How do Russians View the Middle East? There’s a Book for That … in English
The international community should amend its counterterrorism legislation by coordinating national laws as much as possible to create a homogeneous legal framework….The view that we are witnessing a clash of civilizations must be dispelled…There will be little hope for deliverance from the plague of terrorism unless peace is established in the Middle East.
It took a quarter of a century to see that the ‘end of history’ predicted by Francis Fukuyama was not going to happen…The period since the end of the 20th century has been marked by a craving for freedom of choice in everything, and decreasing trust in social and political institutions.
The Khmer Rouge, who committed more atrocities than ISIS and also hated the West, were not Muslims…The problem is rooted in the intractable economic and social problems facing the majority of third-world countries.
It is difficult to know where the interfaith disputes will end and start…a struggle for territories, oil and control over energy supply routes…the time has come to consider the options, to look for parallels in global experience, and to probe the obvious and hidden implications of the processes occurring in the Middle East…The crucial component is an unconditional respect for state sovereignty and a renunciation of attempts to supplant it with policies of political expediency.
All four quotations above are from articles in the journal “Rossia v globalnoi politke” (“Russia in Global Affairs”) republished in a new book, “Russia and the Middle East: Viewpoints, Policies, Strategies.” The selection of 28, going back to 2004, opens a window on debates within Russia and illuminates the thinking behind its Middle East policies.
These years have seen the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the demise of Israeli-Palestinian talks as the Israelis change the demography of occupied land, the signing and strangling of a U.N.-endorsed international treaty limiting Iran’s nuclear program, and mass migration within and from Middle Eastern countries undergoing violent upheaval. During that time, “Russia in Global Affairs” has analyzed trends and weighed up Russian options.
The book emerged from contacts between Fyodor Lukyanov, who edits “Rossia v globalnoi politke” (its English-language online journal is a partial translation of the Russian), and former Russian diplomat Dima Frangulov, vice-president of East View Information Services, a data provider and publisher based in Minneapolis. Lukyanov sent the proposal for the book around the time Laurence Bogoslaw, an American Slavist of Ukrainian heritage, became head of East View Press.
“This is a perspective not often heard, or written about, in the West, at least in the United States,” Bogoslaw tells me. “Once I was in the nitty-gritty, I was even more convinced of that. The book shows Russian views of how America has behaved in the Middle East, and presents, by contrast, how Russia views the region and how it has behaved in the region.”
Analysis of the Middle East by “experts” and journalists in the U.S. often follows the agendas of whoever funds or sponsors particular think-tanks or media outlets. This has led not just to consistent misunderstandings of the Middle East, but also difficulty grasping Russian policy. Lukyanov himself is described as something close to an official mouthpiece — “close to Vladimir Putin,” according to the Financial Times, and a “foreign policy adviser to the Russian government,” according to the Economist.
Bogoslaw is under no illusions as to Lukyanov’s position near “the center of what’s acceptable journalism” in Russia. But he says Lukyanov and the publications he edits are vigorous and informed: “I admire his independent, fact-based points of view, I don’t see him as a Kremlin ideologue. He is thoughtful, and has perspective. He asks questions. He considers what the consequences [of any action] might be: how will Russia react, how will Iran react, how will American react?”
The pieces in the book show a range in both opinion and approach. Yes, there are leading diplomats: Yevgeny Primakov, the late foreign minister and prime minister, and Sergey Lavrov, the current Russian foreign minister, present a more “official view.” The Russian foreign service has had an interest in vostokovedenie (“knowledge of the East”) and blizhnii vostok (the “Near East”) since Tsarist times. Primakov, who died in 2015, was one of the service’s Arabists, while Moscow’s current Tehran ambassador, Levan Dzhagarian, gives interviews for the Iranian media in a fluent Persian.
The pieces in “Russia and the Middle East” reflect a variety of thought and opinion as well as language skills. Yevgeny Satanovsky, who has three pieces in the collection, is close to Likud in his attitude to Israel, describes the peace process as “another war,” and suggests Europe is being “Islamized.” Meanwhile, Aleksei Malashenko finds Islamophobia more prevalent in popular Russian culture than traditional anti-Semitism.
In general, these Russian authors are critical of those who demonize Muslims, despite Russia’s tough action in Chechnya and Syria and despite the national traumas of the 2002 Moscow theatre siege — when at least 170 died — and the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis — when at least 334 died, including 186 children. Some show acute awareness of geographical proximity in their concern over Islamist parties and ideology in Central Asia, including the former Soviet republics, Afghanistan, and the Caucasian parts of Russia.
Bogoslaw notes this is contentious ground: “[They’re asking] how do we as Russians live with Islam, and what is its future as a component of government. In America it’s more ‘Why can’t they get it right? Why can’t they just separate church and state the way we do?’ There’s a more nuanced view in Russia, perhaps because there have been several forms of government on Russian territory in recent history.”
Hence the authors tend to accept that Islam – whether that of the Gulf monarchies or of the Muslim Brotherhood – cannot be somehow excised from politics in the Middle East. There is also an awareness, familiar from Russia’s 19th century debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers, that concepts of “East” and “West” are fluid.
Another theme is stability, which many of the writers stress and value more highly than moralizing. “That’s definitely a strong motif in the book,” agrees Bogoslaw. “When people are killing one another, fighting over territory, you really can’t afford to draw the line between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ especially if it comes to refusing to negotiate. Yes, there are extremists, but most of these movements are trying to protect what they have, or to take back what they have lost.”
This also feeds skepticism over street protests and the “Arab Spring.” Possibly underlying this is Russia’s 20th century experience of the 1917 Revolution, famine, collectivization, and total war — as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“[T]he balance of pros and cons of regime change in the Middle East has not been in favor of revolutions,” write Aleksandr Aksenyonok and Irina Zvyagelskaya. “The experience of most revolutions in the world shows that power is not taken by the forces that stage them but by those who have ‘caught the wave’ with foreign support or by chance.”
The collection shows early concern over Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 gradually lifting. By 2016, Ruslan Pukhov can draw specific military lessons. But even so, the Russian analysts consistently stress — as in Aleksei Arbatov’s 2005 piece “Winning a War Without Losing the Peace” on Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq — that armed intervention must have a clear political purpose and strategy.
Unsurprisingly, criticisms of the U.S. abound. Pyotr Stegny detects lingering influence of Washington’s relations with Islamist radicals forged in Afghanistan in the 1980s. References to the Iraq invasion and “forcible democratization” pepper the book.
But this isn’t just point-scoring. There is recurrent stress on state sovereignty and the need for international rules and security frameworks. In an introduction to the book, Richard Sakwa — Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent in England and author of the forthcoming “The Putin Paradox” — notes that although “the behavior of great powers does not always accord with their normative commitments,” the stress of Russian analysts and policy-makers “is on making the existing international system work better, rather than overturning the present order to create something new.”
Russia will define its national interest and act to protect it. This predictability, even conservatism, underlies Russian success in developing working relations with Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, and with Turkey and Israel, where 12 percent of voters speak Russian. It has made Moscow the main arbitrator in Syria, replacing departing U.S. troops in the mainly Kurdish northeast and supervising the Astana peace process. We have even had a recent Washington Post op-ed by Dennis Ross, former U.S. diplomat and founder of the pro-Israel United Against Nuclear Iran, suggesting that Russia mediate between Tehran and Washington.
“Russia and the Middle East: Viewpoints, Policies, Strategies” closes with a piece published at the end of 2018 in which Lukyanov bemoans the lack of U.S.-Russian co-operation in Syria while judging Moscow’s intervention as a “poster child of Russian success.” This he measures by the crushing of Islamist radicals, the bolstering of Moscow’s ally President Bashar al-Assad and the boosting of Russia’s “military and political impact on the global stage.”
Others have written in Russia in Global Affairs of the military success. Lukyanov emphasizes political-turned-diplomatic achievement, which surely stands in contrast to simplistic U.S. policies and zig-zags. His studied realism is light years from the hyperbole and inconsistent moralizing of so many American commentators.
“The preserved Astana format…bears witness to the cooperation of states that are largely distrustful of each other and have different interests in most regards…the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle demonstrates a new type of partnership, he says. “The parties are united by the desire not to attain a common goal, but for each to achieve its own. However, each party understands that the other two make it all possible.”