Analysis: Russia struggles to remain relevant in Mideast

Moscow has sought to balance its position by demonstrating support for Palestinians, other Arab interests.

Putin 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Putin 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the eyes of Sunni Arabs, the opinion of Russia has greatly dropped as a result of its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, though it still hopes to play the role of a superpower in the region.
Over the past couple of years, the Arab media has been brutally criticizing Russia for supporting Assad as he kills thousands of his citizens, most of whom are Sunni.
Moscow has sought to balance its position by demonstrating continued support for the Palestinians and other Arab interests, seeking to outbid US support.
The latest example from the Sunni Arab world came Monday in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, in an article by Dr. Hamad al-Majid titled “Bashar addresses his international gang,” which criticizes Assad and his international supporters.
“Thus, in al-Assad’s latest speech he did not provide anything new; his sole purpose was to reassure the rest of the gang in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, Baghdad and southern Lebanon that the ‘code of honor’ will be observed until the end,” Majid wrote.
Notice that no Sunni powers are listed as part of the gang, but regional members of the Shi’ite-dominated powers.
Hence, Russia has gambled on Assad’s survival and its historic ties with Syria over other countervailing interests.
Prof. Anna Geifman, who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University, and doctoral candidate Yuri Teper, who is an expert on nationalism and politics in modern Russia, wrote a recent thought-provoking study titled, “Russia’s Declining Influence in the Middle East,” published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. In it, they argue that “Russian involvement in the Middle East is presently nothing more than an attempt by Moscow to hold on to its deteriorating position on the international stage.”
They go on to state that “Russia may try to fill a vacuum should the US scale back its ties to the new Islamist governments in the region.”
Moreover, despite the powerful rhetoric, Russia is concealing “impotence and frustration, results of its de facto inability to affect regional politics.”
The study states that Damascus has been its only real ally in the region, maintaining “a close, though largely one-sided, relationship with Syria, based primarily on supplying Damascus with weapons. Syria paid back with promises of future economic preferences and provided the Russian navy with a maritime supplies base in Artus, on the Mediterranean coast. It also fed Russian hunger for a great-power status, contributing to the illusion of Moscow’s regional influence.”
Russia has been playing both sides of the fence, however, having closed a pipeline deal with Turkey, which “is the second-largest consumer of Russian gas, after Germany.”
I asked Geifman and Teper about their take on recent events in Syria and the Middle East in recent days and how their theory of Russian foreign policy applies to what is going on.
Regarding the recent reports of Russian ships in the eastern Mediterranean, Yuri thinks that in reality Russia is simply making moves for show.
Teper states: “The ships’ incursion has been planned in advance and announced back in the summer of 2012. In my opinion, it is a big fuss over nothing. It is based on an anachronistic view, with people still thinking of our region in terms of balance of power during the Cold War. The Russian-Western quarrel over Syria and the naval maneuvers do seem to fit the old pattern, but it is only a superficial view.”
Geifman adds that many are buying into the naval “incursion hysteria,” particularly the media, though the “real players in the region – the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians – are not so easily convinced.”
Russia is still hanging on to its old super-power status in the region, but “the old Middle East” is “gone,” Geifman continues. “We are witnessing a brand-new game with new rules, where nothing is yet certain. Importantly, the main players are no longer that big. Nor do they quite know how to play the new game.”
“Russia’s regional influence is no more than an illusion, and that of the US is significantly weakened by the Arab Spring. Neither power can do much in the new Middle East; neither can hope to gain a great deal at the present moment. Despite the difference in rhetoric, both now wait to see what will happen in Syria,” she says.
Russian pride thus seems to be the underlying motive at play since it is unlikely it can, or will, do anything to try to change facts on the ground itself. Its most “potent weapon – international diplomatic status and a position in the UN Security Council” are used without really making any real difference on the ground.
Geifman says that Moscow has no interest in wasting scarce resources on an “unstable region” with an “uncertain future,” with no possibilities for any significant “political or economic payoff.” Tepper says that the super-power play can be used for domestic audiences and Putin’s “well-controlled mass media” continues to use nationalistic patriotism to boost his popularity.
Teper says the bottom line is that “no one should expect the Russians to intervene in the civil war in Syria,” and that at most they will evacuate Russians or secure the naval base in Tartus. He notes that it makes no sense for the Russians to get involved now, when Assad is struggling to survive.
Teper concludes that the key point for Russian foreign policy, which is critical to understand, is “their decision-making is a notion of national greatness – real or imaginary – which is a decisive aspect of their national mythology and identity.”