When the seemingly never-ending regime of Hosni Mubarak collapsed in early 2011, the lethargy of the Russian reaction surprised the world. Egypt’s longtime president had never been a particular friend of Moscow’s, instead remaining fully loyal to Washington. So, although there was no reason for tears at the Kremlin or Smolenskaya Square, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the current Russian establishment’s general aversion to revolutions did not allow welcoming this triumph of popular will. At the time, both Western and Arab colleagues shrugged quizzically, wondering how the Russians could be so inflexible and reluctant to think about the future. The American interpretation expressed this sentiment more vividly: Russia, with its cautious attitude toward the democratic tide in the Middle East, was on the “wrong side of history.”
History is a tricky thing, however, constantly changing its “right side.” The democratically elected Islamist president was removed from power by the very same generals who, two and a half years before, had pushed aside a secular dictator. Although what took place is a classic military coup, everyone is trying to avoid those words, lest the “wrong side” be the result. And who knows what will come next. Try to guess which forces will be expressing the “people’s will” six months from now.
Russian policy in a shifting Middle East is the subject of constant discussion. Does Moscow have articulated interests? What role is it playing there today? Russian policy can actually be divided into two parts: toward countries in which outside intervention may occur, and toward nations whose problems are being resolved within their own borders. (The latter is relative, of course, since any border can be penetrated, but the degree of intervention remains different.) The first category includes Libya and Syria, and the second includes Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
In the first instance, Russia is primarily concerned with issues related to a bedrock concept of international relations, that is, sovereignty. Moscow’s retreat during the Libyan campaign from its traditional position of nonintervention, which was a surprise to everyone, was not the beginning of a new trend. To the contrary, it catalyzed the extremely firm and unyielding position to come. Regardles of the considerations that guided President Dmitry Medvedev in the decision not to block military intervention, the result only convinced everyone that such a step had been a mistake. Policy on the Syrian issue, which has not budged in more than two years, has demonstrated once and for all that no longer will it work for outside forces to decide who is “right” in a civil war and then help the “right side” win.
This approach does not have a direct relationship to the Middle East per se. For Russia, it is more important to affirm everywhere that such conflicts are resolved without blatant intervention. It is not so important how this affects the outlook for having a presence in the region, since unlike the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is not vying all over the world to “get” the United States or nab pieces of its sphere of influence. It is, by the way, a widespread misconception that Russia is opposing the United States in Syria consciously and deliberately, purely on principle. There is a principle at work, but it is associated less with an anti-American obsession and more with a deep conviction that the West’s approach is fundamentally wrong.
There is, thus, no reason to expect the Russian position to yield to pragmatic arguments, such as President Bashar al-Assad will be toppled regardless and Russia will have nothing. In this context, Russia would rather lose on the issue at hand than retreat from this behavior. As paradoxical as it might seem, this stubbornness has earned admiration in the United States and Europe. It it is being said increasingly that it is better to have a strategy like this — one that is completely wrong, in the eyes of Europeans and Americans, but rational — than to not have one at all, as with Washington and the major capitals of the Old World.
The “strength” of the Russian position in the Middle East — more precisely, its advantage over the United States — is that it can leave the region at any time. It has no such intent, and if it can keep its presence and influence there, all the better. If, however, Russia could not maintain its position there, it would not be a foreign policy disaster for a country that is focusing more and more on its Eurasian neighbors. The United States does not have this luxury, with its commitments involving energy, Israeli interests and the Iranian issue, which are critical for the image of the United States as world leader. Thus, Washington must constantly go in search of the slippery “right side of history.”
Russia sees events in the Middle East, including such “peaceful” events as those in Egypt, through the lens of its own experience during the last 25 years. Today’s Russian society does not believe in revolutions after its multitude of shocks, dashed hopes, and disappointments. The value of stability is appreciated, for the time being, both by those at the top and at the bottom. An ordinary Russian observer looks at the euphoria of excited crowds with extreme skepticism, knowing how such usually ends. Those in charge watch with clear disdain, consciously or subconsciously imagining disaster befalling their own holdings. Therefore, declarations of “sides of history” are, at best, cause for irony in Russia. No grounds for optimism are to be found in the outcome of the tumult in the countries of the so-called Arab Spring — not in a single one.
This does not mean that Russia is completely unconcerned by events. The landscape of the Middle East is changing quickly and irreversibly, although the final destination remains unclear. The first revolution in Egypt — the most populous Arab country and a traditional harbinger — was a breakthrough for political Islam and portended its further expansion, even possibly outside of the region, closer to Russia’s borders. The second revolution seems to be bucking the trend and putting things as they were.
The wave of change has headed one way and now the other, affecting numerous countries in the process. The change of president in Iran is an example of how a ruling regime has skillfully allowed pressure to “simmer down,” easing the tension that had built up within society. The recent demonstrations in Turkey were a nasty surprise for arrogant governments, illustrating the limits of their influence. Iraq suffers from increasing violence and the threat of disintegration. Syria is stuck in a bloody stalemate in which neither side can win or retreat. Tunisian Islamists, in a case of successful maneuvering relative to others, grasped the danger of ignoring minorities politically, unlike their Egyptian colleagues. Libya is bleak and a lost cause.
A year ago, it was more or less common wisdom to think that Russia had lost out because of the Arab Spring. Its last allies, Soviet-era holdovers, were on the way out, and their successors viewed Moscow with hostility. It appeared that Russia had nothing to offer those on the fence, but that all looks a bit different today. The revolutionary “success stories” are disappointing. Assad, whose defeat was forecast as far back as 2011, remains in power. Shiite Iran, which Moscow is reproached for supporting, is playing its game to great success, withstanding the pressure of the West and the Sunni world in spite of internal difficulties and harsh economic sanctions. Relations between Moscow and Ankara, despite sharp disagreements over Syria, remain good. Working contact has been preserved with Israel, and although accounts differ, mutual understanding at a high level remains as well. In addition, moderate Arab regimes, which have long outgrown their initial enthusiasm over the Syrian saga and fear destabilization will spill over, consider the Russian position at the least logical, even if not correct.
Today’s Russia hews to an extremely conservative approach in international affairs, assuming that any change in the status quo is for the worse. If the status quo changes nonetheless, then the main thing is not to rush to judgment or action. Better to wait it out. In a time of tumult, such a view may prove more advantageous than constantly futzing about to guess which side is the “right side of history.”