Russian Policy toward the Middle East: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Putin Challenge

By Freedman, Robert O. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Russian Policy toward the Middle East: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Putin Challenge


Freedman, Robert O., The Middle East Journal


Given its greatly weakened geopolitical position after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has had to reorient its foreign policy. Displaying increasing concern about the newly independent states of Central Asia and the TransCaucasus, which many Russians see as the "soft underbelly" of the Russian Federation, Russian policy has had a special focus on Iran and Turkey. Russia developed a close tactical alliance with Iran which not only was a major purchaser of Russian nuclear reactors and military equipment, but also shared with Moscow a common policy approach toward developments in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaizhan. Russia has had a more mixed relationship with Turkey, although by the time Vladimir Putin took over as Russia's president, the relationship had moved toward greater cooperation, especially in the area of energy.

BACKGROUND INTRODUCTION

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, its chief successor state, Russia, faced a far different strategic situation than did the Soviet Union. With a host of new states on Russia's southern borders, six of them Muslim, the Russian leadership faced a series of new challenges in its dealings with the Middle East, and this was to affect its Middle East priorities, as compared to those of the Soviet Union. In addition, while Soviet policy toward the Middle East was ideologically driven to a greater or lesser degree, at least until 1988, the mid-point of Mikhail Gorbachev's term as communist party leader, the policies of Russian President Boris Yeltsin were to prove far more pragmatic, if also far more disjointed than those of his Soviet predecessors, as a number of often conflicting interest groups sought to openly influence Russian policy in the Middle East. Third, to a far greater degree than in the Soviet period, Russian policy-making in the Middle East became an issue in Russia's domestic politics as Yeltsin, in responding to an increasingly right-wing Russian Parliament (Duma), sought to tailor Russian policy toward the region at least to some degree to satisfy his critics in Parliament. After exploring these major changes along with the economic and military weaknesses that greatly hamper Russia's foreign policy, this article will also analyze Russia's three most important regional relationships; 1) Iran (Russia's key regional ally); 2) Iraq (which has seen the greatest changes in Russian policy during the Yeltsin-Putin period); and 3) Turkey (with which Russia has had a very mixed relationship). The article will conclude with an evaluation of the main Middle Eastern challenges facing Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's chosen successor as Russia's President.

NEW REGIONAL PRIORITIES

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia suddenly found itself with fourteen new neighbors, six of them (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan [in Transcaucasia] and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan [in Central Asia]) directly bordering the Middle East. Since four of these states (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and two other states bordering or close to Russia on its southern border (Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) were dealing with the revival of Islam, which had long been suppressed under communism, concerns about Islamic radicalism were added to the geopolitical concern in Moscow about the future direction of these countries' foreign and domestic policies. Russia also had concerns about drug and arms smuggling, as well as creating a new defense perimeter along Russia's southern frontier (most Soviet defense installations on Russia's south now lay in the newly independent states) and, consequently, what happened in these new countries became of paramount importance for Moscow. While regaining at least a modicum of control over these countries became a primary objective of Russian policy, the Russian leadership soon found itself in an influence competition with the United States and its NATO ally Turkey, and was initially concerned that Iran's radical Islamic regime would seek to spread its influence in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. …

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