A Hazy Outlook
No. 1 2013 January/March
Pyotr Stegny

Ph.D. in History. He is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council.

The Arab Spring: Challenges for Russia and Europe

In early January 2011, shortly after the Tunisian Revolution had ignited social unrest in Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, a European ambassador approached me at a diplomatic meeting to ask: “Why Tunisia?” He looked utterly amazed at the crafty logic of history, which makes no distinctions between “friendly” and “unfriendly” dictators. Honestly, I still do not understand why the revolutionary wave that rolled over half of the Arab World started in Tunisia, a pro-Western and relatively well-off country.

Probably the answer is that the Arab Spring (soon dubbed “the Arab Autumn,” and then “the Arab Winter”) is a spontaneous phenomenon. It follows its own, often devious, logic. Few people expected to see the rise of democracy in the Middle East, just as no one predicted the unexpectedly heavy snowfall in Jerusalem in January 2013. Everyone seemed to be aware something like that might happen, but no one, including in the diplomatic and weather forecast services, could predict that so many regimes would collapse and heavy snow would paralyze life in a Middle Eastern country.

Over the past two years, the Arab Spring has presented the world with many surprises. The emergence of confident Islamists on the political scene was the main, albeit not the only, surprise. Despite all predictions, the Islamists ousted Egypt’s military from power with remarkable ease and successfully approved a Sharia constitution in a plebiscite. If the Islamists win the upcoming parliamentary elections – and there are strong indications that they will – Islamists will remain in power in Cairo and, consequently, in the whole of the Arab World, for a long time.

This is a completely new situation fraught with obvious risks for the regional and world order, and it affects the interests of a wide range of nations, particularly Russia and European countries (by virtue of their geographic proximity). The global transformations that began in 1991 have demonstrated that the advance of political freedoms inevitably leads to periods of chaos, strong centrifugal tendencies, and heightened ethnic and religious strife. The main question the Arab Spring has posed for the international community is to what extent the Arab elites – who are new and compositionally heterogeneous – will be able to cope with these and other problems that have been piling up for decades.

Finding an answer is a complex, multi-layered task. Joint efforts are needed considering the scale and sensitivity of the problem on the one hand, and, on the other, the changing individual and collective interests, as well as new realities. Also, international competition in the Middle East – a region that boasts considerable energy resources and, consequently, is a potential source of major political and strategic risks for global stability – is taking place in an ever more complicated geopolitical situation.


Russia and the West reacted differently to the Arab Spring. The West said it was a victory for democracy; Russia took it as a win for the West. These are logical reactions, because the West and Russia have been playing different roles in transforming the world since the end of the Cold War – one is a democratizer, the other is a target of democratization.

This largely explains why the two countries responded to the events in the Arab World differently. For Americans, supporting mass demonstrations in Arab countries with democratic slogans left no alternative because of ideological reasons, while geopolitics and business remained in the background. For Russia, the example of ‘color revolutions’ in neighboring former Soviet republics, carried out with covert or overt foreign support, exacerbated its own fears, sometimes quite grounded. As a result, as early as March 2011, after the beginning of NATO’s armed intervention in Libya, Russia came out against the policy of promoting democracy by force. Russia regarded this action as a manifestation of unfair competition for Middle Eastern markets, and also as a return to the double thinking that discredited the principle of democratic choice.

With this in mind, Russia, at the very onset of the Arab Spring, proposed dialogue as the only acceptable way to resolve conflicts. Before the outrage of the civil war in Libya, the Russian leadership and the public had thought (the latter to a still greater extent) that it would be wrong to quarrel with the West over such a delicate matter as democratic transformation of the Middle East. Russia – together with China, India, Brazil, and Germany – abstained from voting for the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973 authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya. But U.S. President Barack Obama needed a quick and unquestionable victory in the Middle East since the U.S. was entering a new election cycle. Europeans, who largely opposed involvement, succumbed to the colonial reflex developed during the war over oil from the Libyan city of Cyrenaica. In the end, Libya was plunged into a full-scale civil war and subjected to foreign intervention, while Russia was forced to make tough statements that strongly opposed replacing national regimes through outside intervention.

Additionally, the election campaign was in full swing in Russia in the fall of 2011, and that certainly played a considerable role in the country’s actions. The stakes were high in polemics with the West and the domestic opposition. In his policy article, Russia and the Changing World, Russian then-prime minister Vladimir Putin wrote that Russian society had always expressed support and sympathy for the advocates of democratic reform in the Middle East. However, he sharply criticized the Western coalition’s support for one side in the Libyan conflict. Also, Putin condemned the lynching of Gaddafi, which, he said, looked “not even medieval, but primeval,” and warned that a military intervention in Syria without UN Security Council sanction would upset the balance of international security.

The reaction from the West and Russian liberals to Russia’s official position, expressed in a blatant Munich speech-like style, was naturally nervous: “Putin’s Russia is again out of step with the democratic community.” Although it was quite obvious that “Putin’s Russia” was simply reluctant to acquiesce to decisions made without its participation and firmly stood against marching straight into a totalitarian democracy, into the “bright” Orwellian past. Of course, it would be primitive, if not hypocritical, to consider the evolution of Russia’s attitude towards the Arab Spring solely in terms of its reaction to the West’s double thinking. Russia, like the West, followed the events pragmatically, trying to keep on top of the high waves of global change. Importantly, Russia’s position has always been based on a clear hierarchy of goals.

With regard to the Arab Spring, there are three such goals:

  •  the global level – the responsibility to maintain global and regional security by virtue of permanent membership in the UN Security Council; to participate in the quartet of international mediators in the Middle Eastern settlement; and to take part in “five-plus-one” talks with Iran;
  •  the regional level – the desire to protect a wide range of traditional interests in the region; to preserve relations with Arab countries and Israel in the political, trade, economic, military, technical, cultural, and humanitarian spheres;
  •  the “third basket” level – support for democratic reform in Arab countries as part of the global democratic transformation of sovereign states.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the same goals, although interpreted differently and arranged in a different order, have determined the policies of other major foreign policy actors – the U.S., the European Union, and China. For Americans, democracy and human rights (“third basket” goals) have had priority not only over sovereignty, but also sometimes over global responsibility. Europeans tend to place bilateral interests (access to nearby high quality crude oil) before global security considerations, of which their position on the Libyan crisis is a vivid example. By contrast, China’s triad of strategic interests has been close or identical to that of Russia throughout the Arab Spring.

As for Russia, an awareness of global responsibility has been the priority of its policy at all stages of the Arab Spring. Strange as it may seem, the imperative of global mentality, developed back in the Soviet era, resulted in the Western perception of Russia’s position as obstructionist to what the Western powers were doing. Russia was possibly expected to be more pliable because of its domestic problems, unfinished reforms, and its drastically reduced military and strategic presence in the world. But Russia preferred to act otherwise. It refused to participate in any action that might provoke a change of power in Arab countries. Russia called for unconditional respect for state sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, and settling conflicts through dialogue. Initially, the other players interpreted this stance as a return to the imperial mentality, and then, in the case of Syria, as a desire to keep weapons markets at any cost.

Russia’s consistency in pursuing its policy on Syria helped to keep the situation largely within rational bounds. Moreover, I would even say that the role of “constructive opponents,” played by Russia and China, has lent a new quality to collective cooperation in regional affairs. Discussions in the UN Security Council and debates with representatives of different Syrian opposition factions have proved to be real steps towards greater democratization in international relations.

Contrary to some pessimistic forecasts, Russia has retained the potential for bilateral and collective cooperation with the Arab World and with Israel that has accumulated over decades. Indeed, in the course of the Libyan and Syrian crises, Russia sometimes disagreed with the League of Arab States. Yet global security considerations seldom play the main role in the policies of regional organizations.

Russia’s attitude to the Middle East’s “third basket” has been (and still is) a far more complex affair. On the one hand, Moscow has never protected dictators in Egypt, Libya, or Syria; on the other, Russia’s own dramatic experience of the past two decades has prompted it to be attentive to and cautious about such aspects of the Arab Spring as the role of social networks and foreign-funded NGOs in staging protest actions. The reasons for that also lie in a major upsurge in the activity of the pro-Western, liberal opposition, and of Islamic groups in the North Caucasus and the Volga River region.

By and large, Russia has lived through the first two years of the Arab Spring with relative confidence. The main result is this: in strategic terms, the regional situation remains under control (the quick completion of Israel’s December operation in Gaza showed that). Is it not time to take a look at what we can do together to markedly improve the situation?


With different understandings of the tasks that emerged at various stages of the Arab Spring, the foreign players were and still are acting separately, as a rule, in more or less intense competition. This factor seriously complicates and delays the settlement of conflicts. It creates a favorable environment for extremists of all sorts – from jihadists, who deny the values of that “rotten Western civilization,” to Al-Qaeda agents pushing for a global Caliphate.

Take, for example, the situation in Syria. Bashar Assad’s political regime is confronted with a “creative class,” but a mix of Islamist-led oppositional forces is doing the actual fighting. In a complicated civil war, Assad seems to have met all of the opposition’s demands for liberalizing the country and issued clear messages that he is prepared for a dialogue on a wide range of issues based on the Geneva communiquО. But the hostilities in Syria have gained such momentum, and the interests of Islamic extremists and neighboring countries are intertwined so tightly that there is no place for a settlement of the crisis based on the priorities of global and regional security.

Why? Is it because the crafty logic of politicized approaches to democracy and human rights leaves no room for Assad as a repentant sinner, just as there was no room for all the other symbols of the post-Soviet past? Or is it far simpler? Is the Syrian opposition, for which democratic slogans are largely ploys to achieve its goals, using disagreements among the external players very effectively to its advantage?

Clearly, these are simple rhetorical questions, but the price of settling them is high. The Arab Spring started skidding in Libya, and it has stalled at a crossroads in Syria. Obviously, the further march of events will depend largely on what model is selected to settle the situation in that key Arab country. The Yemeni scenario, which paved the way for a soft replacement of the regime, or the Libyan one, which led to last September’s unrest: the death of the U.S. ambassador in Tripoli, and the Libyan trace in the terrorist attack by Mali Islamists in Algeria.

One thing is clear: if Assad is overthrown (with accompanying direct or indirect foreign intervention), extremists pressing for the “Talibanization” of the Middle East will find their goal much easier to achieve. On the contrary, non-intervention in Syria’s affairs will help keep the situation within the bounds of international law and open a window of opportunity for rationalizing the region’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

But in order to make the right choice, the approaches of the external players to the Middle Eastern events have to be fundamentally reconsidered. A positive program is needed for joint action targeting strategic aims. This should neutralize the worst two threats capable of destabilizing the Greater Middle East in the near future and even turning it into an inter-civilizational conflict.

In a nutshell, the issues of the day are as follows.

First. Prevent Israel from delivering a strike against Iran. The risk still exists of a military scenario in relation to the “regime of the ayatollahs” and tension continues to mount. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that “the point of no return” in Iran’s nuclear plans would be reached in the spring of 2013. He warned that if there were no signs of progress by then in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israel would reserve the right to act on its own and in the way that it deems correct. That was not just rhetoric, but a clear, official warning at the highest possible level.

Attitudes may vary towards threats voiced by a nuclear state that is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) against another state that is an NPT member, and whose nuclear facilities are under IAEA control. But such an irrational situation does not lessen the dangers with which it is fraught. The Iranians are determined to bring their nuclear program to a “five-minutes-to-twelve” level. They are certain that this is the sole guarantee for their sovereignty. Israel does not want to co-exist with a nuclear Iran, whose leadership has declared repeatedly that it seeks the destruction of the Jewish state. Consequently, the Israeli-Iranian standoff is the weak link that could trigger a massive chain reaction.

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran, and, at a certain point, the sanctions began to yield results. Iranian oil exports slumped 40 percent in 2012. Yet this course has not brought any political dividends so far. Iranians have consolidated around the government on the back of pressure from sanctions, combined with the threat of a strike on nuclear facilities. Remarkably, Iran has been getting the better of its opponents in the game of nerves, leaning on broad support from the Muslim world and the Non-Aligned Movement, now headed by Iran, for the country’s right to possess peaceful nuclear technology. As a result, a stalemate has taken shape. So much duplicity, both constructive and not constructive, has accumulated in the non-proliferation sphere that no one can hope for a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem in this format.

In addition, allowances have to be made for ongoing changes in the balance of power in the Middle East, which partially stem from the growing activity in the regional affairs of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, where anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite sentiment has traditionally been strong. This factor underlies some very risky and shortsighted plots relying on expectations that the Sunnis will support the use of force against Iran. Regrettably, this alarming delusion is very characteristic of the prevailing superficial understanding of the Iranian issue.

Keeping the situation under control is possible only on the basis of a double-track approach: negotiations in the “five-plus-one” format (with the possible participation of Turkey and the League of Arab States) and the formation of a consolidated position concerning the impermissibility of a forceful solution. Both Israel and Iran must have international guarantees that will remove their concerns. Subsequently, extra time could be gained for a principal solution to issues concerning the non-proliferation of nuclear arms in the Middle East in compliance with NPT requirements.

Second. Help the Palestinians and Israelis to restart the peace process on the basis of a two-state approach. This regional problem is second in importance. It requires urgent action by the regional actors and the international community. The Arab Spring has brought to the forefront the question of whether the new Islamic elites will observe peace agreements with Israel, including informal arrangements. This is important, because, for the Arabs in general and for Islamist parties and groups in particular, the Palestinian issue remains the core of ethnic identity. Its solution is seen as a common goal, capable of fostering (in a certain situation) the unity of the Arab people – the Sunnis and the Shiites – on an anti-Israeli basis.

This factor poses a danger, possibly not for today, but for tomorrow. At the same time, it presents a mainstream approach to solving the key issue regarding the possibility of the region to develop as a commonwealth of democratic nations in conformity with global trends.

Oddly enough, the processes that the Arab Spring set in motion have created certain prerequisites for an optimistic scenario. These include the relatively fast completion of Operation Pillar of Defense without either side losing face; Islamist Egypt’s effective mediation in this affair; and the trend towards easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip, including the first visit to the region by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Lastly, Israel has reacted prudently to a decision granting Palestine observer status at the UN.

In general, an impression exists that some covert mechanisms, invisible to the naked eye, are being set in motion. The Obama administration has issued some encouraging messages. France is planning to make public its own Middle Eastern initiative after the parliamentary elections in Israel. And in Israel itself Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and, most recently, Tzipi Livni, have called for rapid progress in the deadlock over the peace process.

This does not mean, of course, that a future coalition Cabinet, apparently to be formed by Netanyahu, will be able to make a U-turn and move away from the previous right-wing government’s hardline approach to the problem of building settlements – the main obstruction to the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks. But a look at the situation in the historical perspective shows that breakthroughs in the Middle Eastern settlement (Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the Oslo agreements) seemed to have emerged out of nowhere, quite unexpectedly, at least, for the public at large. In reality, the ideas were a result of covert, continuous efforts by experts and politicians, who had a keen sense of the trends of the day.

This same kind of situation exists today. The changed status of Palestine actualizes the question of the Palestinian state’s borders. There is no alternative to forward movement, because the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process could substantially radicalize the forces in the renewed region. Subjective prerequisites are in place: the political draw, with which Operation Pillar of Defense ended, is reminiscent of the situation in the 1973 war, which Kissinger used brilliantly to first achieve the Camp David agreements, and then a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

In general, Middle Eastern diplomacy has a chance of success, provided the search for solutions is done jointly, with reciprocal efforts of the regional powers. The number one task today is to identify the parameters of likely understanding. The League of Arab States has confirmed in principle its readiness to seek agreement with the Jewish state on the basis of the Saudi initiative, which Israel did not dismiss offhand. For the Palestinians (including Hamas), it is important to have a state with legitimate borders. In a situation like this, a future Israeli Cabinet might find it reasonable to try to come to terms with the border issue in exchange for guarantees of its security from the Palestinians and the Arab World.

A basis for “peace-for-territories” talks does exist – the 2003 Road Map, adjusted for “changing terrain” and, possibly, for the Saudi peace initiative. Also, there is a format for negotiations devised under the Road Map – the quartet of international mediators that might be logically completed with several regional powers – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Within the framework of an expanded quartet, it might be logical to try to negotiate the procedure for discussing other final status issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, the refugees’ right to return home, and security.

There is one reservation. In order to implement such an optimistic scenario, the motives of regional and extra-regional actors should be changed fundamentally and re-targeted to addressing common problems, of which the main one is the organic incorporation of the Middle East into the global community of democratic nations.

The time must come for the Middle East to witness the dawn of a new era – that of common sense, when all of us finally understand that this long-suffering region can and must be turned from a place of hostility and rivalry into a site for building a new, fairer, and lasting peace. A conflict of civilizations would be the sole alternative to that scenario. The virus of jihadism is already carrying out its disastrous work. Only collective efforts can stop it. United We Stand.