The Middle East is likely to remain in the spotlight for the
next few decades. Does Russia have a clear-cut policy in the
region? What are its goals, given that it has become much more
active in the area lately?
Moscow’s somewhat erratic policy in the Middle East is
determined by several factors.
First, Russia wants to regain its status as a superpower
involved in handling all major international issues. For example,
Moscow has always been a cosponsor of the Middle East peace
process, even if only formally during the geopolitical decline of
the 1990s. Today Russia is determined to make a real contribution
to the process, partly to sustain its global prestige, and partly
because the solutions proposed by the other members of the Quartet
are not working and the situation is steadily deteriorating.
Moscow believes it could be a helpful mediator with nations that
are labeled as «rogue» in the West. The Kremlin thinks
«mainstreaming» is a much more productive policy than pressuring
and confronting, even when it comes to «difficult» partners such as
Hamas or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Second, it wants to prevent the possible negative effects of
military action in the Middle East. For example, a military
operation against Iran could destabilize the whole Caspian region,
primarily Azerbaijan, especially considering that about 20 million
ethnic Azerbaijani live in Iran. Uncontrolled developments in the
region could at the very least result in an influx of refugees.
In the event that the United States could not prevent Iraq’s
disintegration, unpredictable consequences and repercussions for
adjacent areas would likely ensue. A defeat of the coalition forces
in Afghanistan would be very dangerous for Russia because
retaliation by the Taliban would certainly hit Central Asia. Russia
will have to make good on its commitment under the Collective
Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to provide guarantees to
Central Asian states in the event of an external threat.
Third, energy will certainly remain Russia’s political priority.
This is the reason why Moscow shows so much interest in countries
which play important roles in the global energy market, such as
Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Qatar, and Iran. The talk of setting up a
gas cartel similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting
Countries (OPEC) is no more than political speculation. It is not
practical since the gas market functions in a manner different from
than the oil market, but still, closer contacts and coordination of
efforts are important.
Russian companies’ commercial interests in the Middle East are a
complex and somewhat unpleasant issue.
The Russian business community sees the modern world as a huge
marketplace, with tough competition in all spheres. Commercial
interests of major businesses are closely linked to the foreign
policies of many countries. Therefore, Moscow tends to see pressure
put on countries and companies interacting with a nation like Iran
as bad competition. In the situation around the nuclear power plant
in Bushehr, Russia is trying hard to balance its international
commitments with its commercial interests in the Iranian market.
Germany, Tehran’s largest trade partner, is trying to do the
Still, even though Moscow can hardly be blamed for going ahead
with the Bushehr contract, the deliveries of Russian conventional
weapons to Iran and Syria is a much more controversial issue. The
Russian Defense Industry is guided by the principle that a product
should be sold in the market where there is a demand for it. This
is true since formally Russia is not violating any law. On the
other hand, this mercantile approach harms Russia’s prestige as a
superpower when it comes out that Russian-made arms end up in
hostile zones, as was the case with Hezbollah.