Putin and the Middle East

By Freedman, Robert O. | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Putin and the Middle East


Freedman, Robert O., Demokratizatsiya


In the period since August 1999, when he became Russia's prime minister, and especially since January 2000, when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has made a number of changes in Russia's domestic and foreign policies. Thus he has tightened control at home, eliminating a number of the quasi-independent actors in Russian domestic politics and foreign policy such as the oligarchs. In foreign policy, however, except for initiating a second war in Chechnya, there has been far more continuity, whether in continuing the rapprochement with China, cultivating Germany, or having alternating periods of good relations and confrontation with the United States. In the Middle East there has also been more continuity than change in Russian policy, although the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States may have a profound effect on Russian Middle East policy if--and this is a very big if--Putin decides to significantly change Russian policy toward Iran and Iraq to strengthen relations with the United States. (1)

The Impact of Russian Domestic Change on Foreign Policy in the Middle East

One of the most striking aspects of the Putin presidency has been his ability to bring quasi-independent players in Russian domestic and foreign policy under tighter centralized control. Thus Putin has all but eliminated the political influence of oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky and deprived them of their media outlets. He has also replaced Yevgeny Adamov, head of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, who had a habit of trying to make nuclear deals with Iran not approved of by the Kremlin. (2) The powerful gas monopoly, Gasprom, heavily involved in Central Asian and Middle Eastern policy, had its director, Ram Vakhirev, replaced by Alexei Miller, and the Defense Ministry had its leader, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, replaced by Secretary of the National Security Council Sergei Ivanov. Putin also changed interior ministers, set up plenipotentiaries to oversee Russia's eighty-nine regions, and consolidated Russia's arms sales agencies into Rosoboronoexport in an effort to gain greater control over a major source of foreign exchange. Putin also put a great deal of emphasis on improving Russia's economy, not only through the sale of arms, oil, and natural gas (the Russian economy was blessed with high oil and natural gas prices during much of his first two years in office) but also on expanding Russia's business ties abroad, and business interests were to play an increasingly significant role in Putin's foreign policy. Making Putin's task easier was the support he received from the Duma, especially from his Edinsvo (Unity) party, which was a clear contrast to the hostile relations Yeltsin had had with the Duma from 1993 to his resignation as president in December 1999.

In this article, I will examine the question of continuity and change in Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East under Putin with case studies of Russia's policy toward its three most important Middle Eastern partners: Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, which also happen to be, along with Israel, its most important Middle Eastern trading partners.

Russia and Iran

Putin inherited a close Russian-Iranian relationship from Yeltsin as Iran, by September 1999, had become Russia's closest ally in the Middle East. The two countries cooperated on a large number of regional conflicts and had also developed a strong bilateral relationship, particularly in the areas of arms and nuclear reactor sales.

As far as regional conflicts were concerned, Russia and Iran were cooperating in maintaining the shaky ceasefire in Tajikistan, were aiding the Northern Alliance in their battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and were jointly supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan, which neither Russia nor Iran wanted to emerge as a major force in the Transcaucasia. Hence both countries opposed construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. …

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