Russia and the Persian Gulf: Trade, Energy, and Interdependence

By Oskarsson, Katerina; Yetiv, Steve A. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Russia and the Persian Gulf: Trade, Energy, and Interdependence


Oskarsson, Katerina, Yetiv, Steve A., The Middle East Journal


This article examines changes in Russia's diplomatic, trade, and energy rela- tions in the Persian Gulf over time. Our data suggest that Russia's profile in the Persian Gulf is rising in the post-Cold War period. While Russian-Gulf state trade has not reached high levels, trade and energy cooperation have increased significantly. These changes do not mean that Russia has jettisoned strategic in- terests in the Middle East writ large - as its support of Syria, or to some extent Iran, may indicate - or that it no longer seeks to balance against Washington. But it appears that in the mix of its foreign policy motivations, trade and com- merce with Arab Gulf states matter much more now than they did in the past. Should such ties continue to strengthen, they may give Russia greater reason to cooperate with Arab Gulf states on contentious regional issues.

Russia has experienced a difficult transition in the post-Cold War period, and the nature and course of this transition remains critical to world politics. During this transi- tion, Russia's global foreign policy appears to be shifting more toward meeting eco- nomic goals. In particular, our data suggest that such a shift is in play regarding Rus- sia's foreign policy position in the Persian Gulf. While Russian trade with the Gulf states has not reached high levels, trade is on an upward trajectory and energy coopera- tion is increasing. In toto, this suggests increasing Russian economic interdependence with regional states and an enhanced Russian economic position in the region.

These changes do not mean that Russia has jettisoned strategic interests in the region - as its support of Bashar al-Asad's regime in Syria may indicate - or that it no longer seeks to act as a balance against Washington. Rather, in the mix of Rus- sia's foreign policy motivations, it appears that trade and commerce have increased significantly in importance.

Although Russia also has serious economic interests in Iran, the case is nonethe- less unpredictable given the Iranian nuclear crisis with global powers. At the same time, Russia's growing commercial interests with GCC states and Iraq may give it some reason to hedge its support of Iran in order to better protect future potential with the Gulf Arab states that strongly oppose Iran's nuclear aspirations. Concurrently, Russia's political interests in Syria may produce the opposite effect and hurt Mos- cow's relations with key Arab states.

In this article, we first discuss some signs of a shift in Russian thinking. We then focus our attention on sketching changes in Russia's diplomatic, trade, and energy rela- tions in the Persian Gulf, and conclude by elaborating upon what these changes mean for regional and global relations and stability

RUSSIA'S SHIFTING MIX OF MOTIVATIONS

While this article does not focus on Russia's global foreign policy, signs of change amid continuity appear to be afoot. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted in 2011, "Archaic perceptions from a bygone era about the struggle for spheres of influ- ence, about reliance upon the power factor in politics and about the imposition of one's own standards on others still hold sway. We continue to strongly resist such tendencies."1

Statements by Russian leaders have been laced increasingly with ideas about the importance of globalization, joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), economic development, and even pursuing soft power. Vladimir Putin set a goal of doubling gross domestic product (GDP) within a decade when he first became president in 2000.2 (The goal was not met). In his view, "It is not only quantitative economic parameters which are important for Russia now, but also qualitative ones, and a sustainable economic development."3 In former president Dmitry Medvedev's view, Russia's modernization was not proceeding fast enough given that there was "absolutely no alternative to mod- ernization of the economic or political system. …

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