Dmitri Trenin: How a smart Middle East strategy can help Russia play a significant role in shaping the new world order
This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Tehran for a summit of the guarantors of the so-called Astana process, which aims to find a political settlement in Syria.
Apart from a joint session with the other two participants, Iran’s Ibrahim Raisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin will hold talks with each separately. The visit comes soon after the Russian leader's trip to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – the latter for the Caspian summit that brought together Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and the host state. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, has recently traveled to Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, where he also met with counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
With relations between Russia and the West beyond repair for the foreseeable future, Russian diplomacy is focusing on non-Western countries, and the Middle East and North Africa feature prominently in Moscow’s new foreign-policy geography. Since Russia’s spectacular return to that part of the world in 2015 by means of a military intervention in Syria, the MENA region has been the principal area where Moscow’s post-Soviet approach to foreign affairs has taken shape, and where it has been most successful. Key elements of that approach have included: focusing strictly on Russia’s own national interests, while acknowledging the concerns of regional states; being flexible and able to manage differences with the main partners; staying in touch with all relevant players, while neither patronizing nor antagonizing anyone; managing relations with states which see each other as antagonists; and refraining from imposing any selfish design or demands on the region.
This has worked, so far. Not that Russia’s record in the Middle East is impeccable – it has had its share of mistakes and failures – but it has been remarkably better than in many other parts of the world, including some much closer to home. This is even more remarkable when you consider the diversity of the Middle East and the intensity of conflicts there. As a result, this pattern of foreign policy making, based on profound knowledge of, expertise in, and empathy toward the region, which has miraculously survived –and expanded– in various agencies in the immediate post-Soviet years, makes it a useful template for adapting to other regional dimensions of Moscow’s global foreign policy.
Since the start of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine, the importance of the MENA region to Moscow has grown substantially. With the airspace over the European Union off limits to Russia, Istanbul has turned into the main air transport hub for Russian travelers heading west. Wealthy Russians, no longer welcome in London, have flocked to Dubai. Meanwhile, the collapse of commerce along the traditional trading routes across the Russia-EU borders, the Baltic and the Black Seas gives a powerful boost to the North-South corridor from St. Petersburg to Mumbai via Iran and the Caspian.
Turkey has emerged as the preferred venue for Moscow’s official contacts with Kiev and – along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates – it's now one of the few places where Russians and Westerners can have a dialogue on de facto neutral ground. Of fundamental importance, of course, is the refusal of Middle Eastern countries to join the US-led sanctions war targeting Russia. In the Kremlin’s optics, not being against Russia means being friendly toward it.
This enhanced importance of the MENA region calls for revising upward Moscow’s regional strategy. Its general goal would remain maintaining functioning, friendly relationships with the countries of the region, to promote economic cooperation – in defiance of the sanctions regime – and to protect security along Russia’s southern borders. Some of the principal building blocks of that updated and enhanced strategy could include:
- Prioritizing and strengthening ties with near-direct neighbors – Turkey and Iran. Each of the two is important in its own right, as rising centers of power in the multipolar world; each exerts influence in Russia’s direct neighborhood, and regionally, including in Syria; both are conduits to the wider world, in economic, technological or logistical terms. While Putin’s relations with Erdogan have been the motor of bilateral cooperation and conflict management, Russia needs to greatly expand its ties with the Turkish elites and the wider public. A much bigger effort is needed to raise awareness among Russian people about Iran, and to intensify economic, technological, cultural, and scientific contacts with Iranians.
- Maintaining an equilibrium among the diverse and mostly competing players in the region, so that closer ties with Iran, in particular, do not inhibit relations with Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, as well as with Israel. Avoiding taking sides in the many inter-state conflicts; pledging support for region-wide security cooperation and conflict management/resolution.
- Tightening energy coordination practices with the lead oil and gas producers; cooperating with them on measures designed to support energy prices, making sure that planned energy transition in the West does not come at the expense of fossil fuel producers. Building on the pragmatic relationship within the OPEC+ group with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, as well as Iran. Promoting nuclear energy cooperation.
- Encouraging investment and technology cooperation with the region’s leading countries. Doubling down on the logistical corridor linking Russia’s Astrakhan to Iran’s Enzeli and on to India’s Mumbai. Expanding the use in bilateral trade of non-Western payment systems and instruments.
- Supporting the expansion of non-Western economic institutions such as BRICS, to which the region’s countries, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, intend to accede; and the SCO, which Iran (along with Belarus) plans to join, as well as investing more political and intellectual input into both the BRICS and SCO as the leading economic and security platforms globally and in Greater Eurasia.
While the updated strategy does not completely shun interaction with Western countries – e.g., on the Syrian conflict or on the Iranian nuclear program, it needs to view the West, primarily the United States and the European Union, as opponents seeking to completely isolate Russia. As such, the West’s policies will aim at defeating Russia’s regional strategy. Cooperation with the West in these circumstances has to be limited to the few issues that serve Russian interests and are in line with the values supported by the Russian people.
Given that – with the exception of Iran and Syria – all other MENA countries maintain active and close relations with Washington and depend on the US for political support, financial or military assistance, technology or access to the American market, Russia’s strategy needs to be resourceful in dealing with the obstacles and limitations imposed by those dependencies, while offering tangible benefits to Moscow’s regional partners.
At the same time, Russia will need to engage its major strategic partners, China and India, with a view to coordinating their policies on the Middle East, to the extent that it's both feasible and advisable.