Putin feels vindicated by Russian approach to Mideast

The Russian president maintains that a consistent focus on the threats from terrorism and failed states in Syria and the region has proven the right course.

al-monitor Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow, where he said any solution to the conflict in Syria must ensure President Bashar al-Assad's forces and his opponents do not simply swap roles and fight on forever, Dec. 20, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.
Paul J. Saunders

Paul J. Saunders


Topics covered

united states, us-russian relations, terrorism, russia, politics, foreign policy, arab spring

May 23, 2014

Though Ukraine may seem far from the Middle East — and even peripheral to it — the two are in fact inextricably linked in the minds of many senior Russian officials. This has important implications that others with interests in the region cannot ignore.

For Moscow, the connection is a clear and dangerous one. As Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu put it during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tajikistan earlier this year, “a scenario similar to the Arab Spring was used” to oust former President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, a former senior official in the KGB and later Russia’s border security agency who serves as secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a security association including Russia and five other post-Soviet states), was more explicit several days later, tying together “mechanisms of foreign interference” and “models of provocation” in Russia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, according to a report in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government. According to his press secretary, Bordyuzha’s remarks — at a roundtable discussion in Minsk, Belarus, on the topic of “Government and Social Cooperation to Work Against Foreign Interference and 'Color Revolutions'” — went on to “underline that no one any longer doubts the planned and directed character of almost all of the world’s recent events connected to the violent overthrow of governments.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself articulated a similar view in a high-profile opinion article for The New York Times arguing against US military action in Syria. Referring to the revolutions in both Eurasia and the Middle East, Putin wrote: “Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically.” Who took advantage? The same people who “hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it, too.”

Russian officials’ anger over Western democracy promotion is twofold and relates to their view of Russia’s security interests and its international role. As Moscow sees it, Russia’s pre-eminent national security interest in the Middle East is combating terrorism and preventing its spread to Russia and its neighboring territories. The Russian government has other goals, of course, including working within the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) to establish reliable guarantees that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon. But after two wars in Chechnya, and facing regular domestic terrorist attacks, Russia’s leaders see Islamic extremist terrorism as a significantly greater threat.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the best defense against terrorism is a strong and stable government. Only strong governments can prevent, suppress or combat terrorism and, as a result, it is dangerous for outside players to undermine stable existing regimes and create chaos. As Putin said in December 2012, “Risks will prevail when each player plays their own game, if they are not relieved of the illusion that it is possible to manage chaos (you know there is such a theory). And if people stop sowing such chaos, risks will not prevail.”

According to top Russian officials, US and European efforts to introduce democracy in fact generate dangerous chaos and instability. “We have seen how attempts to push supposedly more progressive development models onto other nations actually resulted in regression, barbarity and extensive bloodshed,” Putin said in an address to the Russian parliament. “This happened in many Middle Eastern and North African countries. This dramatic situation unfolded in Syria.” Putin is not alone in his views; in an interview with Al-Monitor’s Editor Andrew Parasiliti, former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said that “the Russian analysis was right at the beginning” of the Syria conflict in arguing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had considerably more support than many in the West believed, and that failing to recognize this early on may have fueled the conflict.

Putin further argues that Russia’s approach is better for the people living in these nations because it protects them. “Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.” Taking into account that Berdyaev was an early 20th century Russian Marxist who became disenchanted with the Soviet system and eventually evolved into a Christian conservative, Putin’s endorsement means implicitly rejecting both of Russia’s 20th century revolutions — 1917 and 1991. 

It is from this perspective that the Kremlin does not want Assad to lose in Syria, prefers Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Mohammed Morsi, opposes potentially destabilizing sanctions or military action targeting Iran, and — in extremis, notwithstanding other complaints — would most likely prefer the House of Saud to almost any alternative in Riyadh. It is not so much that Russian leaders want to promote authoritarianism or to cooperate more closely with authoritarian governments; they do not oppose gradual evolutionary change. But when confronted with immediate and stark policy choices, they appear to see stable authoritarian regimes as more secure than unstable transitional/democratic systems. (Interestingly, Putin expressed explicit support for democracy in Afghanistan in one of his first presidential decrees after retaking the presidency, possibly recognizing the difficulty of establishing a sufficiently strong central government there. Of course, Russia has also supported democracy in Syria, so long as it is through a Syrian-led evolutionary process that does not exclude Assad and his supporters.)

In addition to this, because Russia’s leaders see massive political transformations as risky experiments rather than inevitable linear progress after “the end of history” — and believe that the historical record has validated their point of view in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere — they find it hard to accept noble-sounding US and European statements of intent at face value. Western officials must either be incredibly naive or, more likely, have some ulterior motive — most probably, to enhance their own strategic position at Russia’s expense. Since the Middle East is the only global region outside Russia’s own immediate neighborhood where Moscow plays a major role, this perceived threat to Russia’s position in the Middle East almost inherently threatens its overall international standing as a great power. When connected to democracy-promotion efforts on Russia’s borders and even inside Russia itself, it looks like an existential threat in the eyes of many senior officials and a large segment of Russia’s nongovernmental foreign policy establishment. This underlies Moscow’s assertive and even aggressive conduct in Ukraine.

Moving forward, one essential question is whether Washington and Moscow will ever be able to agree on a pace for political reform that satisfies each and facilitates cooperation to support and assist governments facing public demands for change in managing these challenging transitions. The most significant obstacle to this kind of convergence in policy is probably the poor and worsening US-Russia bilateral relationship rather than the specific circumstances in any particular country struggling with this problem; US and Russian officials, parliamentarians, journalists, experts and others are on balance simply too suspicious of one another’s ultimate aims in Eurasia, the Middle East and elsewhere to permit serious negotiation. After the US-Russian confrontation over Ukraine, this will probably last for many years to come and will stoke further geopolitical competition. While this is unfortunate for Americans and Russians, who both have many other priorities at home and internationally, it is far more dangerous for those living in the places where the two nations compete — like Ukraine and Syria.

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