Alexey Antoshin, Professor of Institute of Social and Political Sciences, Ural Federal University (UrFU), sat down last week with The IRAS Institute for an interview about Russian Middle East policy since the Syrian crisis in 2011. The following is a condensed version of the interview.
What are the motives behind Russian growing influence in the Middle East?
“One reason lies in history. Russia has shown interest in having a presence in this region decades ago, especially after the Cold War. However, we can observe a sort of correlation, because the Moscow government in both Soviet Union and Russian Federation has been willing to have close ties with the Al-Assad family. Another main reason is the existence of significant hydrocarbon energy sources in the region and oil and gas exports are also vital and of high priority to Russia. Moreover, exporting arms to Middle East is similarly of great importance and it has rather broad market prospects for Russia. In addition, it should be noted that the Middle-East is very important in fight against terrorism. Just as President Putin stated it is to the interest of Russia to fight against terrorism in much farther distance rather than inside the borders.”
How do Russian elites evaluate the growth of extremism across the Muslim communities in Russia?
“I do not intend to exaggerate the threat of homegrown extremists. The conditions that we currently see in the Northern Caucasus regions including Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia are much more different and improved, at least, compared with what we saw during the 1990s. Recently, I had a trip to North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic’s said that the Third Chechen War won't happen anymore. I indeed agree with him. This was a massive task that Mr. Putin and his entourage managed to accomplish within Russia’s political space. A region that during a period caused numerous difficulties for Russia is now one of the strongest advocates of the Russian administration, endorsing Moscow’s policies.”
There are some facts showing the Kremlin’s policy towards Iran is ambivalent. To exemplify, Russia is eager to jointly work with Iran on security issues in Middle East; on the other hand, Russia has no enthusiasm to include Iran in security arrangements like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or delay to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant or delay to deliver S-300 missile system. How do you translate such contradictory behavior of Russia?
“I think that we cannot here talk about the lack of a common standpoint of the Russian Federation towards Iran. On the contrary, we should speak of a much larger problem. Mr. Putin's foreign policy is known as pragmatic and this is the point where the discussion can begin and help us to understand the status quo. In better terms, the "cost-benefit policy" hugely matters to the Kremlin. On the other hand, Russia's engagement with the West has always been significant and subject to controversy. So, the western sanction regime against Iran in recent years has driven Russia to adopt a more cautious policy towards Iran. President Putin has never directly shows his conflict with the West and, similarly, has never openly supported the states which have been blacklisted by the West for any reason. He believes that Russia’s national interests would be in jeopardy if he swims against the tide.”
“Although the exchange of goods between Russia and the West has declined in insignificance in recent years, they are still attractive partners for Russia. On the other hand, the Europe Union's foreign policy is mostly under the influence of the United States, to the detriment of Russia-Iranian relations. That is to say, both countries adopt different approach towards each other in order to justify their position. That is why Russia's behavior has been complicated to the Iranian minds.”
Some in Iran believe that Israel has not been disagreed with Russian military presence in Syria and they think this, sooner or later, could be against Iran’s security interests. What is your opinion?
“As Europe has imposed severe sanctions against Russia leading to Ruble's sharp decline in value and Turkey and Egypt do not welcome Russian tourists any more, Russia's economic relations with Israel get its importance. Currently, Israel is one of the few states that does not require visa for Russian nationals. Besides, it is an inexpensive country which Russian tourism industry could run lucrative business there. More or less, familial associations with Israel are also vital to Russia. I think that Russian-Israeli relations have never been and won't be so near and close that makes Russia to greatly help Israel in the event of certain circumstances in Iran-Israel ties or changes the conditions of the Middle East.”
“Generally speaking, relation between Russia and Israel has never been without difficulty and it has always been controversial. Even if the insecurities of the Middle East are viewed according to the documents of foreign policy of Russia and the Soviet Union, Russian experts and scholars believe that Moscow's involvement and intervention in the Middle East is aimed at promotion of peace and stability. They have always criticized Israeli policies. We all remember that when an election was held in Palestine and one of the extremist fractions won the vote, Russia started talking with them while the international community did not agree with the result. It was also in the news that Russia sent some goods to that region. Although it would be certainly stated that Russia is not willing to cut ties with Israel, it would not mean Tel Aviv is the best friend and ally of Russia.”
Could western financial and political pressure make Russia change her mind on Syrian Assad and give up her current Middle East policy?
“This is a question that is difficult to answer. The problem is that the countries involved in Syrian crisis are diverse and it seems any coalition or alliance is unstable and subject to change. Since the beginning of the bloodshed crisis, Russia has expressed her willingness to fight against terrorism, but in reality, it is proved that worldwide consensus against terrorism and Daesh is a huge task. On the Syrian Crisis, there exist undeniable contradictions between Russia and the West. In addition, it has been revealed that they will continue to exist in the future. I think that expecting full consistency between Russia and the Western countries on the future of Syria is naive. In terms of Syrian crisis, While Russia is currently trying to find a common language with the West; they have so far recognized the Kremlin as a very tough and dainty partner."