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Russia in the Middle East: Ever-Changing Policy in an Ever-Changing Region

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Israel (KAS) held an international conference that took place on December 3 , 2019, at INSS in Tel Aviv, Israel. Middle Eastern politics changed profoundly in October 2015, when Russia decided to step into the Syrian civil war on the side of President Assad. This added an international dimension to an already complex conflict and created a new strategic situation with international consequences. In this context, the event brought together participants from Russia, Europe and Israel for an in-depth dialogue. The event focused on further understanding on the most pertinent issues and strengthening cooperation in the future.

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Russia in the Middle East · December 3, 2019 · INSS · Tel Aviv

Executive Summary

Internationally, Russia is lagging in fundamental areas, such as economy and technology, and this will determine its future course in the international area. As Antonenko noted, “Reality will catch-up with it.”

In this context, the Russia-China alliance is of acute importance in understanding Russia’s policy. It is likely, as Rodkiewicz noted, that Russia accepted that it will play the role of a junior partner to China in a bi-polar world.

The Middle East is an arena where Russia excels more than elsewhere, but this is also not without perils.

Russia faces two issues in the region: It needs to reconstruct Syria, even if partially, but lacks the resources for that. Russia currently balances between different regional powers, but at some point it might have to choose sides.

Israel and Russia enjoy a positive and unique relationship, but this relationship is fragile due to regional and bilateral pressures.


1st Panel: Russia in the International Arena

Itai Brun opened the panel by outlining two narratives that explain Russia’s role in the international arena: the realpolitik narrative, which views Russia as jostling alongside China to fill the geopolitical void left by the United Stated, and the ideological narrative that points to Putin’s skepticism of ideals of liberal democracy. The debate later focused on a year of reference as the turning point in Russia’s more assertive international behavior. Dmitry Maryasis argued that since 2000, Russia has been trying to regain its geopolitical standing, not necessarily as a superpower but as a world power. In the Middle East in particular, the idea is to be a mediator aiming at stabilizing the situation. He rejected the ideological dichotomy of pro and anti-liberalism, stating that Russia’s political culture takes on the features of both the East and the West.

Irvin Studin argued that the turning point in Russia’s behavior was 2014, the year of the Ukrainian revolution, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbass. 2014 saw three instances of radicalization: Ukraine against Russia; Russia against Ukraine and the West; and the West against Russia. Eran Lerman argued that from the Israeli angle, the defining years to understand Russia are 1945 and 1948. Russia is deeply committed to the promotion of nationalist ideas, and its perception of the West as the enemy is driven by fear, interest, and status. Oksana Antonenko agreed with Studin that the turning point in how Europe sees Russia is 2014. She also agreed with Brun that Russia became the champion of illiberal democracy since 2012, with Putin’s return to the presidency. She argued that Russia’s current foreign policy might be the last dance before its economic reality catches up. Meanwhile, Europe is interested in forming alliance with Russia so as to marginalize China under the new West vs. China paradigm. When it comes to Syria, Antonenko was of the opinion that aside from preventing the downfall of Assad, Russia does not have a clear vision and strategy.

In the second part, the panelists discussed whether Russia has a coherent geopolitical strategy. Maryasis and Studin argued that there is no strategy. Meanwhile, Lerman and Antonenko argued that Russia fundamentally wants to resist US dominance. Antonenko further asserted that Russia needs to move on from searching for a neo Westphalian order where great powers sit around and draw lines on maps and look for ways to join the digital revolution.


2nd Panel: Russia and the Middle East

The second panel focused on Russia’s interests in the Middle East as a significant player that regained its standing in the region.

Elena Suponina argued that Russia wants Syria to be stabilized. To that end Russia needs donors from China, Europe, and the Gulf, since Russia does not have the resources to reconstruct Syria. Furthermore, Russia’s modus operandi in the Middle East is to have good relations with all major powers in the region, and this is achieved through hard work of diplomats and the Russian leadership.

Witold Rodkiewicz divided the Middle East into two zones, the first being Turkey and Iran, with whom Russia must be on cordial terms due to geographical proximity, and the second being the Arab world. He noted that Russia’s foreign policy is guided less by national interests than the legitimization of the Putin regime. He argued that there was a dramatic change in thinking in Moscow, in no longer seeking a multi-polar world, but accepting bipolarity between US and China; to Russia, China is the lesser evil.

Sima Shine argued that there has been no major change in Russia’s interest in the Middle East from Soviet times. First, Russia shares borders with the Middle East. Second, OPEC is significant for oil prices – Russia’s economic lifeline. Third, Russia stood and still stands to gain from arms trade (including nuclear reactors) in the Middle East. And last, Russia’s influence in the Middle East is a card vis-à-vis the West. Prioritization among the four points may differ depending on the leadership. Shine acknowledged that Russia was adept at being cordial with all sides, but argued that this is more the result of US absence than Russia’s diplomatic achievement. On Iran, Shine asserted that the relationship is strategic and based on multiple common interests, thus making it difficult for a third party to compromise.

Dmitry Adamsky focused on the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence on Russia’s foreign policy. He argued that since September 2015 the Church has had three main ecclesiastical deliverables. Chief among them, the Church interprets the intervention as defending the persecuted Christians. As such, the Church manages to deliver a messianic mission to the Russian leadership.


3rd panel:  Russia and Israel in the Changing Middle East. 

To Vera Michlin-Shapir, the relationship between Israel and Russia remains curious. There are so many contradicting points – strategic, political, geographic – and still, there is a largely positive relationship. She presented the idea of avoiding a zero sum game as the basis for this relationship.

Dmitry Maryasis claimed that the Israeli-Russian relationship could be described as “emotional,” which has both good and bad consequences. Clearly one can say the present-day Russian establishment is not antisemitic or anti-Israeli, but rather philo-semitic, which is translated into public opinion. Maryasis also emphasized that Israel is seen by Russia as a success story that knows how to deal with terrorism and security. Moreover, Russia and Israel can be technologically compatible. While Russia is a strong scientific player, it has not done well enough to translate it into hi-tech, where Israel is the stronger player. Meanwhile, Russia can help Israel with scaling.

Gary Koren agreed with Marysasis when describing the nature of the relations. He argued that the trends are continuously positive over the past 20 years. He noted that he is hopeful that more modest improvements and progress are to follow. He noted that MFA’s work focuses on incremental improvements and creating a relationship that can “sustain any blow.”

Zeev Khanin noted that since the 1980s there have been three phases in Israeli-Russia relations. In the first post-Cold War decade, the two sides saw each other still as strangers and former rivals. The next decade was the “period of changing views,” when there were two camps in Israel – optimists and pessimists. The former believed that Russia is coming back in the Middle East as a pragmatic force, which is interested in economic, strategic, diplomatic solutions. On the other side, there were the pessimists who believed that Russia and Israel will always on different sides of the political blocs. The third decade is probably the most pragmatic one when the relations can be viewed as “unconditional,” meaning that Russia and Israel agree where they can and in some cases they do not agree but keep working together. He noted jokingly that this is demonstrated by the fact that Russia has two close allies in the Middle East – Israel and Iran

Avinoam Idan started from the conclusion, namely, that we are very close to the end of relations between Russia and Israel and nearing a zero-sum solution. Idan asserted that he does not think that the close, almost informal relationship between Netanyahu and Putin is necessarily good for the relationship between the countries. This personalized diplomacy is a weak point of Israeli foreign policy.

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Russia in the Middle East


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