Andrei Kortunov, Director General of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), sat down last week with The IRAS Institute for a written interview about Russian Middle East policy, especially after military involvement in the Syrian crisis. The following is an edited version of the interview.
Entering militarily to Syrian stage makes Russia a pivotal actor in the Middle East. Since, the region has been embraced several contradictory powers namely Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; how Russia defines its role in the Middle East?
“Russia is not a Middle East country, but it has been and still is connected to the region through numerous historic, cultural, economic and humanitarian links. Events in the Middle East have a visible positive or negative impact on Russia; for instance, during the turmoil in the North Caucasus in 1990s many mercenaries from Arab countries were fighting on the side of the Chechen secessionists. On the other hand, for example, Egypt remains one of the largest importers of the Russian grain. Russia is interested in the political and economic stability in the region, in turning the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction as well as in a mutually satisfactory resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia tries to avoid taking sides in the Sunni-Shia disputes supporting those in the region that stand for religious tolerance and respect for minority rights. The Arab Spring of 2011 – 2012 changed many fundamentals in the region. Many of authoritarian Arab regimes were shattered having failed to cope with challenges of a much overdue political and social transition. Non-state actors of radical and fundamentalist nature started successfully competing with regional nation states for power and legitimacy. The previously dominant ideology of Arab nationalism was challenged by political Islam. In addition to the Arab Spring, the region confronted in 2014-2016 a sharp decrease of oil prices, which put into question most of the economic and social development plans of energy producing Arab nations.”
“If in the West the Arab Spring was initially met by many with hopes and even with enthusiasm, in Russia the political mainstream from the very beginning was expressing deep skepticism and concerns about the likely outcomes of the ongoing regional transformation. Furthermore, the whole Arab Spring was often presented by Moscow as a long planned Western (predominantly US) conspiracy aimed at acquiring more control of the West over the Arab world though pursuing the strategy of ‘controlled chaos”. Tin Moscow they saw the most graphic manifestation of this strategy in the Western involvement in Libya in 2011, which was regarded as a clear and self-serving deviation from the UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The failed transition in Libya was an important learning experience for Moscow. It consolidated the conservative faction in the Russian political establishment and nearly silenced the liberal opposition. After Libya Russian officials coined their new approach to the Middle East that can be summarized the following way.”
“First, authoritarian states in the Middle East are in any case better than failed states that come to replace the former after public uprisings (which are often planned, funded and instigated from abroad). Second, the intentions and commitments of the West should not be trusted; the West can easily ‘sell out’ its longtime allies and friends in the region (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt); even a UN Security Council resolution can be violated or interpreted in a very liberal way. Third, If Russia remains an idle bystander watching the Arab Spring from the sideline, the chaos, instability and terrorism generated in the Arab world will ultimately spill over Russia’s borders, not to mention the evident demise of the Russian influence in the region. The practical application of this new approach was, of course, the Moscow engagement into the civil war in Syria. In this bloody and protracted conflict, Moscow demonstrated much more than its readiness to oppose what was perceived as the consolidated position of the West. For the first time since the invasion to Afghanistan back in 1979 the Kremlin used military force outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. For the first time a Russian military aircraft was grounded by a NATO member country. For the first time Russia became a central player in a large-scale war right in the heart of the Arab world.”
On Saudi Arabia, how do you assess Saudi objectives in the Middle East, and how much such goals are ‘for and against’ the Russian interests in the region? Does Russia and Saudi Arabia could reach an agreement on the future of the Middle East?
“Saudi Arabia is an important Arab state claiming a leadership position in the Middle East region and beyond. At the same time, the country is potentially vulnerable to multiple inside and outside challenges that are becoming more explicit in view of the US – Iranian rapprochement and the recent sharp decline of the global oil prices. Relations between Moscow and Riyadh have always been complicated; Russia has been accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting militant radical Islamist groups in Syria, while Saudis have consistently opposed the Russia’s support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus. However, there are overlapping interests as well: both Russia and Saudi Arabia oppose plans for a partition of Syria; both are concerned about the current crisis of statehood in the region. Another common interest is to prevent further uncontrolled fall of energy prices. Recently we have seen a more active interaction between Russian and Saudi leaders though major differences in approaching the Syrian situation remain unresolved. My personal guess is that a Russian – Saudi agreement on the future of the Middle East is more likely to be achieved in a multilateral format than in the framework of the bilateral relationship.”
On Turkey, with respect to recent events between Russia and Turkey impinging on the cordial bilateral trade ties and economic cooperation, how do you predict the future of Russia-Turkey relations?
“I would argue that the crisis between our two countries had been ripening for a long time, and the SU-24 grounding was only the last straw that broke the camel’s neck. For many years, Russians and Turks were trying to convince each other that they could “agree to disagree” on many controversial and explosive political matters. The hope was that the impressive dynamics of bilateral trade, investments, tourism, cultural exchanges, mixed marriages and so on would do the trick. Alas, it has not. The Russian –Turkish relations demonstrated a spectacular lack of the strategic depth – an evident deficit of the ability, courage and political will to look for and to find compromises and common denominators for the most fundamental problems pushing the two states apart from each other. Over years, serious disagreements over Caucasus, Middle East, Iran, Ukraine, NATO, BMD, gas pipelines and other matters were swept under the rug. But this mutual hypocrisy could not last forever. In a way, the ongoing crisis became possible only because the notion of a strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey had remained only on paper. Lacking the proper strategic depth, it did not pass a reality check and collapsed as a house of cards.”
“What both sides could do to start restoring the relationship? Before answering this question, we should ask ourselves another one: what can we not afford in the near future? First, we cannot restore mutual trust anytime soon – this trust between the two national leaders and between the political elites in Moscow and Ankara is lost completely. Second, we cannot realistically discuss any strategic reconciliation between the two countries or a Russian-Turkish Grand Bargain – in the absence of mutual trust and with the deficit of the strategic depth the idea of a mutual remission of sins by Putin and Erdogan looks ridiculous. Third, we should be fully aware of the fact that the spiral of hostility and mutual animosity is spinning up, and it would take both sides a lot of energy and time stopping this negative momentum, not to mention reversing it. Many proponents of better Russian-Turkish relations on both sides of the newly erected barricade argue that the only thing we can do now is to concentrate on non-state dimensions of the crippled relationship - trying to preserve and to expand human contacts, small business interaction, cultural links, joint NGO projects, education mobility, research partnerships and similar ‘uncontroversial’ forms of bilateral engagement. In my view, this is an important goal to pursue, but we should not overestimate our ability to set a firewall between state and non-state dimensions of the Russian-Turkish relations. In our two countries state traditionally exercises a lot of influence over public opinion, civil society, media, cultural and educational institutions. The odds are that it will be increasingly difficult to maintain even the most ‘innocent’ forms of no-state cooperation if both states do not demonstrate at least a benign neglect towards these activities. A Russian-Turkish rapprochement at the highest political level, albeit limited and incomplete, appears to be indispensable.”
“The solution is often should be searched for where the problem is. The most critical bone of contention between Russia and Turkey today – all other disagreements and disputes notwithstanding – is the future of Syria. Russia is committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Syria, while Turkey feels responsible for the future of the Syrian Turkmen and other Turkey oriented groups opposed to Damascus. A number of external players including Iran and the Gulf states have their interests and their claims to protect particular factions of the Syrian population. I do not like the term of ‘soft partition’ because it emphasizes the noun of ‘partition’ more than the ‘soft’ adjective. But a potential solution to the Syrian riddle might well be connected to the concept of an ‘asymmetrical federation’ that will not question the principle of the county’s territorial integrity, but will at the same time guarantee a sufficient autonomy for ethic, religious, regional and political factions in Syria, including the preservation of their traditional links with neighboring countries. The concept of an ‘asymmetrical federation’ may become the platform for a compromise not only between Russia and Turkey, but between all the major players involved in the Syrian conflict. If we agree on the future of Syria, it would be much easier to move ahead on other burning issues.”
It is said that Russia is enjoying hard power to deter the threats and secure its interests in different parts of the world. In your perspective, how effective such approach is?
“Russia invested a lot of resources into restoring and upgrading its hard power capabilities under President Putin. It now has a robust military potential with significant power projection capacities and a reliable nuclear deterrent. Russia has successfully tested some of its newly acquired capabilities in the Syrian conflict. Despite the current economic difficulties, the ongoing large-scale modernization of the Russian armed forces continues mostly as scheduled. Russia remains a major global exporter of arms, second only to the United States. However, in the contemporary world hard power in itself is not enough to provide for national security, not to mention national interests at large. Many threats and challenges – like international terrorism, cyber, illicit drug traffic, trans-border crime, climate change, and so on – cannot be successfully dealt with at the national level; they require consorted efforts of many states. Therefore, skillful diplomacy is no less important than hard power. Russia is still learning how it can use its soft power in the most efficient way.”
What is the Kremlin plan for the future of Syria? What Syria is good to Russia and under what circumstances might Russia end its mission in Syria?
“When Western experts and Kremlin watchers analyze the Russian strategy in Syria, they usually single out three goals that Moscow allegedly pursues in this conflict. First, to rescue the Russian client in the region -Bashar Assad and his regime. Second, to diminish the US influence in the Middle East to the extent possible. Third, to support Shias against Sunnis in the interconfessional clash that tears apart the Islamic world. In my view, all the three alleged Russia’s goals can be questioned. First, Bashar Assad has never been a client of Moscow. He is not a personal friend of Vladimir Putin like former national leaders of Italy or Germany. Bashar Assad does not have powerful lobbyists in Moscow as Saddam Hussein once had. Economically Syria is much less important for Russia than, for instance, neighboring Turkey or even Iraq. When Russian officials argue that their prime concern is the future of the Syrian statehood, not the future of Bashar Assad personally, they are not necessarily trying to deceive the West.”
“To get another Libya in Syria, much closer to the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia proper is not an attractive option for decision makers in the Kremlin. Bashar Assad and his regime, in this sense, are nothing but instruments to avoid chaos and anarchy in Syria. Are these instruments indispensable? Probably, not. But so far all the efforts of US and its partners to present a consolidated Syrian opposition as a credible alternative to the regime in Damascus do not look very convincing from the Moscow’s viewpoint. Second, the idea that Moscow is desperately trying to push the United States out of the Middle East fits nicely into the standard Cold War logic, but does not convincingly explain the recent Russia’s moves in the region. If Washington is the main competitor, why offer US to work together on chemical weapons in Syria? Or to collaborate with Americans on the Iranian nuclear dossier? Decision makers in the Kremlin might be generally anti-Western and anti-US, but they are definitely not crazy. They should understand that Russia has no resources and no interest in replacing the United States in the Middle East as the next hegemonic power.”
“And if Washington does withdraw from the Arab world, it is likely to leave behind itself a vacuum to be filled with radical fundamentalist forces equally hostile to the West and to Russia. Russia needs US in the region, tough it insists that the current American policies in the Middle East starting with the Iraqi war of 2003 are ill conceived, poorly implemented and, in the end of the day, mostly counterproductive. Third, the Sunni – Shia explanation of the Russian strategy looks linear and schematic at best. To start with, the Damascus army does not include only Shias, there are many Sunnis fighting on the Assad’s side as well.”
“In the Arab world, one of the closest Russia’s partners and friends is Egypt that happens to be the largest Arab Sunni country. The majority of twenty million plus Russian Moslems is Sunni and it would be politically suicidal for any regime in Moscow to align with Shias against Sunnis abroad. However, since Moscow is committed to fighting against ISIS, the pure military logic pushes it to building alliances with whoever has most fighting capacities on the ground. For a variety of reasons, Sunni states of the Gulf or most of other Arab Sunnis are not in a position to commit substantial ground forces to a joint anti-ISIS campaign.”
Envisioning an end to Syria conflict, would Russia and Iran eager to cement their strategic cooperation in the Middle East? What are your recommendations for improving bilateral political, economic and military relations in the future? And, how both countries could cooperate on the energy market?
“Russia managed to take the lead in the dramatic events taking place these days in Syria and around Syria. Its positions cannot be ignored and no settlement is possible without a Russia’s participation. However, one should not overestimate the role of Russia – or the role of any other non-regional power – in midterm and long-term evolution of the Middle East. The region has entered a historically unprecedented cycle of social, economic and political transformation that is likely to last until at least the middle of this century. The future of the Arab world will depend mostly on successes or failures of its own regional centers of gravity – like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. As for external factors affecting the Arab world, the influence of overseas’ players is likely to get less significant, while the influence of neighboring non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey, Israel) is likely to grow further. The role of Iran will definitely be one of the decisive factors shaping the future of the Middle East. Speaking of the Russian-Iranian relations, we have to define what their ‘strategic cooperation’ really means under the current circumstances. There has always been a temptation – at least on the Russian side – to build these relations on the anti-Western basis. But this is not a stable and reliable foundation. I think that Russia and Iran have to upgrade their current collaboration on regional matters – including the Caspian Sea issues, Afghanistan and Central Asia. We clearly underutilize the existing potential for economic partnerships. Finally, we simply need to know each other much better than we do now; it involves more contacts in education, research, culture and civil society exchanges.”