Russia’s best chances to claim a prominent role in the Middle East usually come amidst a regional escalation of tensions. But the confluence of diplomatic rows, terrorist attacks and air strikes at the start of June did not exactly play into Moscow’s hands. As usual, the Iraq/Syria war zone produced its share of breaking news. Yet, the bitter quarrel (triggered by an alleged hacker attack) between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, has been making the most headlines. Moscow has firmly denied that it could have been behind the publication on the Qatar News Agency website of a soon-erased statement on improving relations with Iran. In any case, this sabotage clearly surpassed the usual rather mediocre level of sophistication of cyberattacks generally attributable to Russian “patriotic hackers” (RBC, June 7). Meanwhile, against the background of this breakdown of Arab “solidarity,” the oil price has shown no propensity to climb higher, so Russia cannot expect any additional revenues for its stressed budget (Snob.ru, June 6).
Most expert analyses in Moscow have emphasized the depth of animosity between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but recommendations to the Kremlin have generally suggested caution and patience (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 6). President Vladimir Putin was busy on the phone with the Qatari emir, as well as leaders of Egypt and Turkey; and Qatar’s foreign minister paid a visit to Moscow last Friday (June 9). But the space for Russian diplomatic mediation is quite limited (Politcom.ru, June 7). For the Gulf monarchies, Russia is too close to Iran—and increasingly dependent on this “brotherhood-in-arms” in keeping its Syrian intervention going (Forbes.ru, June 7). The Russian leadership is probably not entirely aware that it has become an ally of the regional Shia coalition (including such dubious actors as Hezbollah), while only 4 percent of Russians see Iran as a friendly state (Levada.ru, June 5). Moscow seeks to escape from this entanglement by cultivating ties with Turkey. But while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opted to offer full support to Qatar, including even sending a few hundred Turkish troops there, Russia is not quite able to show such resolve (Carnegie.ru, June 6).
Russia certainly needs both Turkey and Iran to sustain control over the “de-escalation zones” in Syria, which Putin praised as the beginning of a peace process for this war-torn country—despite the chain of breakdowns in negotiations between Damascus and Syrian opposition groups (RIA Novosti, June 9). While declaring its determination to confront the Islamic State (IS), Russia is abstaining from any contribution to the battles for Mosul and Raqqa, which could profoundly change the dynamics of the wars in Iraq and Syria (Gazeta.ru, June 7). Moscow cannot show any sympathy to the Syrian Kurds, which would undoubtedly irk Ankara, and remains ambivalent about the Iraqi Kurds’ push for independence (Kommersant, June 7). Russian missile strikes serve rather the purpose of demonstrating capabilities than hitting high-value targets (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 31). Moscow continues to issue protestations, however, against the US-led coalition air strikes on the pro-al-Assad militia in southeastern Syria (RBC, June 7). Putin also made a particular point about the domestic political situation in the United States, which, according to him, is not helpful for solving global problems (RIA Novosti, June 9).
Some of these domestic matters are indeed confusing, and it is difficult to square President Donald Trump’s sharp demarche against Qatar with the appeal from the State Department to ease the economic blockade of this suddenly ostracised state (RBC, June 9). The main impact on Washington’s foreign policy–making still comes from the investigation of Russian interference in the US elections. The sensational testimony of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey to the Senate Intelligence Committee (on June 8) produced no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow (to the great relief of the White House), but it added to the estimate of the scale of Russia’s cyberattacks last year (New Times, June 9). This does not bode well for the planned meeting between Trump and Putin during the July G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany (Newsru.com, June 10). The Russian president has been careful in recent interviews to moderate his anti-American invectives. But the propaganda machine maintains its US-bashing; and 69 percent of Russians currently consider the US a hostile state, signifying only a slight drop from 72 percent a year ago (Levada.ru, June 5). In this situation, it is really hard to see how Russian mediation in the Qatar crisis could be acceptable for Washington (RBC, June 10).
Interested as Russia is in the vital question of global oil prices, it cannot pretend to be an impartial mediator with plenty of resources for peace-building. Moreover, the long shadow of the Ukraine crisis follows it everywhere; yet another recent ceasefire breakdown in the Donbas war zone has drawn attention to Russia’s ongoing aggression there (Kommersant, June 9). Every statement about the importance of dialogue between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is routinely supplemented by assertions of the need to build up Russian deterrence capabilities. And the series of military exercises this summer is certain to aggravate mutual threat assessments (RBC, June 8). Every Russian diplomatic maneuver in the Middle East, not to mention its missile strikes, are inevitably interpreted in Europe (though perhaps less so in the scandal-ridden White House) as attempts to gain advantage in the evolving confrontation.
In many political campaigns (with the interesting exception of the recent elections in the United Kingdom), Russian hackers became bogeymen blamed for all sorts of mischief. But in reality, the main instrument of choice for Russian troublemakers is corruption. A striking parallel thus exists between the Kremlin and the Gulf royal courts: As the Saudi and Qatari corruption feeds terrorism, Russian corruption connects with espionage and organized crime. It is certainly far easier to rain bombs on terrorists and to trace hackers by their digital fingerprints than to follow the dirty money. The investigations in Washington might hit a solid wall in the banks and degenerate into partisan bickering. But in Moscow, Alexei Navalny, a charismatic leader of the Russian opposition, has called his supporters to the streets this Monday (June 12) to show their disagreement with the politics of corruption. His role currently might appear marginal, but his message rings true—and might acquire further resonance that could shatter Putin’s dominance. Politics based on lies often appear overpowering, and Russian intrigues in the Middle East perhaps seem smart and sophisticated; but as the latter add to Russia’s over-stretch, the former tend to unravel with shocking abruptness.