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Analysis & Opinion
01.04.08 Russia’s Arab Gambit
Comment by Gordon Hahn

On March 30, the summit of the League of Arab States in Damascus adopted a declaration supporting the idea of holding an international conference on the Middle East peace process in Moscow. The idea of the conference was first floated by the Russian President Vladimir Putin during his tour of Middle Eastern countries in April 2005. Although sources within the Russian presidential administration say that the conference will most likely take place after the inauguration of Russia’s new president Dmitry Medvedev on May 7, the fact that Russia can rival the United States and France, which held similar events in Annapolis and in Paris, respectively, is highly symbolic.

As the authority of the United States undergoes a decline throughout the world, this new reality has not been lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his revitalized Russia. Washington’s alienation of Russia since the 1990s and its underestimation of Russian ingenuity and power in the 2000s have transformed Russia from a potential ally into a fierce competitor of the United States. Some strong elements within the Kremlin favor Moscow’s further shift toward closer relations and even alliances with countries opposed to the United States and its allies.

Moscow now sees the Muslim and Arab worlds as key building blocks in its “multi-vectored” foreign policy, designed to counter America’s hegemony within the international system and to maximize Russia’s influence by multiplying its opportunities for political and business deals through a highly inclusive web of partnerships.

In 2007, Vladimir Putin undertook a whirlwind tour of the Persian Gulf region that included visits to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. There, as in Algeria and Indonesia during the same year, Putin and a cohort of Russian officials concluded or paved the way for major oil, natural gas and nuclear energy deals as well as weapons sales, and broached the idea of establishing a global natural gas producers’ cartel.

Russia’s relations with America’s one-time bulwark in the Persian Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, appear set for a breakthrough that will mark the beginning of a shift in Riyadh’s orientation away from Washington and toward Moscow. During Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah called the Russian president “a statesman, a man of peace, a man of justice” and said that Russia had an important role to play in achieving peace in the Middle East.

Support for a revived Russia willing and perhaps able to counterbalance American power is increasingly prevalent in the Arab world. The UAR newspaper Al-Qaleej recently claimed, “We, Arabs, regret the disappearance of Soviet Russia, which served as a restraining ‘buffer’ for the United States, which is provoking crises in our countries and around the whole world.”

This year began with a new Russian diplomatic offensive. In January, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published his annual article in the ministry almanac, giving an overview of the “new post-Munich stage” in Russian policy. The West, according to Lavrov, is “at a crossroads” and the United States is in a “full-scale foreign policy crisis” caused by “the very ideological bases of America’s messianic foreign policy philosophy.” In response, Russia will “actively play a counterbalancing role in global affairs and will never be a part of new ‘holy alliances’ against anyone,” but rather would seek to build inter-civilizational comity through its participation in or cooperation with the League of Arab States and the “Islamic Conference” Organization, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Russia-India-China “troika,” the BRIC “format”, the African Union, ASEAN, and MERCOSUR.

Lavrov did not include NATO or the EU among the international organizations through which Russia would seek to develop international comity, because Russian policy aims to counterbalance those organizations that played the leading role in isolating it from the West.

On Jan. 28, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov proposed the creation of a Persian Gulf security and cooperation organization. Such a “regional security system” would be designed to “take into account the interests of all the littoral states and interested countries,” and would provide a forum for negotiating issues regarding “the release of occupied territories, the stopping of settlement activities, refugees, and the creation of a Palestinian state.”

For many totalitarian Arab regimes like the Saudi one, the motivations for and the consequences of a rapprochement with Moscow are uncomplicated. Russian military, economic and political cooperation come with no serious strings attached, no demands for democratization or special concern for Israel’s security.

Russian arms and energy deals with Arab states and Iran undermine Western and Israeli interests and will, if continued, destabilize an already explosive region. Furthermore, Russian cooperation in the war on jihadism, non-proliferation, and energy security will be at risk. Cooperation in each of these spheres is vital for American national security.

As Parag Khanna recently wrote in a New York Times article, Russia is one of the few “swing states” that will determine the balance of power in the struggle that will feature the United States, the EU and China. If present trends continue, Russia is most likely to continue swinging to China’s side, as both parties find it easier to develop political and economic relations with each other (and with Muslim and Arab countries) than with the Atlantic community of democracies. Thus, the tectonics suggest a world potentially split apart by the formation of a powerful bloc of authoritarian states, perhaps economically integrated with the West but increasingly reinforced in their commitment to forestall democratization and to counter Western power, realizing some Russians’ dream of a Eurasian alliance of civilizations counterbalancing the Atlantic.

Moscow’s policy is unlikely to be in Russia’s long-term interests. Close relations with Arab states are a double-edged sword, as Washington has discovered in recent years. U.S. support for the Afghan mujahedin came back to haunt the American homeland, when the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda emerged from the Afghan war with the ability to organize the 9/11 attacks. Moscow would do well to remember that Saudi support for anti-American Wahhabi and Salafi extremists occurred at a time when American policymakers regarded Riyadh as a trusted ally in the Gulf, joined with Washington in backing Muslim Afghans against Moscow in the 1980s.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has another motive for developing ties with a Russia that, in the coming decades, is likely to increasingly turn Muslim. Saudi Arabia’s continued support for the expansion of Islam were evident in Saudi King Abdallah bin Abdul Aziz’s awarding of the $200 thousand King Faizal Prize for support of Islam to Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. Shaimiev has encouraged the construction of nearly 1,500 mosques and other Islamic institutions, including an Islamic university, in his Volga republic located 500 miles east of Moscow. Tatars make up Russia’s largest ethnic Muslim group, comprising some 40 percent of Russia’s estimated 15 million ethnic Muslims. The Kremlin has taken steps to gain control over Islamic education in Russia, in order to prevent the proselytizing of radical Islamic trends, but nothing is written in stone and no system is fool proof in a world undergoing rapid and revolutionary change. The simmering, low-intensity, and now wholly jihadi insurgency in the North Caucasus remains an open wound, that could fester and infect more of Russia’s Muslims over the coming decades.

Russia risks getting in bed with Saudi Wahhabis only to get its throat cut in the long run. With Russia and the West having lost each other, the ultimate winner may be radical Islam.

Gordon Hahn is a Senior Researcher at the Terrorism Research and Education Program at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in the United States.
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