A Lesson in Arabic: Making Sense of Russia’s Middle-East Policy

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

The mass protests that have been rocking the Middle East and North Africa region since the beginning of the year came as a surprise to many of the world’s governments. As a result, their responses to the Arab Spring have been largely reactive and often inconsistent; it’s hard to name a country that has succeeded in designing a unified approach to the events taking place in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. This however didn’t prevent some pundits from criticizing Russia’s Middle East policy as being particularly chaotic. Some calledRussian policy toward Libya…a study in ambivalence;” another pundit labeled Russia’s approach vis-à-vis Libya “a zigzag policy.”

Western analysts tend to ascribe every “inconsistency” in Russian foreign policy, whether real or imaginable, to disagreements between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; volumes have been written about a public spat between the two following Russia’s vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. Certainly, like in any country with competing business and political interests, there is a difference in opinion among Russian elites with regards to Russia’s Middle-East policy. Yet, a careful examination of Russia’s recent behavior in the regions reveals the presence of a rather consistent strategic line, an approach that is based on three general principles.

First, Moscow shows little appetite for bold solo moves in the U.N. Security Council, including using its veto power, which has been applied only four times in the past 15 years (last in 2009). These days, Russia prefers following the crowd of fellow Council members. Russia supported U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 calling for imposing an arms embargo on Tripoli; this resolution was unanimously adopted by the Security Council. Although initially Russia opposed to follow-up Resolution 1973 because of its too “open” language, it eventually decided not to veto it and abstained instead. In so doing, Russia didn’t act alone: it joined a respected group of major international players, such as Brazil, China, Germany, and India.

Of course, Russia’s unwillingness to get isolated in the Council wasn’t the only reason for not vetoing Resolution 1973. Russia also recognized the risk of being blamed for the death of civilians should Gaddafi troops have attacked Benghazi in the absence of a no-fly zone – and such an attack looked almost inevitable on the eve of the resolution vote. In addition, by vetoing the resolution, Russia might also have alienated one of the resolution sponsors, France — Russia’s friend and major trade partner. Russia simply didn’t have so much at stake in Libya, arms sales to the Gaddafi regime notwithstanding, to spoil its relations with France and other NATO countries in the middle of difficult negotiations over European missile defense.

Second, Moscow considers its current diplomatic activities in Libya as part of a greater effort to increase its influence in the Middle East. It therefore carefully watches the delicate balance of interests in the region. Russia’s sensitivity to regional sentiments helps explain another “inconsistency” of its Middle-East policy: its decision to abandon Gaddafi while continuing to provide diplomatic cover to the Assad regime in Syria. Russia took note of the fact that Resolution 1973 was supported by the Arab League, an organization that repeatedly condemned the Gaddafi regime for brutality. Since Gaddafi had no friends in the Arab world, why did Russia have to protect him?

Syria was a different matter as there was no regional consensus with regards to the amount of pressure to be applied on Damascus. For as long as the Assad regime enjoyed some support, however tacit, from two regional powerbrokers, the Saudi Arabia and Turkey – incidentally, the countries with which Russia has been cultivating good relations – Moscow saw no reason to do “heavy lifting” on its own in the Security Council. Yet it made it very clear that Russia’s diplomatic support for Syria isn’t unconditional: in August, Medvedev warned Assad that Russia’s approach to Syria may change if the Syrian strongman fails to implement promised reforms. Characteristically, Medvedev’s statement almost coincided with the Arab League's condemnation of Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters and Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador to Damascus.

Third, Moscow seems to have abandoned its old habit to stick forever to “friendly” dictators; it now prefers to engage all the parties involved in a conflict. Following this newly found flexibility, Russia kept communicating with Tripoli; at the same time, Medvedev sent his special representative, Mikhail Margelov, to meet with the opposition stationed in Benghazi. After Margelov’s trip, the rebels put out the Russian flag and proclaimed Russia an “ally.”

The same approach is being applied in Syria. In June, Margelov hosted a meeting with the Syrian opposition and called for an end to "any and all forms of violence." Margelov then made it very clear ("Leaders come and go, politicians come and go, social systems come and go, but for Russia there remains a single reliable and trusted friend: the Syrian people”) that Moscow is willing to deal with any eventual winner in the Syrian conflict. Needless to say, this message was well received by Margelov’s interlocutors.

Russia’s hard core realism in the Middle East isn’t anything new: it’s a continuation of the pragmatic foreign policy Moscow has been conducting for the past 12 years. Yet, some new, surprising elements seem to emerge. When justifying Russia’s position on Libya, Medvedev accused the Gaddafi regime in the “crimes committed against its own people” and directly linked its “abhorrent behavior” to Russia’s refusal to veto Resolution 1973. In other words, by taking into account the domestic conduct of the Libyan leadership, Medvedev essentially rejected the simplicity of “realpolitik” and introduced elements of the value-based approach that until now has been completely foreign to the Kremlin.

Medvedev’s words were echoed by Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs. In a recent article discussing the situation in Libya, Kosachev argued that foreign interventions into domestic conflicts could be justified “when people’s lives are at stake.” This argument essentially rejects Russia’s long-standing position that sovereign rights of the nation trump all other considerations. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether these statements are no more than tactical one-offs or they signal a paradigm shift in the Russian foreign policy.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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23 Responses to A Lesson in Arabic: Making Sense of Russia’s Middle-East Policy

  1. Good morning Eugene,
    Some immediate after thoughts to your piece:
    A “humanitarian” (sometimes having a BS element) foreign policy need not be from just one country/alliance.
    Within reason, Russia can apply “humanitarian intervention” vis-a-vis the 2008 war in the former Georgian SSR, as well as its unwillingness to recognize Kosovo’s independence. On that last point, the nay sayer whataboutism should note that the Russian recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence came shortly after the 2008 Georgian government strike on South Ossetia. In contrast: since the wars of the 1990s, Serbia, Moldova and Azerbaijan haven’t militarily launched a similar military operation on the disputed territory they claim.
    BTW –
    Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, the USSR and Vietnam backed a less atrocious element in Cambodia when compared to the US and Chinese positions. One can make that argument in relation to Angola as well.
    The comments in the paragraph just prior to this one shouldn’t be construed as an overall endorsement of the USSR.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    I think we would both agree that there are no “pure” humanitarian interventions; all interventions pursue a whole host of goals. And certainly, we know of a lot of cases when “humanitarian interventions” were invoked to justify outright aggressions.
    That said, I consider these timid elements of “humanitarian approach” in Russian foreign policy as a sign of maturity. Volumes were written crying of Russia losing $4B in military contracts in Libya. Has anyone bothered to count how much money in total Russia will lose for not joining “victors” earlier? Funny, some folks in Russia already argue that the decision to abstain on R1973 was a mistake and that Russia should have voted for. It’s exactly the same folks who were excruciating Medvedev in March for not vetoing it. Go figure.

  3. You’re welcome Eugene.
    Some “humanitarian” claims of success are better than others. Objectively, the “humanitarian” claim has limits. During the anti-Khadafy conflict, Ivory Coast was faced with considerable carnage. Among others, CNN’s Anderson Cooper didn’t seem so distraught over that situation. Last week, it was reported that Turkish forces attacked the PKK in Iraq. Turkey has been fighting the PKK since the mid-1970s, in a conflict that has killed (offhand) 40,000 or so, while creating over 2 million Kurdish refugeees. In terms of cultural and political autonomy, the Turks haven’t been more liberal than what the Serbs (Milosevic years included) provided for the Albanian population in Kosovo. Turkey can bomb the PKK in Iraq, whereas a good number of neolibs and neocons would go gah-gah if Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in the 1990s bombed KLA bases in northern Albania.
    Regarding Libya, what you bring up has the appearance of a hind sight matter.
    There’s the issue of how post-Khadafy Libya plays out – noting how well Western support of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance fared. How well do the anti-Khadafy rebels get along with each other following the defeat of their common foe? This question leads to how some pieces can be picked up.
    Touching on some of the matters raised, Soviet-Libyan relations had limits. I remember a Soviet-Libyan communique read over Radio Moscow in the late 1970s/very early 1980s which pointedly said (without quoting verbatim): while the two sides don’t agree on everything.
    On my last set of comments at this thread, while Russia has reasoned PR cover for its recognition/non-recognition stances of disputed territories, there remains IMO some reason to second guess whether the Russian recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence is in Russia’s (not others) best interests.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I agree with you on all the topics you covered. Just one more thing.
    Currently, Russia has no ability to break difficult world knots on its own. (Then, who does?) It therefore has to side either with eventual winners in a conflict or with eventual losers. Unfortunately, in most of the cases, Russia choosers losers with 100% precision. This must change.
    I’m also getting tired of listening to whining about Russia losing arms sales contracts. First, arms selling is a great business with huge profit margins, so there must always be enough money from a completed contract to cover a lost one. Second, more specifically, do people crying over losing money on Syria contracts remember that RF had to forgive the large part of $13B debt that Syria owned to Russia? Does Russia actually make money on arms deals with Syria? I mean Russia as a country, not MIC guys.

  5. Hi again Eugene,
    I once again appreciate the thought provoking points you bring up.
    I’m not all down on post-Soviet Russian foreign policy.
    In Afghanistan, Russia has taken a cautious route, regarding its military involvement there. There’s some irony in what has happened in Afghanistan, since the late 1970s-1980s. On other matters like Arab-Israeli differences and China, I think that the Russian position has been reasonable. On Russia’s part, trying to be on simultaneously good terms with Israel and the Arab countries, while not being so provocative towards China IMO appears evident and reasonable. Iran hasn’t given Russia a hard time, in contrast to what the former is accused of doing to some others. This aspect appears to influence Russia’s stance on Iran.
    On the issue closest to us, one can highlight instances when Russia exhibited considerable support for influential Western based foreign policy advocacy. Russia was quite cooperative in dismantling the Warsaw Pact. Shortly thereafter, anti-Russian rhetoric was used in justifying NATO’s first wave of eastward expansion. Following 9/11, Russia reached out to the US. Thereafter, the more sympathetic view of Russia was short lived. At times: within some influential Western based circles, there has been a lack of understanding and reasoned sympathy for the mainstream Russian view on issues including Chechnya, Ukraine, disputed territories and Khodorkovsky. On former Yugoslav matters, I sense some evidence of a cultural bias, that in part relates to the negative imagery of Russia.
    The valid issue of Russia itself utilizing better English language PR and media methods isn’t the only reason for these occurrences. In Western mass media and academia, some technically so-so material can nevertheless get the upper hand at the higher profile of venues, over comparatively more erudite commentary, for reasons having to do with political slant and cronyism – Russia and the US have some similarities.
    My offhand impression is that Russia should do well in defense sales. The immediate image I have (perhaps a bit stereotyped) is that Russian military equipment is generally cheaper to buy, while being considered efficient enough for the given country seeking it.
    A food shopping comparison brings to mind buying one great tasting grapefruit versus purchasing two pretty good tasting ones for the same or cheaper price. For that matter, the relatively costly DKNY t-shirts are known for having a better form fit than what Hanes makes. With budget, quality and quantity in mind, many seem to opt for the latter.

  6. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    It was an interesting article. So, next time I see a gang robbing & beating someone on the street, I should decide who is going to win and then join the winners…

  7. Hi Alex,
    Your pointed analogy is noted.
    The follow-up adds that today’s seeming victor can prove to be an unworthy lout over the course of time.
    Somewhat contradictory to what you suggest and respectifully presented: the Serbs were winning in Bosnia and Kosovo before the noticeably neocon and neolib influenced foreign policy establishment decided that “aggression” must be stopped with “humanitarian intervention” against the side that was winning. Of late, The National Interest has been running some great commentary pertaining to former Yugoslavia.
    I’ll close by noting that the Western media and some government claims on what was going on in Bosnia and Kosovo proved to be way out of wack with reality – and that the gist of this point could be reasonably surmised at the time of the conflicts in question.

  8. Alex says:

    Hi, Mike
    I liked your previous remark: “A “humanitarian” .. BS..(in) foreign policy need not be from just one country/alliance.”
    From what I hear from people who lived & worked in Libya, it seems that the major abuses of “democracy” there were in the form of numerous social programs for general population, which programs apparently went well beyond what western capital saw as the maximum permissible for their own “plebs”. So – a bad example they were – almost as bad as Yugoslavia…
    Where I completely agree with Eugene, is that it is not the first time that Russia (as a country) behaves the way it did in Lybyan case. I wonder if this time the bone Russia apparently hopes to get will have more “meat” on it than *any* of the previous ones she was rewarded with (eg. after Yugoslavia and well before that)..

  9. Hi back Alex,
    Thanks for the follow-up.
    Regarding one of your thoughts, a fossil fuel rich country with a small population is more likely to be in a better position to provide for its citizens than a larger country in size and population. Perceptions of national leaders can change for reasons not so different from how coaches and general managers can go from being labeled geniuses to incompetents. Sometimes the top brass is very much at fault. Other times, the reasons can involve other factors which aren’t not always so related to the wrongs of the leadership. In this day and age of greater turnover, Khadafy had an especially long run.
    Concerning Yugoslavia, I sense that to a good extent, a dictator (Tito) froze (via suppression) national rivalries within that entity. This thought shouldn’t be confused with getting folks to bury the hatchet via a truly open society (not what Soros does), inclusive of carefully balancing ethnic concerns in a way that one group or groups will not get offended.
    Getting back to your first set of comments, it’s not always so clear what’s the right thing to do. The West’s “peace in our time” bit in the 1938 Czech-German dispute involved siding more with the stronger party.
    I remain critical of the kind of diplomatic patting on the back that continues to be evident. Not so long ago, I recall watching a rather Sorosian leaning panel, uncritically lauding Western NGO activity for preventing bloodshed in Crimea. Oh yeah!? No credit was given to the population there. Meantime, I’ve seen my share of divisively inaccurate Western mass media promoted commentary on that region.

  10. Re: Last Set of Comments
    Once Tito left the scene, the aforementioned freezer thawed. On the one hand, Tito had good sense to let Yugo people leave and re-enter Yugoslavia, inclusive of Western money. This policy had limits, when it came to political activists against his regime. Tito era Yugoslavia didn’t appear to be good at developing decent politicians to take Tito’s place.

  11. Alex says:

    Thanks for the extended analysis of the problem, Mike. I do agree with it.
    As for “it’s not always so clear what’s the right thing to do”.. Well, one can use a historically accepted criteria eg. –
    /You shall not murder/You shall not steal/You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour/You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. – say, it can be “oil” nowadays. We can throw in “You shall not make for yourself an idol” – meaning eg. a somebody’s understanding of what “democracy” is. Imagine what American (and Russian) foreign policy (-ies) would become if these were indeed followed 🙂
    With kind regards

  12. Eugene says:

    Hi Alex,
    “So, next time I see a gang robbing & beating someone on the street, I should decide who is going to win and then join the winners…”
    With all due respect to your moral sensitivies:), my answer is yes — if, of course, this “someone” is a career criminal and will end up in police custody anyway.
    It’s exactly the problem that I see when — using your analogy — Russia is wandering around tough neighborhods and invariably picking up guys that will later be beaten up and robbed of the money Russia gave them to do business.
    When this happens once or twice, fine. When it happens too often, perhaps, Russia should reconsider ways it picks up “friends.”

  13. Alex says:

    I am not at all burdened with moral excesses, so don’t worry:)
    In fact, I am not arguing that Russia should have actively/openly supported Gaddafi (in Hamilton terms, “relatedness” with this regime is too low to justify any significant “altruistic” costs). But to express open & official disapproval of the actions of “career criminals” 🙂 she could afford. BTW in my view, these criminals were not Gaddafi government. Also, “moral” and moral categories are real things, they do exist in the nature and most likely for for a good reason, so it is not wise to completely ignore them in politics.

  14. Eugene says:

    I share your last point and that’s why I’m so attentive for signs of what I call here “value-based” approach — bad term, I agree.
    Also, I like when Margelov talks about “Syrian people” as Russia’s permanent “friend.” This is what Russia should practice, not simply preach.
    I understand that Russia “needs” Libya and Syria. But does it need Gaddafi and Assad — that’s the question.

  15. Pertinent points by both of you.
    Regarding Libya and Syria: not to be overlooked IMO is what takes the place in both instances.
    A number of Americans were happy to see the Soviets leave in Afghanistan and the eventual defeat of the pro-Soviet Afghan government.
    In retrospect, it might’ve been better to strive for some kind of coalition between the pro-Soviet Afghans and a carefully select group of the anti-Soviet opposition. On the other hand, the likes of Karzai suggest that such a scenario would be problematical.
    It’s not easy to correctly forecast the best route. Moreover, some jump the gun in determining what’s best in retrospect, by overlooking how the given present in question isn’t firmly established.
    For now, I don’t see the Syrian government falling as quickly (if even) as Khadafy.

  16. Mark says:

    Russia’s reticence regarding the UN Resolution on Libya which gave NATO what it needed to openly support the rebellion will be vindicated, if I am any judge. The rebels are remarkably similar in composition to the tribal warlords of Chechnya, in the sense that their allegiance to something bigger than themselves (if it’s accurate to so romanticize what was purely an intervention in a civil matter to achieve longstanding western goals) is a matter of convenience that will be abandoned as soon as it is no longer convenient.
    It should go without saying that the west will give the rebels every assistance in establishing a government, a banking system and a recovery of the oil industry – in return for which it will expect certain…concessions. However, unless there is immediate and sustained improvement in the standard of living for the average Libyan, there will be unrest, and sects within the new “government” will use this opportunity (don’t say they didn’t learn anything from the west) to exploit the discord for power shifts of their own. Some of the groups integral to the rebels as a whole despise each other, and I see the only possibility of stability being the emergence of a strongman like Ghaddafi.
    Such figures often emerge when there is a perception the country is being exploited by an outside power (which, indeed, is the intent of the western intervention), and when the conditions are right, that’s what will most likely happen. The west will likely counter in all the ways it has learned to do (backing liberal western-leaning candidates, monopolizing the message, etc…), but the age of the nationalist strongman is by no means over.

  17. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I agree with your “strongman” approach. After all, many US problems in Afghanistan stem from the fact that Karzai isn’t a “strongman” enough. And neither is Maliki, which explains a lot of our problems in Iraq.
    And yet, it’s also true that any strongman, however solid initially, has certain half-life. Gaddafi half-life, 42 years, was remarkable long, but yet came to an end. Yes, my prediction, too, that stability will return to Libya with a new strongman, not with a Western-style democracy.
    All Russia needs to learn is to switch allegiances in the countries like Libya and Syria expeditiously and not to stick to the “current” strongman indefinitely.
    I also wish that Russia was more discrete in who it sells weapons too — meaning not to just anyone who can pay — but this is too much to ask for. I know.
    Best Regards,

  18. Mark says:

    I don’t know where Russia is supposed to learn to be careful about its customers when selling weapons: certainly not from the example of the world’s largest arms dealer. The USA displayed a positive mania for selling weapons to Iran, essentially recreating and enabling the Iranian Air Force during the seventies. Iranian pilots were U.S. – trained, and Iran remains the only foreign nation ever entrusted with the then state-of-the-art F-14 Tomcat and its Phoenix long range air-to-air missile. A decade later, the USA secretly sold weapons to Iran while publicly enforcing an embargo of such trade, and simultaneously selling arms to Iraq – with whom Iran was at war. The USA gave Stinger Missiles to the Afghan mujhahedin (including Osama bin Laden)to help them fight Russia, and later tried to buy them back to avoid their falling into the wrong hands. If there’s anyone more two-faced and double-dealing as a partner in the arms market than the USA, I’ve never heard of them.

  19. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Great synopsis. But as they say, a good learner learns from someone else mistakes. There is absolutely no reason for Russia to repeat the US experience in selling weapons to “bad guys.”
    What about #2, France? Any history here?

  20. Mark says:

    France has had a history of carelessness in its customer base as well. A good deal of western technology went to China with Thomson CSF’s (now Thales Group) sale of fire-control technology (as well as the Crotale missile) to China back when Russia was a fading military power as China was emerging and her intentions were unknown.
    I recall attending some classified briefings in the UK some years ago by contractors from British defense firms in which I later annoyed the speaker by arguing it made no sense to classify these briefings when RACAL (British defense contractor) had been bought out by Thomson CSF (they changed their name at that point to Thales), who sold directly to China without end-user agreements. China has proven an adept at reverse-engineering western technology – thereby saving billions in research and development – and now is able to produce its own versions that are often world-class.
    According to the February 28th issue of Defense News (you can find them at http://www.defensenews.com, but you can only see the current edition unless you’re a member, and I happen to have the February print edition on my desk), France was poised to sell some $2.7 Billion of arms by Dassault (Rafael fighters), Eurocopter (Tiger attack helicopters) and Thales (radars) to Ghaddafi’s government when Sarkozy decided kingmaking would be more fun. British vendors at the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) who asked not to be named were furious with Sarkozy and with Cameron’s government for undermining them because, to use their words, “You have to be consistent when you are selling defense equipment…customers need to know you will be there for them come hell or high water for the next 20 years. The perception you might pull the plug at the first sign of trouble is highly damaging”.
    That might be true of stable countries with established credentials, but the regions of the world in which unrest is routine will buy from whoever is selling, under whatever conditions will make the sale possible. But you see where he was going with that complaint.

  21. A matter of possibly learning from the recent experience with Libya:

  22. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    One could potentially see another example of a “split” within the tandem: Margelov reports to Medvedev, whereas Lavrov (although formally too) is Putin’s man.
    On the other hand, I like this arrangement where the opposition is met by NGO, whereas the FM keeps a distance.

  23. You’re welcome Eugene.
    Touching base like that makes sense. At some point in time, such manner might serve to broker an agreement between the parties opposing each other.
    Been following other matters away from the Middle East. I understand that in Egypt, there was some rioting that included Israeli property getting attacked. If true, let that serve as further notice that a change of leadership in places like Libya, Egypt and Syria could prove problematical. A number of Isralis are apprehensive about seeing the Syrian government overthrown.

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