This article first appeared in Crescent International in June 2013. Yet, it provides a unique analysis and could serve our readers as a solid background material.
Russia is not really interested in dominating the Muslim East (aka as the Middle East). Its real purpose is to use this influence as leverage to keep the US and its western allies away from the region of the former USSR and giving Russia a free hand in its ‘near abroad.’
Recent moves by Russian officials have led to speculation that Moscow is working on an ambitious agenda to get more deeply involved in the Muslim East. This line of thinking got a boost following a meeting that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov had with Hizbullah General Secretary Seyyed Hasan Nasrallah in Beirut on April 28. While significant, it would be unrealistic to read too much into such Russian moves.
What exactly are Russia’s intentions in the region? Moscow’s primary policies on Islam and Muslims can be divided into two main categories: 1) Muslims and Islam within the Russian borders and, 2) Muslims and Islam in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Relations with Muslims in all other parts of the world are at least partly derived from these two classifications. Russian involvement in the Muslim East is, therefore, based primarily on the goals it wishes to pursue in Central Asia and the Caucasus (for details, see Crescent International, March 2013).
It is worth noting that the Russian language media did not provide much information about Bogdanov’s visit to Lebanon. Was it not significant to warrant more attention? It was important from the point of view of regional players but the Russian leadership has a different perspective on the Muslim East. It uses it as leverage against Western powers (the US and NATO) to restore its dominance over the territories it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Muslim East is not one of Moscow’s primary goals, notwithstanding Syria. Russia does not have the military, social, economic or political capabilities to dominate the region. Most indicators of Russia’s military and economic capabilities place it in the category of an underdeveloped country.
Konstantin Sivkov, first vice-president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, said in an interview with Pravda.Ru in 2011: “NATO was fully aware of Russia’s weakness. Sivkov stated that they realize that Russia is weak… the Russian defense complex has been declining during the past 20 years. As a result, it is a big problem now for the country to produce one division of S-400 systems a year, whereas tens of such divisions are needed.”
Just like the US, Russian military engagements over the past two decades were with countries whose militaries were significantly inferior to Moscow’s. In 2008 Russia fought a war against Georgia. Even though it achieved its military objective, if it were to face a more capable and determined opponent, the result would have more closely resembled Russia’s experience in Chechnya between 1994–1996. In 2008 Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russia’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technology, wrote that “the victory over the Georgian army… should become for Russia not a cause for euphoria and excessive joy, but serve to speed up military transformations in Russia.”
Even during the Cold War, Russia (or the USSR, to use its then formal name) could not gain dominance over the Muslim East. Moscow’s involvement in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt was aimed at bogging down Western powers in the Muslim East to prevent them from destabilizing the Soviet Union from within. The USSR had a major presence in Egypt and Yemen and Moscow had more global influence than it does today but it failed to coral Egypt and Yemen into its sphere of influence. Egypt and Yemen were both traditionally considered in the US orbit. This is akin to US presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia today but the region is still considered within the Russian sphere, while Washington has only limited power projection capabilities.
The USSR did not collapse because of the Cold War, as many have naively believed. It disintegrated primarily due to its contradictory internal political, economic and social policies. The Cold War with the West was a secondary cause of its collapse. For instance, the Western powers were unsuccessful in instigating any internal revolt within the USSR. The disintegration occurred due to ethnic conflicts that Moscow could not manage and the system’s inability to successfully incorporate the concept of private ownership into its economic policy.
The above analysis does not mean that the arms race and USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan played no role in its collapse. The effect of these two factors was not as great as US conventional sources have attempted to present in order to boost the perception of the US as a “superpower.”
To return to the question of Bogdanov’s visit to Lebanon, a search of the Russian language press and policy centers revealed no detailed evaluation. Apart from Russian media outlets linked directly or indirectly to the Zionist entity (Israel), Bogdanov’s visit was given minimal coverage. Two reasons can be cited. First, Bogdanov, a relatively junior member of the Russian government, went to Lebanon on a diplomatic reconnaissance mission as he met leaders of all Lebanese political groups. His visit was not aimed at concluding long-term deals. Second, Russia has for a long time not played a major role in the region. So it is not sure with whom or how it can establish strategic alliances, and cooperative and/or master-slave relationships.
According to Russian understanding, the ongoing proxy-war in Syria is directed not so much against the government in Damascus as it is against Islamic Iran and its Islamic allies. That is why over the past year Moscow has engaged Tehran far more actively than the Syrian government.
Moscow’s objective in Syria is not to gain dominance over the Muslim East in the manner that Washington has done. True, Russia would not object if it were to materialize but this is not its principal aim. Once US imperial domination is eliminated through the ongoing Islamic awakening process, it will be very hard for any other external power to colonize the region in the manner of the US. Regional political forces and people are far more empowered and alert today than they were in the days when the US replaced British colonial rule in the late-1950s.
Russia aims to gain strategic leverage over Western powers to use as a negotiating tool to strengthen its own position and secure Western non-involvement in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Dmitri Trenin articulated as early as 2009 in the Washington Quarterly the most accurate Western assessment of contemporary Russia within the current global power pyramid. Trenin wrote: “Russia was not to be integrated into the core West, but managed by it… Putin aimed at integration with it [West]. Unlike [Boris] Yeltsin, Putin put a price on his country’s cooperation with the United States. Washington would have to recognize Moscow’s primacy in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States].”
It must also be kept in mind that the US through its Saudi court “scholars” facilitated the transfer of takfiri fighters from the North Caucasus to Syria. This phenomenon eases somewhat the pressure on Russia that is fighting a takfiri dominated separatist movement in the North Caucasus. It can, therefore, be argued that the proxy-war in Syria in a controlled manner has some benefits for Russia provided the US proxy forces do not achieve an outright military or political victory. This would eliminate the very leverage Moscow is seeking over Western powers.
While Bogdanov’s long meeting with Seyyed Hasan Nasrallah demonstrates that Hizbullah is a leading force in the region, its relationship with Russia or that of any other Islamic group/movement must not be at the expense of Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus, even if Moscow attempts to construct a relationship on this basis. In particular, after the inevitable fall of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan, the situation in Karabakh will change and it will directly or indirectly affect Hizbullah. The leadership of the most successful Islamic movement, therefore, must begin designing long-term policies within and outside its traditional sphere of influence in order to retain its global influence.
This does not mean that Hizbullah or any other Islamic movement is headed for inevitable confrontation with Russia. Common interests with Russia in the emerging multipolar world can be managed through mutually beneficial arrangements.