Russian policy in Ukraine, Mideast not just about Putin

The sources of Russian foreign policy are primarily found in geopolitics and longstanding interests, not just Russian's current president.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a live broadcast nationwide phone-in in Moscow, April 17, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin.
Maxim A. Suchkov

Maxim A. Suchkov


Topics covered

west, vladimir putin, united states, russia, foreign policy, cold war

May 1, 2014

The ongoing standoff between the West and Russia has opened a debate about excessive personalization in analyses of Vladimir Putin's actions. In trying to explain Putin's motivations in the Ukraine crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted as saying to the Wall Street Journal, “[H]e's creating his own reality, and his own sort of world, divorced from a lot of what's real on the ground for all those people, including people in his own country.” Indeed, there is some truth to that, but certain phenomena go beyond the psyche of the Russian ruler and are better explained by “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” George Kennan's 1947 classic for Foreign Affairs. In his article, Kennan presents the shrewd analysis behind the US policy of containment toward the Soviet Union in the postwar era. Although Russian state and society have evolved significantly since that time, the essay is surprisingly topical today in providing important clues about Russian foreign policy patterns in various regions, including the Middle East.

The first pattern is rooted in the history of the Russian presence in the region, which peaked during the Soviet era. The Soviet Union had its own vision of the balance of power in the Middle East and was an integral piece, either as a part of the problem or part of the solution, of almost every security puzzle that arose, including the Suez crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 1967 war and so on. Today’s Russia also wants its voice to be heard, not to mention decisively, in most acute regional issues, be it the Iranian nuclear issue or the Syrian crisis. Although President Barack Obama considers Russia a “regional power” — an assertion that upset many Russians, including decision-makers, which is telling — whenever a grave challenge emerges in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, Washington can expect little progress if it fails to enlist Moscow’s support, as recently concerning Afghanistan and Iran.

The second pattern can be traced to the Soviet Union’s use of ideology to forge alliances and gain sympathy from local elites in various proxy wars across the Middle East. In this regard, one particular takeaway from Kennan’s essay resonates with the main line of the Kremlin today: “Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and imperialism, the final phase of capitalism, leads directly to war and revolution.” Although capitalism per se is no longer an issue, Western values have come under strong criticism among Russian movers and shakers. Time and again, they have opposed as inappropriate the idea of “universal values as Western liberal values.” Dwelling on this agenda in the Middle East, where many find Western values contradictory to Islam and national traditions, is a way to score points.

The same holds for “imperialism.” Moscow positions itself as a global opponent of “imperial Western policies,” and for now this seems to earn the Kremlin an “easy A” in the region, where perceptions are critical of American anti-terrorist initiatives and democracy promotion. It is yet to be seen, however, whether Russia can succeed as the “world’s moderate conservative leader” in the area. According to the 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Project report, Russia’s lowest public image ratings are found in the Middle East.

This particular statistic stems from a cocktail of factors, including Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, cooperative relations with Tehran, skepticism of the Arab Spring and strained relations with the Gulf states. These positions also place serious limitations on Moscow’s maneuvering and opportunities in the region. Going against the mainstream, as it is portrayed, is the third pattern in Russian Middle East policy. It makes sense that Russia supports the Shiite, Tehran-Damascus axis as a primary counterweight to the Sunni Gulf states, but there is more than meets the eye. A strong domestic dimension, the fourth pattern, influences Russian conduct in the Middle East as well.

As an external power, Russia needs regional partners, ideally allies, to manage developing Islamic demographics and to counter its own Islamist challenges in the Caucasus, the Volga region and now the Crimea. Thus, Moscow is in constant pursuit of a balance between a pragmatic, interest-based foreign policy in the Middle East and its own domestic challenges and trends. In this respect, it has obtained observer status at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, maintains healthy cooperative ties with Israel and tries to enlist support for its foreign policy initiatives through the channels of its own “Islamic public diplomacy.”

On a personal level, this foreign policy line resonates well with Russian authorities, many of whom come from security structures and tend to view the world through the lens of great power rivalry and Realpolitik. It is also backed by a large contingent of academics and pundits for whom the ideas of Halford John Mackinder’s heartland theory serve as a mantra and who are of the firm belief that everything revolves around securing geopolitical footholds. Against this backdrop, geopolitics comes first, often clouding the very decision-making mechanisms inside countries opposing Russia and the domestic sources of their behavior. This is why Russian concerns are quite often legitimate, while Moscow’s reactions quite often are not.

The Ukraine crisis will eventually be settled one way or another, but the current sanctions will push Moscow to explore other regions where Russian and Western interests, given the current dynamics in their relationship, will inevitably collide. The Asian Pacific and the Middle East are definitely among the first places on the list for a challenge immediately after the drawdown from Afghanistan. Analyzing the personality of a powerful leader such as Putin is important, but to outside observers, Russia will remain in the words of Winston Churchill “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” unless they properly examine historical trends and the pragmatic, rational and (sometimes not so) accurately calculated factors that drive Russian decision-making.

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