The Islam Factor in Russia’s Foreign Policy

8 august 2007

Alexei Malashenko is Research Director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Berlin, Germany; a member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center and the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: Attempts by Putin’s Russia for rapprochement with the Moslem world have not allayed mutual distrust. Both Moscow and the Moslem capitals seem to view their mutual sympathy as a showoff of unity, and as a way to confuse the West and perhaps even make it resentful, as neither party has been successful in romancing it.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow refrained from making independent moves in the Middle East, thereby giving the initiative to its American and European partners. However, before this moment, in 1977, Moscow’s role in the region had already decreased when Egypt and Israel entered into mutual negotiations under Washington’s patronage.

Nevertheless, despite the degradation of Russia’s relations with the Moslem world and the relative indifference toward Islam, the Islamic factor remains a part of Moscow’s foreign policy. With the end of the bipolar global system, Islam has fully integrated into international politics, while forces operating under religious slogans have become international political actors.


Former Soviet republics in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, which sought to distance themselves from Russia, emphasized their Moslem identity. The ruling elites of these post-Soviet countries did not seek incorporation into the Moslem community (where they would have ranked as foreign elements); but relations with outside coreligionists offered them more room for maneuver. Many local politicians, for example, hoped to exchange their sudden passion for Islam for economic aid.

In the first half of the 1990s, Russia, which tried hard to retain its influence over the post-Soviet space, which was becoming no-man’s-land, experienced the expansionism of Moslem states. Foreign Moslems hoped to make a breakthrough into the region and its markets. Initially, the Turks were more active than others: they emphasized pan-Turkism, as well as cultural and linguistic affinity with Turkic peoples in the ex-Soviet Union. Ankara demonstrated confidence that in the future it would become a member of the European community; this factor was intended to increase its authority in the eyes of former Soviet Turkic nations. Nor did the Turks neglect religion. They emphasized that Turks and peoples in Central Asia belong to the most tolerant and open branch of Sunni Islam, the Hanafi School, which encourages positive changes and reforms.

Arabs and Arab-controlled international organizations were more consistent in pushing the Islam issue with post-Soviet states. They donated money for building mosques and institutes, funded various kinds of religious publications, and offered thousands of young people in Central Asia an opportunity to study in Arab countries.

Teheran limited its activities largely to Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. Iran’s relative inactivity was due to its low financial capabilities, cultural differences, and the absence of strong clerical support for Iranian Shias in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moreover, a majority of local Moslems fear religious radicalism, which for many is associated with the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The “honeymoon” in relations between former Soviet republics and the Moslem world proved to be short-lived. Despite some progress (above all, in trade), by the mid-1990s hopes for large-scale aid from the coreligionists began to fade as the latter pursued their own goals and viewed their “new friends” as junior partners. It is indicative that in a majority of their statements about foreign-policy priorities, the presidents of Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan ranked the Moslem world third, only after the U.S. and Russia.

Nevertheless, along Russia’s southern border there emerged a seething Moslem belt with a non-Soviet identity and with sporadic manifestations of religious radicalism.


In 1994, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (then headed by Yevgeny Primakov) warned the government about the possible rise of an “Islamic threat” to Russia. The authors of the forecast said there was a danger of Islamism penetrating into the whole of Central Asia from civil war-torn Tajikistan and Afghanistan where the Taliban movement had gained strength. In the same year, the war in Chechnya began, which destabilized the entire North Caucasus. Two years later, in 1996, the Taliban came to power in Kabul. Thus, Afghanistan had become a center of international Islamism where extremists from Central Asia and the Caucasus were trained. There appeared a distinct “crescent of instability,” which stretched from the Caucasus to China’s Xinjiang. Nervousness swept the entire Moslem world, and Moslems in the ex-Soviet Union were not immune to this feeling.

Of course, the “rise of the crescent” had occurred at an earlier date: it was brought about by the Islamic revolution in Iran, while the Afghan war internationalized jihad, later to be symbolized by al-Qaeda. The conflict in Afghanistan produced an illusion among some people that one could manipulate Islamic radicalism with impunity, while others came to the conclusion that it was futile to combat it. Thus, there came about the “Time of the South” for Russia, the name of a monograph written jointly by Dmitry Trenin and myself in 2002.

September 11 did not reveal anything essentially new in relations between the Moslem world and the West, including Russia. That tragedy graphically showed the strained nature of relations and the presence of unresolved problems between the parties. Books written by special service officers and published after the attacks against the United States convincingly show that politicians, not special services, committed the main mistakes that led to the catastrophe. Despite warnings from scientists and experts, many politicians viewed Islamism only as a mutation and a particular manifestation of extremism and terrorism. The opinion that Islamism was a product of the Middle East conflict and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is still widespread. In 2006, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, described Afghanistan as “the cradle for the terrorist attacks of September 11.”

There is also a stereotyped view that Islamic extremist groups were created by foreign special services, and that charismatic religious radicals, knowingly or unknowingly, became their agents. There is no denying that Pakistan’s intelligence was involved in the creation of the Taliban movement, that Osama bin Laden had contacts with American special services, and that the KGB rendered support to Palestinian extremists. However, all those “projects” could be successful only provided there were favorable conditions and people who could be manipulated accordingly. The conditions developed regardless of the special services’ will, and the mobilization for jihad had much deeper roots. Organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Hizb ut-Tahrir would have eventually emerged (possibly under other names) even without intellectual support from highbrow analysts and efforts by KGB and CIA agents.

It was vital for Russia to define its attitude to the Islamic factor in its most aggressive form, the Islamic threat, and include it in its foreign policy.


Presently, Moscow increasingly positions itself as a mediator between Islamic radicals on the one hand, and America and Europe on the other. This is readily visible by the Iranian crisis.

In the protracted game over Iran’s nuclear program, Russia was confident it would be able to persuade Teheran to make Moscow-proposed concessions: the enrichment of uranium on Russian territory, the establishment of rigid control over dual-purpose materials, and the abandonment of attempts to produce the full nuclear cycle. Moscow believed it had a key role to play in that dispute, and as Iran’s “patron,” would protect its own economic interests.

Symbolically, Moscow uses the services of the Russian Orthodox Church in its relations with Teheran. Its church leaders display a pronounced respect for the fundamentalist ayatollahs who have taken a radical version of Shia Islam and made it the country’s official ideology.

Moreover, Moscow views the Church as a reserve diplomatic channel. In February 2006, at a meeting in the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed the hope that “the Russian Orthodox Church will play a role in the settlement of the present contradictions and the easing of the conflict of civilizations.”

In the same year, the victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Palestinian elections gave Russia an opportunity to serve as a mediator in the Middle East conflict. The Hamas victory was a momentous event: it changed the correlation of forces in Palestinian society, made Israeli-Palestinian contacts unpredictable, and undermined the Road Map settlement plan initiated by the U.S. and worked out by the Middle East Quartet.

Moscow attempted to take the initiative and return to the Middle East as an independent actor with its own unorthodox ideas. Russia’s position seemed both promising and adventuristic, especially since Hamas had a reputation of being an incompliant extremist force. Moscow hoped that its risky move would help it win recognition inside the Moslem world, and the first impression was that these hopes were justified. However, the Moslem regimes were in no hurry to express their appreciation with Moscow, especially since Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and some other countries have a cautious or even negative attitude toward Hamas. Commenting on the conflict of views over the new Palestinian authorities, American journalist Steven Lee Myers wrote that “most of all, it is a quest for prestige.”

In March 2006, the Kremlin, in a gesture that was meant to assist Hamas at winning some respectability in the international (non-Moslem) community, invited a Hamas delegation to Moscow. In the autumn of the same year, Russia made one more “fine gesture:” neither Hamas, nor Hezbollah, were included in the Federal Security Service’s listing of 17 terrorist organizations. This seemed to be a challenge to the United States, whose list included both organizations.

In their dialogue with Islamists, however, Russian diplomats seemed to display confusion and inconsistency. The “work” with the Hamas delegation resembled the ‘dump and chase’ strategy in ice-hockey: a team shoots the puck into the opponent’s zone where they then attempt to make a play out of it. The puck was dumped in regard to Hamas, but the subsequent moves looked rather ill conceived. Neither the presidential administration, nor the Foreign Ministry, had taken care to work out a clear line of conduct.

The Hamas delegation, which arrived in Moscow in the spring of last year, was headed by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. The visit’s itinerary, however, was obviously downgraded, since it did not provide for meetings with Russia’s top leaders. The visitors had unofficial contacts with parliament deputies and diplomats. Even Hamas’ semi-confidential conversation with the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (the upper house), Mikhail Margelov (an Arabist by education), could not be viewed as official. The meetings were not “obligatory” for the hosts and their visitors. The strongest – and oddest – impression from the visit was made by a joint prayer service at the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Russia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, who had repeatedly condemned religious radicalism, conducted the prayer.

Contacts between Moscow and Hamas continue to this day. At the beginning of this year, the foreign minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud al-Zahar, made a stopover in Moscow en route to a trip abroad. A bit later, Khaled Mashal paid another visit to the Russian capital. These visits to Moscow by Hamas officials produce a sense of bewilderment. After all, the Islamists have not softened their position over the question of Israel’s “right to exist.” Russia has failed to make them more compliant and thus to present itself as an independent “soloist” in the Middle East “concert.” Moscow can now see for itself that the Islamists continue playing a game of their own. Their rapprochement with Russia is nothing more than an additional trump card in their relations with the West and a precedent (although a fragile one) for dialogue with Europe and, possibly, with America. The non-binding visits to Moscow allow the Hamas leadership to believe that diplomatically the organization has gone beyond the boundaries of the Moslem world. (By the way, mutual visits by Iranian and Russian diplomats offer a similar scenario: each time the result proves unsatisfactory for Russia.)

In the summer of 2006, Russia seemed to have another chance to enter into dialog with Islamists – this time with Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based organization that scored a kind of moral victory in a brief war with Israel. Following the war, Hezbollah’s popularity hit an unprecedented level in Lebanon; it also became an authoritative force in the eyes of Europe. However, Hezbollah was never invited to Moscow, although if the Kremlin had been more consistent in its decisions, it could have coordinated such a visit.

The fact that Hezbollah officials never visited Moscow has two potential explanations.

President Putin did not want to aggravate relations with the United States. Europe, despite its sympathies for Lebanon, would not have understood a Hezbollah visit to Moscow; Europe was not ready to support dialog with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah. Thus, any direct contacts with the radicals could have finally destroyed the already aggravated relations with Israel.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Kremlin realized that talks with Hezbollah officials would unlikely produce results. Their success required support from Iran, but Teheran did not need Moscow’s mediation in the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. The Iranian leadership could correct Hezbollah’s positions independently – which it did when it advised Hezbollah to release Israeli hostages (“prisoners of war” by Hezbollah’s definition). Finally, the Hezbollah leadership did not view Russia as an effective mediator and preferred to contact Moscow via its Syrian patrons. The latter were not eager to encourage Hezbollah’s contacts with Russia, either.

Moscow’s attempts to establish dialog with Islamists have won approval in the Russian Moslem community. Meanwhile, its leaders are in an awkward position as they, following in the footsteps of the Russian government, must separate Islamists into the “good” ones operating abroad from the “bad” ones operating in Russia.

Radical Moslem ideologists try to present Russia’s mediation as a basis for strategic consensus with Islamists and dictatorial regimes in general. In the summer of 2006, at the height of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, the head of Russia’s Islamic Committee, Heidar Jemal, said: “Syria and Iran need a revived Russia.” This statement was consistent with Moscow’s official position. But do they really need a revived Russia? After all, Syria, Iran and Hamas all seek goodwill from America and Europe. So they can well do without Russia’s mediation.

Radical Islamists, who have won time thanks to Russia, will most likely decline its services at a later date.

First, they view Russia’s policy as a kind of “Fronde” and a wish to demonstrate to the West its ability to act independently.

Second, from their point of view, Russia, which declared itself successor to the Soviet Union, has a negative attitude to Islam. This, they argue, can be witnessed from its policy in the North Caucasus and, certainly, its participation in the antiterrorist coalition (even though its membership has become almost formal). In September 2006, the unveiling of a Russian monument in New York to the 9/11 victims caused irritation in the Middle East and Iran (where a contest for anti-Holocaust cartoons was being held at that time). Also, Islamists have not forgotten that in 2002-2003 Russia, which was opposed to military intervention in Iraq, did not take resolute measures and finally reconciled itself to what happened there.

Official Russian ideologists are silent about their future cooperation with Islamic radicals. The overall situation in Russia, together with the general vagueness of Russia’s foreign-policy strategy, prevents them from devising a clear position on this issue. Many believe that Moscow’s policy line is not far-sighted. For example, few are willing to discuss the subject of Moscow’s continuation of relations with Hamas, which Moscow has failed to tame, because no one can say for sure what future this organization will have in Palestine. Characteristically, none of the politicians “playing up” to the Kremlin, but not fully sharing its positions, are expressing pro-Hamas – as well as anti-Hamas – statements.

Later, however, when Hamas strained intra-Palestinian relations, Russia found itself facing a difficult dilemma: support the secular moderate movement headed by PNA President Mahmoud Abbas, or display understanding toward Islamists. The choice has never been made.


Moscow’s intermediary contacts with Islamic radicals fit well into the general strategy, which provides for special relations with the Moslem world. These relations are based on the premise that Russia is a multi-confessional (mainly Christian/Moslem) country, which predetermines its right to simultaneously exist in two different civilizations.

In 2004, Russia’s State Duma deputies set up a parliamentary association that they named “Russia and the Islamic World: Strategic Dialog.” Deputy Shamil Sultanov has formulated the association’s goals in the following way: “Providing legislative support for the development of Russia’s relations with Moslem countries and international Islamic organizations, first of all the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); putting forward initiatives for participation in integration processes in the Islamic world; creating conditions for constructive dialog between political and economic elites of Russia and the Islamic world,” etc.

One event that contributed to the establishment of these special relations was Russia’s accession to the Organization of the Islamic Conference as observer nation with a Moslem minority. (The OIC, set up in 1969, groups 57 countries, including two from Europe, two from Latin America, and six from the Commonwealth of Independent States.) Russia’s contacts with the OIC date back to Soviet times when this organization helped Soviet POWs return home from Afghanistan. Later, in 1994 and 1997, OIC secretaries general visited Russia.

The idea of Russia’s accession to the OIC has been in the air for some time. In the mid-1990s, Yevgeny Primakov, who is much respected amongst Moslems, tried to convince foreign Moslem politicians that such a move would bring benefit to both parties. In 1997, the head of the Union of Russian Moslems, Nadirshakh Khachilayev, a popular Moslem politician at the time, raised the accession issue. In a conversation with this author, he stressed the need for Russia to join the OIC by arguing that the move would give Russian Moslems more rights and raise their status. The idea won approval in Russia’s government agencies, including the Foreign Ministry. However, they would not accept the figure of Khachilayev, who was too independent in his actions. Khachilayev negotiated with the OIC and participated in its activities where he spoke not as a representative of Russia but on behalf of the Union of Russian Moslems.

Rapprochement with the OIC, however, failed to deliver Russia any dividends in the economy and real politics. Rather, the relationship was merely symbolic and served as an argument for the Kremlin – which had been overly pro-Western – to diversify its foreign policy. (Occasionally, the desire to build bridges with the Moslem world acquired an exotic character. In 1998, for example, the then Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Boris Berezovsky, proposed incorporating some Moslem countries, in particular Iran, into the CIS.)

Some believed that the only pragmatic reason for Russia joining the OIC was the expectation that the Moslem world would then be less critical of the Chechen war.

Moslem leaders sought to avoid strained relations with Russia over the Chechen issue. In 1994, an OIC summit conference turned down a resolution that expressed support for Chechnya. In the same year, the OIC declined a request by the president of Ichkeria [the name given to Chechnya by separatist rebels – Ed.], Dzhokhar Dudayev, for giving OIC membership to the rebellious republic. Ten years later, in 2004, the Qatar authorities handed over to Moscow Russian special service officers who were charged with killing in that country Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, one of the Ichkerian leaders and an icon of Chechen resistance.

Another proof of the OIC’s loyalty to Russia was the presence of OIC officials, together with a delegation of the Arab League, at the 2003 presidential elections in Chechnya – won by the Kremlin’s protйgй Akhmat Kadyrov. So the leaders of warring Chechnya seemed to be justified in their complaints about flawed Islamic solidarity: despite the 200 to 300 foreign mujahideen that participated in the war on the rebels’ side, the war never became international.

Therefore, the ‘Chechen issue’ was not the main reason for Russia’s seeking OIC membership. The most important thing for Russia was to find a place for itself in the world and compensate for worsened relations with the West by a more active policy in other regions. After Vladimir Putin came to power, the Moslem vector of Russia’s policy increased.

The Foreign Ministry was handed the responsibility of developing this vector, yet the president himself repeatedly spoke about the desirability of a Russian-Moslem rapprochement. This issue was raised at the highest level in 1999 during a visit to Moscow by an OIC delegation headed by Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi. Later, in April 2003, in a conversation with Tajikistan’s mufti Amonullah Nematzade, President Putin forwarded the idea that Russia join the OIC as observer nation, adding that this country “is to some extent part of the Moslem world.” This suggestion was welcomed by Russia’s Patriarch Alexiy II and, of course, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Ravil Gainutdin.

OIC delegations began to make frequent visits to Moscow. In January 2003, at the invitation of the Russian foreign minister, Moscow was visited by the then OIC Secretary General, Abdelouahed Belkeziz of Morocco. The Foreign Ministry established a special post of ambassador for ties with the OIC. In the same year, a large Russian delegation, headed by Putin, participated in an OIC summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The delegation included many well-known Moslem politicians of Russia, among them Minister of Property Relations Farit Gazizulin, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Dzhakhan Polliyeva, the presidents of the Russian republics of Bashkortostan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya, and Chairman of the Coordination Center of Moslems of the North Caucasus Ismail Berdiev. In his speech at the summit, the Russian president spoke much about inter-civilizational dialog and the inadmissibility of Islamophobia. He also made a special mention of Chechnya.

That visit was marked by an incident that put the Russian president into an awkward position. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in his address to the conference, began to speak about “Jewish domination,” which seemed to take the Russian leader off guard. He made no response to those words, thus causing doubts among some Russian politicians whether Russian officials should attend meetings where such statements are made. I think most of the blame for Putin’s silence must be placed on his advisers who had not prepared the president for such extreme statements, which are typical of Moslem meetings. As for Moslem leaders at the summit, they took Putin’s pause as a good sign.

In 2004, upon the conclusion of the 31st Conference of OIC Foreign Ministers in Istanbul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was in attendance at the conference, said: “Russia and the OIC can do a lot to prevent a civilizational and religious division.” However, no one knows how to translate this idea into practice.

The Moslem community welcomes Russia’s efforts toward rapprochement and offers all kinds of assistance to achieving this end. Occasionally, this support is expressed too emotionally, causing the Russian authorities to disavow statements by its overly zealous supporters. In March 2003, for example, the head of the Central Religious Board of Russian Moslems, mufti Talgat Tadzhutdin, traveled to Iraq where he expressed his readiness to remain in that country as a human shield until the end of the war. In April of the same year, speaking before students, Tadzhutdin declared jihad against the coalition members that took part in the Iraq campaign. And although his deputy at the Central Religious Board of Russian Moslems, Mukhammedgali Khuzin, said that Tadzhutdin meant only “spiritual jihad,” the Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Bashkortostan, Florid Boikov, warned him about inadmissibility of violating the law, ‘On Counteraction to Extremist Activities.’ At the same time, in Dagestan, another Russian republic, firebrands issued a call for local Moslems to mobilize a militia and send it to Iraq to help the coreligionists there. (There were reports that the republic could mobilize 6,000 armed volunteers.)

It is difficult to say what Russian Moslems expected from Russia’s admission to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Perhaps it was believed that Russia’s presence could improve their psychological state and reduce the level of Islamophobia (remarkably, in 2003 the OIC set up the OIC Observatory on Islamophobia at its General Secretariat to monitor anti-Islamic activities in the world. The body has found no such activities in Russia so far). There were speculations that for the Moslem world Russia’s accession to the OIC meant hope for its Islamization: “sooner or later, it will become a full-fledged Moslem country.”

The Moslem world’s “softness” in their relations with Russia is explainable: they are looking for more allies to counter U.S. expansion. Moslems do not overestimate Moscow’s importance, yet they would not decline additional support.

Russia’s accession to the OIC has not brought about any major changes in Russian-Moslem relations. Moscow did not expect any exclusive preferences from its OIC membership. Participation in this organization simply fixed Russia’s “special place” and served as a reminder that, although a Christian country, it does not fit into stereotypes of the West that are widespread in the Moslem world.


Russia’s work on the Moslem vector of its foreign policy is accompanied by suggestions that the West (be it Washington or the Pope) impedes these efforts, as it wants to provoke a clash between Russia and the world of Islam and therefore “prevents the development of relations with Islamic states.” “Neo-Eurasians” and representatives of the Moslem clergy are increasingly responsible for such statements. They forget, however, that it was not the West that initiated the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, or that plunged Russia into a “small victorious war” in the North Caucasus.

Russian politicians emphasize that, unlike the West, Russia treats the Islamic world with more understanding, “forgiving” it its excessive uneasiness. Each time there erupts an Islam-related scandal in Europe or the U.S., Moscow makes appeals, almost like that of a mentor, for moderation and caution.

At the same time, Russian officials who oversee relations with the Moslem world and keep a watch over the situation inside the Islamic community made it clear to Moslem leaders that they [these officials – Ed.] were disappointed by the wild behavior of the Moslem public and some politicians during the cartoon scandal [this involved cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the prophet Muhammad, which led to violent protests in the Muslim world – Ed.] and later over comments made by Pope Benedict XVI. As a result, unlike their foreign colleagues, the majority of Russian imams and muftis criticized those who encroached on Islam in a rather reserved and diplomatic manner.

On the whole, Russia’s approach to the Moslem world remains ambivalent. Despite official exclamations of love for Islam, the rapprochement with this world is a “tactical move,” said Russian Colonel-General (Ret.) Leonid Ivashov, a nationalist-minded statist.

Characteristically, despite its rather pretentious name, the aforementioned parliamentary association “Russia and the Islamic World: Strategic Dialogue” has never displayed any special activity, instead choosing to remain a sort of “declaration of intent.” The occasional debates organized by this association had no real value and were merely demagogical; the goals declared by the association seemed purely scholastic.

Attempts by Putin’s Russia for rapprochement with the Moslem world have not allayed mutual distrust. Both Moscow and the Moslem capitals seem to view their mutual sympathy as a show-off of unity, and as a way to confuse the West and perhaps even make it resentful, as neither party has been successful in romancing it.

After all, the strength of the Russian-Moslem “friendship” depends on how strong Russia is militarily and politically, and how advanced it is economically. These two factors will determine its appeal as a partner in the eyes of the Moslem people.

Last updated 8 august 2007, 14:02

} Page 1 of 5