The Geopolitics of Post-Soviet Russia and the Middle East

Article excerpt

THE NEW RUSSIAN STATE CREATED after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 is neither a simple continuation of its legal Soviet predecessor nor of the former Russian Empire, which ended during World War I in 1917. As the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has recently pointed out: "Neither its current political system nor its outer frontiers and immediate geopolitical surrounding have a precedent in Russian history. By all indications, the Russian Federation is a new state functioning in a radically changing system of international relations. (1) The collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia and the emergence of a completely new geopolitical and social reality, which is strikingly different from its forerunner, probably represented the most important breakthrough in modern world history, by far exceeding the limitations of the regional boundaries and the relatively brief period of time. As one outcome of this, the previous bipolar system of the Cold War era has been rep laced by a new situation that, although still somewhat shapeless and volatile, is nevertheless marked by American global hegemony and an unexpected, sudden decline of Russian power.

There are at present many discussions among scholars about the models of the new international system, but as Samuel Huntington has indicated and as recent developments after the tragic American events of September 11, 2001 seem to prove, contemporary international politics are in fact "a strange hybrid, a uni-polar system with one superpower and several major powers" (2) and "the settlement of key international issues requires action by the single superpower, but always with some combination of other major states" (3) According to the still prevailing, although by no means unanimous opinion, (4) Russia, despite its critical problems remains one of the major states and its current and potential impact on and role in the regions which are near its borders, certainly deserve attention and careful analysis.

This discussion will focus on the issues of Russia's historical and geopolitical links with the Middle East and the causes and forms of her involvement there. At the very end of the presentation I will look at the present day Russian Middle Eastern policy and the prospects for Russia's potential future contribution to a more stable and balanced situation in the area.

RUSSIA'S HISTORICAL AND GEOPOLITICAL LINKS WITH THE REGION

Historical Background

Russia is certainly no newcomer to the region and Russian links with the Middle East and the Islamic world at large have been unusually deep-rooted and long lasting. Located on the Eurasian lowland, Russia has always been a territory with a "natural coexistence, mutual influence and interaction between the Eastern Slavic and Turkish, Caucasian and Persian peoples," which as many Russian scholars argue, "create the foundation for a positive relationship between Russians and Muslims." (5)

Between 1677 and 1917, the Tsars of Russia fought thirteen wars with the Ottoman Empire for control of the Black Sea area and the Caucasus, and in 1872 the Russian fleet even briefly occupied Beirut. (6) Russian policy toward the southern states directly adjacent to its borders, such as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, was in many ways often similar to the one then employed by Western Europe. (7) However, it did not have any impact on the general tolerance which Islam has enjoyed in the Russian Empire, and its relations with the Arab world have also been particularly friendly.

In the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, the Russian Empire was not involved in the colonial carve-up of the area and its "moral credentials among the Arabs, both on an official and a popular level, were considerably higher than those of the West." (8) As early as 1901, the Emir of Kuwait applied for Russian protection and some other Arab rules also looked for communication, trade and cultural links with the Russian Empire. …