In recent months, Moscow has launched several foreign policy initiatives as part of an effort to recapture something of its vanished influence in the Middle East. Since 1991 Russian officials have periodically claimed that Arab leaders have solicited Moscow’s return to the region to counterbalance the United States. In January Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian President Bashar Assad (see EDM, January 26) and visited Turkey (EDM, January 18) to enhance Russia’s economic and political positions throughout the region. Russia, as these visits indicate, seeks to enhance its position by gaining major footholds in the local energy and arms markets. Russia also is trying to carve out a space within which it can have good relations with both Israel and with Arab states. To signal its intentions, Russia sent a large delegation led by Yevgeny Primakov, now head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and a veteran Kremlin Middle East expert, to the Russo-Arab Business council in Beirut and to meetings in Syria, Jordan, and Iran.
Russian leaders are making no attempts to conceal their effort to recover lost positions and gain new footholds in the Middle East, particularly through Syria. Primakov maintains that Russia has considerable geopolitical interests in the Middle East and that its economy complements those of the Arab sates. Yet in fact, there are few actual programs between Moscow and local governments, and Syrian energy projects are by no means top-of-the-line contracts. In Syria Primakov claimed that Russian and Arab interests were particularly close, and he launched attacks against those whom he said made no secret of the fact that they responded to terrorism by seeking “to divide the world along national-religious lines,” another example of mendacious anti-American propaganda and a crude attempt to exploit those lies for the Kremlin’s benefit.
Primakov also claimed that the political climate for expanding Russo-Syrian commercial ties is more favorable than ever, yet few tangible contracts seem to have emerged from his talks. Possibly Russian companies may receive contracts to replace U.S. and Canadian companies that now produce oil and gas in Syria, and discussion of construction of the gas pipeline from Syria to Lebanon and Turkey is also taking place. This pipeline would supply natural gas from Egypt, which is already supplying Jordan. Yet at the same time, the fiasco over weapons undoubtedly casts a pall over these relations, especially as Syria wants weapons, cannot pay for them, and Putin will not antagonize Washington and Jerusalem merely to gratify Primakov.
Nevertheless Primakov used his time in Syria to slam both Washington and Jerusalem for bringing pressure to bear upon Russia regarding projected Syrian arms sales. He also claimed that Syria is ready to negotiate with Israel without any preconditions, and that Israel refuses to negotiate with Damascus. He declared that the allegations that Syria supports terrorism are groundless, a fact that he knows to be false, and that these charges therefore reflect an effort to isolate Syria. Primakov still views Washington and Israel as Russia’s enemies in the Middle East, and essentially he believes that the Cold War has continued there. At a time when Russia claims its number one enemy is international terrorism, it is more than a little strange that he is defending Syria against charges of supporting terrorism that he himself knows to be incontrovertible.
Primakov subsequently led his delegation to Iran to establish a Russo-Iranian trade council and to enhance exchanges of commercial information. The Russian delegates represented banks, companies specializing in foreign trade, aircraft manufacture, communications, information technology, investment, transportation, and the production of metal, oil, and natural gas, so it obviously seeks to enhance Russia’s economic ties with and position inside of Iran, although no deals were reported to have been concluded or signed there.
In general Primakov’s visit confirms that the Kremlin is making serious efforts to regain its regional position in the Middle East, but its point man there seems to have a strategy of appealing to the past rather than to the present or to the future. Moreover, an approach based on selling arms to Syria — which could not pay its prior debts to Moscow — makes no economic sense, which allegedly is the key national interest for Putin. Second, the mission contradicts Putin’s efforts to build up a strong political and commercial position with Israel and to be taken seriously as a member of the international group trying to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians. Finally the economic results of Primakov’s visit appear for the moment to have been meager. While time will tell how well Moscow can play in the Middle East, it seems from this vantage point that it still has a long way to go both materially, and no less importantly, cognitively, before it can return to being even a shadow of its former self there.
(Itar-Tass, February 7; Russian Television Channel One, February 7; Info-Prod Research Middle East Ltd. February 8; RIA-Novosti, January 25, February 7, and February 10; Diplomatic Panorama, February 10; Lenta.ru, February 8; deepikaglobal.com, February 10).