Personal touch: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in June 2022. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
With Russia’s resources focused on the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s foreign policy may play second fiddle. While changes to Russia’s approach to the MENA region are ones of nuance rather than substance, Russia’s move towards the personalisation and regionalisation of its foreign policy there means that individuals and institutions will become increasingly important in the years ahead.
Russia’s military and political preoccupation in Ukraine has prompted speculation that it might be unable to deliver on its foreign policy goals in other regions, particularly in the Middle East, where its role and presence have increased substantially over the past decade.
While there have been some changes in Russia’s posture and the objectives it pursues in the region since the war began, these have been relatively subtle, reflecting changes in emphasis rather than significant shifts in policy or strategy. But the MENA region is a useful case study in examining the highly personalised nature of some of Russia’s foreign policymaking, with long-standing individuals engaged on specific portfolios for decades. Amid Western sanctions and Russia’s more pressing need to establish alternative financial and political systems, there does seem to be a nascent opportunity for Russia’s regional governors to take the lead and to tailor its foreign policy accordingly.
Russia’s Pre-War Posture in the Middle East
Russia’s role in the MENA region has steadily grown over the past three decades. It began from very piecemeal engagement in the 1990s, building on long-established Soviet-era relationships, but in the past 10 years Moscow’s ties with almost every country in the region have expanded considerably. Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 was crucial to this; not only did it decisively change the trajectory of the war and ensure the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it also bolstered Russia’s standing as a credible security player in the region – perhaps not one that could replace the US as the Middle East’s pre-eminent security provider, but certainly a potentially useful partner for governments across the region.
This helped Moscow to forge stronger relations with the Gulf monarchies, long regarded as the West’s closest partners in the region. Saudi Arabia and its neighbours did not care for Russia’s support for the Assad regime, but they begrudgingly respected its willingness to deploy meaningful force to protect its ally, and hoped that Russia’s presence in Syria would act as a check on Iranian influence. Separately, and more importantly, Russia and the Gulf monarchies – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE – found common ground over their shared status as major oil producers, formalising cooperation in the OPEC+ framework. Although this arrangement to jointly set production quotas has not always gone smoothly, it has significantly increased Moscow, Riyadh and other OPEC+ members’ ability to influence international oil markets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Gulf, Russia has gradually expanded relations with Iran, including plans to construct elaborate trade corridors, coordinating operations in Syria, and assisting in brokering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In Tehran, Moscow also found a partner that subscribes to the Kremlin’s narrative of an overbearing and domineering West, sharing the desire to establish a new order – in the region and beyond – to counter it.
The priority for Russia in the MENA region is political processes, dialogues and growing investment, for which institutions and personalities that know the region well are paramount
Elsewhere in the region, Russia has identified other opportunities: expanding political, economic and security ties with Egypt; deepening relations with Algeria; and establishing what has amounted to a quasi-bridgehead for the Wagner Group in Libya in 2019. Much of this engagement has been opportunistic and in pursuit of limited objectives. In Libya, for example, Russia has been content with establishing a physical presence in the country, rather than trying to decisively shape the outcome of Libya’s still ongoing post-2011 political crisis – an approach that differs markedly from its intervention in Syria.
Sea Change or Subtle Shifts?
Despite suggestions that Moscow’s preoccupation in Ukraine might necessitate a reprioritisation of resources, or at least diminish its practical ability to focus on other parts of its foreign policy, there has been no significant movement in Russia’s posture or engagement in the Middle East. There has been no large-scale withdrawal of Russian military or Wagner Group forces from Syria or Libya, nor any massive doubling down on efforts to push against Western interests. Instead of sea changes, there have been subtle shifts in emphasis.
Perhaps most evidently, Russia has given up all pretence of being a constructive partner in resolving key conflicts and disputes in the region, particularly over issues that are of interest to the West, such as the Iran nuclear programme. For the past 10 years, and until February 2022, Russia played a positive role in negotiations over the latter. It was instrumental in getting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – over the line, and repeatedly smoothed over moments of heightened tension between the US and Iran during attempts to revive the agreement in 2020 and 2021.
But this has changed. In March 2022, Russia effectively derailed one of the last chances to restore the JCPOA, insisting that it could only support a deal with Iran if there was some easing of the sanctions introduced against Russia by the West over the Ukraine war. In Libya, too, Russia has adopted a non-constructive position. Insisting that it must have a seat at the table in any efforts to resolve Libya’s political crisis, it is doing little to contribute to a solution. Instead, its presence in the country via the Wagner Group gives Russia a degree of leverage to prevent any outcomes adverse to its interests or too favourable to the West.
Russia’s overall position in the Middle East is one that does not support instability, but remains quietly confident that any instability that does exist – or may occur – would have a greater impact for the West than Russia.
Individuals and Institutions
Globally, Russia’s foreign policy goals remain broadly the same: forging alliances, projecting power, countering the West’s ability to shore up anti-Russian sentiment, and attempting to reduce some of the very real security threats in the region. But the priority for Russia in the MENA region is political processes, dialogues and growing investment, for which institutions and personalities that know the region well are paramount. It is here that Russia’s relationship with the MENA region may be shifting.
While its overarching foreign policy goals may be the same, Russia does appear to be adding more layers to its personalised approach
In a Kremlin system where loyalty and longevity of service are rewarded above most other traits, those involved in Russia’s MENA outreach are very familiar with their briefs and the subject matter, as well as with their Gulf counterparts. This includes influential negotiators such as Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and special presidential representative on the Middle East, who has been in post since 2012 and was instrumental in Russia’s stance on the JCPOA. While important decisions are taken at a high level, Russia’s approach to the MENA region is highly personalised, alongside the burgeoning involvement of regional players, religious leaders, and centres affecting decision-making emerging within the Russian government.
Regional and religious actors appear to have acquired a greater role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In October 2022, President Putin gave a speech at the Valdai forum – a Kremlin-orchestrated discussion forum on politics and Russian strategy – in which he specifically used Islam to frame links between Russia and the MENA region.
As Russia seeks to construct new financial and political alliances to circumvent Western sanctions through mechanisms such as dedollarisation or trading in yuan, the Kremlin is considering adopting Islamic banking and financing legislation in four of its Muslim-majority regions. Moscow has argued that these new laws could act as an alternative financial system to attract investment from the Islamic world. If passed, this legislation – which had been under discussion and then was shelved for years, but now has new impetus – is likely to boost the role of regional and religious leaders in Russia’s Muslim-majority regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan where the legislation will be trialled, making them an important part of Russia’s foreign policy projection in the MENA. But even if the bill is adopted this year, there are still major geopolitical obstacles to significant investment in Russia, and it is unlikely that these four regions could attract enough business to have a significant impact on the economy.
These efforts do, however, point to a growing trend in Russia of the regionalisation of foreign policy, in which Russia’s regional leaders have taken the lead in attracting business from international neighbours, such as the Far Eastern regions’ cross-border investment relationship with China. While the MENA region is not geographically contiguous with Russia, Western sanctions and the need for political alliances have given Russia added impetus to use this relatively tried-and-tested method.
Ultimately, the MENA represents a sideshow for Russia, but one where it is happy to keep walking through every open door that presents itself. While its overarching foreign policy goals may be the same, Russia does appear to be adding more layers to its personalised approach. It remains to be seen whether these institutions and personalities will be able to guide the relationship through this turbulent time.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security
Dr Tobias Borck
Senior Associate Fellow