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Monday, 19 March 2018 11:54

Dmitri Trenin, What is Russia Up To in the Middle East?, Polity Press, 2018

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Dmitri Trenin’s book is a welcome contribution to a thin body of print on Russian politics in the MENA region. Rather than enunciating in detail Putin’s regional policies -by definition an impossible task in 140 small pages- Trenin offers a succinct summation of these policies, their short-term impact and their perceptions by the region’s states. Well-versed in Russia’s geopolitical Weltanschauung, Trenin is aware of the country’s perennial interests in the greater Middle East. Far from a newcomer to the region, Russia has after all had a ‘rich history of involvement’. Yet continuities are often punctured by ruptures: the demise of the Soviet Union and the rejection of its mediating initiatives in the First Gulf War meant that the Middle East ‘almost vanished’ from Russian foreign policy. Moscow’s restoration of ties with Israel in the fall of 1991 and its co-chairing of the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid the same year looked more like spasmodic attempts at survival of a flittering giant.

It was the Arab Spring that propelled Russia back onto the front stage. Trenin reiterates the oft-cited reasons for Russia’s re-engagement with the region: first was the view from Moscow that the support of the Arab uprisings by western governments could be translated into support for similar revolts in Russia’s backyard (or even Russia itself if one thinks of the “Russian spring” in the winter of 2011-2012). Second, the Libyan intervention was a watershed: as the last attempt at a comprehensive partnership with the West, it was seen in Russia as corroborating its belief that not only certain Western countries would always be keen on going it alone, but also that they failed to see ‘even the immediate consequences of their actions’. Thus, even though the collapse of the Libyan state meant the loss of Russia’s $7 billion worth of projects, the well-known consequences of this implosion weighed more heavily in Putin’s mind.

Libya’s lessons were to be applied swiftly in Syria. Often forgotten by now, Bashar al-Assad has been no great ally of Russia; in a full decade he visited Moscow only once, with an eye to writing off Syria’s Soviet-era debt. Russia’s naval base in Tartus was a decrepit, underused facility with a staff of mere fifty. Syria’s importance for Moscow has not been so much about Syria itself; ‘it is about the global order’. Between the lines, one can read Russia’s unwillingness to forestall another potential unilateral intervention and state collapse in an important geostrategic part of the world, with the concomitant effects in terms of the proliferation of weapons, extremist ideologies and destabilization. The Syrian battleground has also been an opportunity for Russia to test the waters regarding the potential for future partnerships; in late 2013, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile (whether this destruction was total remains to be seen) was the first time in the post-Cold War era where Russia ‘could deal with Americans as equals’.

Trenin is careful to neither talk up Russia’s intervention nor castigate what has admittedly been western ambivalence. But he does assert that Russia, at least in the Syrian context, has been a ‘paragon of pragmatism’. Devoid of evaluative connotations, this has amounted to a ‘clear view of its interests in specific situations within the region’. Indeed, it is hard to doubt that Russia is today the only power that manages to straddle the region’s hardened ideological fault lines with some success: not least those between Israel and the Palestinians, Turkey and the Kurds, Sunni and Shia.

Yet, for all its nimbleness and flexibility, Russia is not likely to become neither a regional hegemon nor a security provider anytime soon. It’s overreliance on the energy sector and the relatively limited range of goods and services it has to offer to its partners are likely to keep its influence at its current levels. The Middle East is likely to remain a key destination for Russian arms. As Trenin notes, Russian weapons already account for 60% of the Egyptian arsenal, with ties expanding notably under President el-Sissi. Syria’s place is obvious, the Russians having given Syria more weapons since the uprisings than they did in the last two decades (although Syria has never been a particularly lucrative market for weapons). Iraq has turned into Russia’s major client in the Middle East. And since independence Algeria has been buying weapons mostly from Russia, now being its third largest arms client worldwide.

At a time where scenarios are making the rounds about a US pivot to Asia and the MENA region is witnessing an ever-assertive Russia, Trenin’s long essay is a fine summation of Russia’s Middle Eastern undertakings, bound in the long term to impact the region’s contours, if not to alter them substantially.


For our interview with the author follow this link Interview with Dmitri Trenin, What is Russia Up To in the Middle East? (Polity Press, 2018).

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos