The Russia that has emerged from the end of the Cold War is a very different entity from the former Soviet Union. This difference is crucial for understanding Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East. On a most basic level, the Russian Federation is not the same country as the Soviet Union. It is smaller, both in terms of territory and population, and is physically further away from the Middle East. While the Soviet Union abutted directly onto Turkey and Iran, post-Soviet Russia adjoins a number of independent Caucasian and Central Asian states which are situated between its borders and the Middle East. As well as geographical distance, Russia's power projection capabilities are vastly inferior to those of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was an undeniable military superpower and, though perhaps lacking in other essential attributes of great power capability, Moscow could act as a credible challenge to US hegemony in the region. With post-Soviet Russia's gross domestic product approaching 10 per cent of that of the United States, and with its military forces in disarray, such a balancing role is simply unrealistic. The United States is currently unchallenged as the dominant external actor in the Middle East and Russia is destined to remain a peripheral actor for the foreseeable future.
Russia's domestic constituencies also differ from those of the Soviet Union. In the first instance, post-Soviet Russia is a less Muslim country. Although Muslims still represent around 20 per cent of the population, this is a considerably smaller proportion than when the Soviet Union incorporated all of the Muslim peoples of Central Asia. Over the last decade, Russia has also appeared less than sympathetic to the Muslim world with its wholehearted support for the Serbs in their campaigns against the Muslim Bosniacs and the Kosovar Albanians. Likewise, the two wars against the Chechen people have generated popular anti-Muslim sentiment within Russia as well as strong criticism from the wider Muslim world. The Soviet Union was always relatively successful in presenting itself as a defender of the Arab and Muslim cause; a more nationalist Russia has greater difficulty in being so convincingly pro-Muslim.