SOCHI, Russia — In the run-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Russia continues to promote its Gulf security concept. On Oct. 2, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the meaning of the initiative. Speaking at the annual session of the Valdai Discussion Club conference in Sochi, Lavrov reminded the audience of international experts and policymakers that Moscow proposed a similar idea in 2004, but the regional states were rather lukewarm about it back then.
"After we’ve seen dangerous escalations during this summer — including in the Strait of Hormuz and condemnation of Iran for pretty much everything that’s happening in the region, be it in Palestine, Lebanon, in Syria or elsewhere — we’ve decided it was time to refresh the concept and draw attention to it,” Lavrov said.
One of the more overlooked aspects of the concept Moscow proposes is that, besides other things, it may serve the ideological basis for Russia’s continued presence in the Middle East. Most importantly, it may, in fact, be the “Russian World concept” for the Islamic world.
A series of recent publications in Turkey, inspired by a group of Russian experts close to Alexander Dugin, argues that a number of Russian think tanks, including those linked to the military and intelligence, were developing a road map for a “Eurasian transformation” process in Moscow’s interests amidst a new geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and the Maghreb. The major argument of the works hinges on the idea that the three factors — the Islamic State’s defeat in Syria and Iraq, the failed Arab Spring and the global crisis of “nihilistic liberalism” — have opened up new opportunities for a stable Middle East and “its transformation into the pillar of a multipolar and just world order” guaranteed by Russia. This, according to the authors of the reports, should replace what came to be seen: the American “Greater Middle East” idea.
The few who know of Dugin in America probably see him as either a boogeyman behind Putin’s assertive foreign policy or as an explanation for the rise of the American far-right. For those who preach and practice his ideas in Eurasia and the Middle East, the Russian philosopher and publicist is an ideologue for the strategic Moscow-Ankara-Tehran triangle as the basis for a “non-American” Middle East and Eurasia. Contrary to a popular proposition, Dugin is nowhere close to the actual decision-making in Russia, nor is he a godfather of Putin’s policies. His very ideas should be received critically and detached from actual policymaking — though they echo with a number of policymakers — let along scholars and experts in the regions he seeks to “de-Americanize.” Yet if the ideas are embraced by the Russian institutions that devise the policies, they may undermine the chances for success of the Russian project.
The Dugin camp was not involved in the making of the Russian Gulf security concept but in that they see an opportunity for the three states — Russia, Turkey and Iran — that trace their roots to “great empires” and politically and culturally represent the Orthodox Christianity, Sufism and Shiism to “assume responsibility for the spiritual and geopolitical future of the Middle East.”
In general, the attempts to prepare the ideological ground for Russia’s presence in a region are quite well-timed, and this is something Lavrov alluded to. In this sense, the Russian concept doesn’t only seek to challenge American projects for the region — most of all the Arab NATO and the deal of the century — but also, perhaps, to fill in the ideological void in the Russian approach to the Middle East.
Until recently, the support for secular dictatorships opposing different branches of political Islam was a tacit sign of Moscow’s engagement in the region’s political processes and choice of allies. This is one of a few elements of the Soviet foreign policy strategy the Kremlin inherited and followed.The Moscow-Tehran “alliance” in Syria, however, is at odds with this approach. Russia backs Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its fight against proponents of political Islam, while “different Islamists” — if only Shiites — combat other “Sunni Islamists.” The Syrian opposition says this exposes inconsistency under which Russia labels some groups "extremists” because they seek to establish Sharia law, while other forces, primarily Iran and allied Shiite groups employing the strictest interpretations of Sharia in the Islamic world in their legal codes, turn out to be Russian allies and not seen as extremists.
Moscow’s attitude to Sunni Islamists is quite contradictory. Although Russia designates the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, these legal provisions do not apply to Palestinian Hamas, a formal Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood whose activities are not banned in Russia. Moscow’s divergent treatment of designated terrorist groups is most illustrative in this regard. On the one hand, representatives of the Taliban terrorist organization repeatedly pay visits to Moscow as part of the negotiating process with Russian authorities. On the other hand, Russia pursues an extremely tough and uncompromising line vis-a-vis Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), another terrorist organization, and rules out any dialogue with it.
The new ideological framework that the Eurasianists believe the Gulf security concept may become potentially allows Russia to be more flexible in this policy and have a constructive dialogue with various Islamist groups. But the Eurasianists come from somewhat erroneous starting points. Among them, for instance, is the perception that Shiite doctrines are not as radical as Wahhabism, which it opposes. Besides, Sufism is portrayed by them as the only moderate form of Islam and the only one acceptable to Russia, which is essentially wrong. These elements, if promoted by official Moscow, will in fact decrease the chances of the Russian concept to be embraced by some states in the Gulf.
Finally, it’s challenging to fathom how an alliance of predominantly Christian, Shiite and Turkic ex-empires — which the Eurasianists are promoting — is going to “construct” a region with a large population of Sunni Arabs.
The propositions of the Eurasianists are interesting to analyze, as this is still an ideologically important camp within Russia that also has its supporters in Turkey and Iran — but the intellectual making of the Russian policy is happening at various levels by different policy groups. Moscow will eventually consider the existing landscape and parties’ interests in the Islamic world rather than somebody’s wishful thinking. The Eurasianists will also take heed of Russia’s ability to exert influence on the state of affairs on the ground and promote its agenda in the Middle East.
“Unlike the United States, Russia successfully maintains a working relationship with every regional player and should further avoid alliances with regional actors and groups of regional actors to be able to act at its own discretion, including its efforts to promote bilateral ties with each regional state,” noted Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, senior adviser to the Russian Foreign Ministry's Policy Planning Department. This gives yet another clue into what Russia really seeks in the region.