Putin Plans to Stay Long in Middle East

By Hussain Abid

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is proving himself to be a crafty and shrewd statesman. His two-decade rule has brought Russia not only internal stability, ridding it of petty squabbles, but has made it to reemerge as a major power in global politics. Moreover, he has also ended American political influence in Russian politics. Gone are the days when pro-western incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, would siphon off International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to shore up his political campaigns and win elections. Roles have been reversed, with Russia now being accused of tailoring Trump’s electoral triumph in US presidential elections.

These victories within Russia give an insight about the leadership qualities of Putin and his aggressive foreign policy posture. Putin has pushed his name among the pantheon of current politically sagacious rulers, who have much achievement to their credit and claim many feathers to their political cap. Unlike European leaders, he has not invoked the empty rhetoric of civilization, democracy and moral superiority. To have influence over the policies of other states, Putin has not resorted to forcefully introducing cultural and societal changes; rather he has revitalized the Old Russian policy of shaping public opinion. The clearest manifestation of this policy can be seen in American elections and the subsequent allegations of ‘pernicious Russian hand’ in the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

If we broaden the canvas of political landscape and analysis and include Europe, we will get acquainted with the interesting political developments taking place there and can possibly conclude that it is going through one of its most difficult phases. The issue of Brexit is the most significant political development. Europe has had a hard time grappling with this issue. Then, there is the matter of refugees and immigrants, which shows no sign of slowing down, not to talk of a permanent solution. The proposals of equitably distributing the refugees among the European Union (EU) member-states have been either snubbed or given short shrift by most of the political leaders, generating new tensions and distrust. This has also provided germane ground for fascist group to rise which, if not nipped in the bud, will possibly have catastrophic effects on European politics and society.

Ukraine crisis is still a flashpoint. The subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia have been self-harming for Europe. Turkey’s relations with Europe generally and Germany specifically, in recent years, have been characterized more by hostility than harmony. The maverick Trump and his antics exacerbate the restlessness within Europe; especially his stance on NATO being a white elephant, calling climate change a hoax and his take on free trade. This tension between Europe and USA and the want of consensus on important issues within Europe have strengthened Putin and given Kremlin and Russian media and intelligentsia ample opportunities to capitalize for their own foreign policy interests.  Meanwhile, Russia has been enjoying friendly relations with Eastern Europe, which have the potential to get more entrenched in near future.

Some attribute the successful Russian foreign policy more to American follies and weaknesses than to Putin and his clique; but had it not been the earlier realization by policymakers in Kremlin to perceive Uncle Sam’s diminished power and fill in the resultant vacuum, Russia’s policies would not have met with such success.

Historically, Russia and Middle East have enjoyed cordial relations. Both share cultural and ideological ties. Moreover, Russia has played an instrumental role in mediating disputes among the states, much to the appreciation and satisfaction of local people and rulers. Soviet Union played a very important role during the Cold War, especially in 1950s. The Egyptian revolutionary government of Jamal Abdul Nasir, Palestinian Liberation Organization, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and South Yemen, were all in the Soviet camp. After the disintegration of Soviet Union, Russia took little interest in the Middle East region. However, Yengeni Primakov, the former Russian Prime Minister, through his doctrine, roughly translated as “Trusting East”, somehow brought back Russia in the region. Its role considerably increased when Putin became Russian Prime Minister in 2000 and after 9/11 attacks. The wave of protests for change in the Arab world and the subsequent civil wars opened up many opportunities for Russia to expand its influence in the region and have a greater say in its political and military affairs. Russia was apprehensive that the insurrectionary movements in Middle East could potentially be emulated in Central Asian Republics, which share cultural and religious ties with the region. Then, there was the threat of religious extremism that afflict and blight Middle East. Russia had to brutally crush its own Islamists in Chechnya and Dagestan.

The case of Syria best exemplifies the success of Russian foreign policy in Middle East. Syria has, to some extent, become a yardstick to measure the gains and losses of regional and international powers. Obama administration had plenty of opportunity and excuses to militarily intervene in Syria, but it did not. But now as Russia has disrupted military order in the region; an order that was one-sided and in American favor, the bogey of Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan is again grabbing headlines in mainstream media and dominate the issues on policymakers’ table.

It seems America is applying the self-same political designs on Afghanistan and the larger South Asia, as it once did in Syria. United States of America is also getting close to India and shoring up as a potential strategic partner against China, in the process further isolating Pakistan and increasing its apprehensions. The reaction emanating from Kremlin in the wake of Trump’s aggressive posture towards Pakistan, is not only suggestive of a new page in the bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan, but it also shows Putin’s administration is not oblivious to this region and potential of Pakistan to be a force of stability.

Russia also wants to help resolve the main issues afflicting the region: Palestinian-Israel conflict, civil wars in Iraq and Syria. The resolution of these problems would help Russia to focus on Gulf and reduce American influence there. One of the main planks of Russia’s foreign policy in Middle East has been its arms exports. These exports from Kremlin are relatively less expensive, technologically sophisticated and free of bureaucratic red-tapism. These factors combine to lure potential arms importers in the region. The geostrategic importance of the region for Russia increases manifold if one takes into account the fact that southern Russia shares borders with Middle East and that region also happens to be a hotbed for extremism.

As American failure in Middle East is manifest, its pugnacious posture towards Iran, China and Pakistan, is heightening the tension in global politics, Russia seems to come out as the main beneficiary. And it seems the military intervention in Syria was temporary tactic to save its ally in Damascus, but portended a long stay for Putin in Middle East.

Author is IPI expert focusing on Middle East.

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The Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) is a nonpartisan, independent policy research institute based in Islamabad. Our goal is to undertake in-depth analysis of challenges and choices confronting Pakistan. We aim to help policymakers and public better understand the world, region and Pakistan-specific challenges and opportunities. We make efforts to engage government, civil society, private sector, media, academia in open debates and dialogue on the most significant developments in national and international affairs. We envision contributing to policy-making through periodic policy-papers putting forward policy-recommendations developed in collaboration with experts and stakeholders in each area. IPI takes no institutional position on policy issues.


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