin had no intention of abandoning the Syrian dictator, as protecting Assad meant protecting himself.
It is no accident that the Kremlin has always insisted that it went into Syria at Assad's request to protect a "legitimate government" against terrorists. This line was designed to pound into the Russian audience the message that revolt against any government is always wrong. "Nobody can be allowed to try to implement the 'Libyan scenario' in Syria," Putin said in February 2012.
The Kremlin rhetoric of purported US-led regime change worldwide has only grown in recent years. In December 2016, one major Kremlin-controlled publication unambiguously described the Arab upheavals as a "series of government coups initiated by the American special services." Speaking at a public forum in August 2017, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov highlighted the Kremlin's conviction that Washington was behind all regime change.
About the author: Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she focuses on Russia's policy towards the Middle East.
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