The UK and Russia in the Middle East: Dialogue is Vital

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of an international summit on Libya in January 2020. Courtesy of Alexei Nikolsky / Alamy Stock Photo

Despite difficult relations between the UK and Russia in recent years, their respective approaches to the Middle East show areas of common ground which can be built upon through dialogue.

UK–Russia relations have been, at best, complicated over the past decade. This has also been apparent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where London and Moscow have often found themselves taking opposing positions, most obviously over Syria, but also in various other areas. Yet, contrary to those who believe that states which have their differences must settle them all before engaging in thoughtful dialogue, our collective experience is that there is much to be gained from an open analysis of how each of us sees the world. Challenging the assumption that the UK and Russia must automatically be competitors or opponents in dealing with the various security challenges in the Middle East region, there is a need to maintain dialogue and to strengthen understanding.

That is why RUSI and RIAC have launched an expert dialogue, bringing together Russian and UK academics, analysts and former officials for a series of discussions to examine UK and Russian interests and approaches in the MENA, and to facilitate an open exchange of views about how London and Moscow assess conflicts in the region, both today and in the coming five to ten years. We believe this cannot but assist in the understanding necessary to further whatever steps others may be taking to defuse tensions in all our interests.

There seems to have been a recent trend to suggest that the MENA is slipping out of political fashion: that changing priorities of trade, energy and global competition are having an impact on those wearied by recent history, with only so much time to devote to where the next challenge might come from. We do not agree, and argue that, for our states, the MENA remains highly important, alternately fascinating and frustrating but full of promise and opportunity in a changing world.

Different Overall Approaches

During our first meetings, it has become clear that the UK and Russia approach the region from different vantage points.

Our Russian colleagues characterised Russia’s engagement in the MENA as driven by limited but clearly defined and legitimate interests. They stressed that Russia’s ambitions are often overstated, and that it has no intention or desire to replace the US as the major external security provider and guarantor in the region. Russia’s approach to the MENA is perhaps best explained in geographic terms: Moscow’s first priority is the belt of the Central Asian and South Caucasian countries, followed by the belt of their neighbours – Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan – and then the wider Arab world. In general, Russia focuses primarily on the Levant/Mashreq and North Asian, North African and South Caucasian states, rather than the Arabian Peninsula, though the place of some Gulf states on the scale of Russia’s priorities is growing.

Regional powers are becoming more assertive, recognising that the era of great power domination is over and that they must and want to make their own decisions about the region’s future

Meanwhile, UK colleagues described the UK’s current engagement in the MENA as being in a phase of transition. Following the Iraq War and the Libya intervention, reacting to the declining US interest in the region, and recalibrating its foreign policy and general role in the world after Brexit, the UK is going through what could be described as a reset of its MENA policy. The Integrated Review has provided a foundation, and the forthcoming FCDO MENA strategy will provide further clarity about where the UK wants to go, but some basic aspects are clear already: the UK sees the Gulf as the centre of gravity of its engagement with the region, and it considers Oman and Jordan as its key regional interlocutors with whom it has particularly long-standing and institutionally close relations. While the UK wants to focus on trade post-Brexit, it still has substantial geopolitical and security interests in the MENA, ranging from counter-proliferation to combating terrorism and extremism. This does not differ much from Russian colleagues’ assessments of their own country’s interest, and creates an opportunity for constructive interaction.

Shared Perceptions of a Changing Region

While UK and Russian dialogue members recognise the economic, geopolitical and security importance of the MENA to London and Moscow, we also share a sense that the geopolitics of the region are shifting. Regional powers are becoming more assertive, recognising that the era of great power domination is over and that they must and want to make their own decisions about the region’s future. States appear to no longer see the need to align themselves with either the East or the West, and are pursuing their own foreign policies. The external leverage that London or Moscow have had in the past, real or imagined, is much more limited. We note that former rivals are talking with each other, bringing a conclusion to – if not solving – regional disputes, creating new alliances and accepting new realities.

However, external powers are not vanishing completely, and we strongly differ on how we see the evolving US presence and the interests and role of China. Given that China is regarded by Russia as its key global strategic partner, Russian colleagues pointed out that Moscow welcomes Beijing’s growing involvement in the region. While UK colleagues do not deny China’s value to the future economies of the region, they see Beijing’s governance system as one that the UK would not wish to become a model for regional countries to emulate.

The UK and Russia both assess that the US is seeking to reduce its presence and that it may be shifting away from the democratisation and regime change agenda pursued by previous administrations. For the UK, this means that it has to redefine its role in the region independently of its alliance with Washington. Russian colleagues, meanwhile, view the remaining US presence in the MENA as mainly aimed at countering Russian and Chinese engagement in the region, and described responding to this threatening posture as a key driver of Moscow’s policy towards the region. For example, it is concerned about the US military presence in Syria, which it considers illegal, and feels that there is a Western campaign to undermine the reputation of the Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in the region.

Towards Identifying Areas for Cooperation

Yet, there are also issues that both sides can agree on. Dialogue participants see the UK and Russia as equally interested in reviving the Iran nuclear deal as a key instrument to limiting nuclear proliferation in the region. They also consider any intra-regional dialogue initiatives – including those between long-term rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia – as worthy of encouragement and support. There is much common ground with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Abraham Accords. The UK and Russia support the latter, but consider that the settlement of the former remains a vital necessity for stabilising the region. UK colleagues, in particular, suggested that if there is no progress towards a two-state solution, Israeli domestic politics would increasingly force the UK and other Western countries into making difficult decisions.

The UK acknowledges that Moscow can have leverage in certain contexts where London or its US and European allies do not

Furthermore, UK and Russian experts are aligned in their assessments that the Levant/Mashreq region, notably Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, constitutes a serious source of instability – both for the rest of the region and beyond. They acknowledge their significant disagreements over certain issues related to Syria, namely the return of refugees, the humanitarian situation, and the supporting of reconstruction in the areas under the control of Damascus. But they also agree that only international and regional dialogue can bring about solutions to these issues.

Ultimately, Russia sees itself as a major diplomatic and security actor in the region that can play a critical role as a mediator in resolving regional conflicts – and it is interested in working with the UK wherever that may be possible. The UK, meanwhile, also considers itself as committed to supporting the stabilisation of the MENA, and acknowledges that Moscow can have leverage in certain contexts where London or its US and European allies do not.

To find ways of bridging differences and identifying areas where the UK and Russia can indeed work together, dialogue at all levels – between governments, but also among experts – is vital to reduce misperceptions and strengthen mutual understanding.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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The Rt. Hon. Alistair Burt

Distinguished Fellow

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Vitaly Naumkin

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