For decades, serious students of the Soviet Union and Russia have had one enduring credo: Watch Yevgeny Primakov. Since his days as the USSR’s chief Middle East hand in the 1970s and 1980s, the wily KGB spymaster has been an accurate barometer of the Kremlin’s strategic priorities, as well as Moscow’s most adept practitioner of geopolitics. During the 1990s, as foreign minister (and subsequently as prime minister) in the government of Boris Yeltsin, Primakov championed a zero-sum foreign-policy approach toward the Middle East and Central Asia that was so successful that it earned a moniker: “The Primakov Doctrine.”
So when Primakov, now head of the Russian chamber of commerce, launched a very public diplomatic tour of the Middle East in mid-February, Russia watchers sat up and took notice. The high-profile, week-long trip took the former premier to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, where he found rapt audiences for his public pronouncements of Russian solidarity.
Primakov’s diplomatic full-court press, however, is only the latest sign of a growing Russian retrenchment in the Middle East. Under the guidance of President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin is reviving efforts to reestablish a regional role at the expense of American strategy.
Telltale indicators of Russia’s activism are everywhere. In late January, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad embarked upon a diplomatic visit to Moscow designed to upgrade the historic strategic ties between the two countries. Assad’s consultations with Putin yielded a mutual commitment to closer cooperation between the Russian government and its “most important partner” in the Middle East. As part of this public reengagement, the Kremlin gave Damascus a much-needed economic shot in the arm, agreeing to write off almost three-quarters of Syria’s $13.4 billion Cold War-era debt. The two leaders also began negotiations regarding the sale of an array of advanced missiles to the Baathist state in a deal that officials in Israel have warned could significantly alter the regional military balance in Syria’s favor.
Russia is also dipping its toe into post-Arafat politics in the Palestinian Authority. In late January, on the heels of Assad’s visit, the Kremlin played host to new Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. During his two-and-a-half-day visit to Russia, Abbas was warmly received by a slew of government officials, including President Putin, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament. The new Palestinian leader, for his part, brought with him a consistent message: that Russia should increase its involvement in Palestinian politics, and in the mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Most recently, the Kremlin has formulated plans to break into the Saudi arms market. The Russian government is said to be finalizing its first major defense accord with the House of Saud–one that, if implemented, would mark “a landmark event in Russian arms exporting,” according to Russian defense industry experts. News of the impending deal comes on the heels of a recent arms agreement between Russia and Morocco, the first between the two nations since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Then there is the issue of Iran. Despite mounting international concern over the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s ayatollahs–and repeated entreaties from Washington and European capitals–the atomic ties between Moscow and Tehran are still going strong. Construction on the centerpiece of Russo-Iranian nuclear cooperation, the massive 1,000-megawatt plutonium reactor in the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr, was officially completed in October of 2004. Final negotiations are now underway for fuel deliveries to the plant, which Western officials worry could yield weapons-usable plutonium and critical know-how that would accelerate Tehran’s quest for the bomb. Russian officials, however, have gone even further, publicly hinting that they might be willing to build a series of additional nuclear reactors for the Islamic republic.
Moscow’s renewed maneuvers in the Middle East have everything to do with ideology. Over the past year, Putin’s increasingly authoritarian governing style has succeeded in eliminating any semblance of serious domestic opposition to the Kremlin, giving the Russian president virtual carte blanche to formulate foreign and defense policy. Worse still, this growing political mandate has been mirrored by the revival of unhealthy notions of Russian greatness and geopolitical opposition to the United States.
Whether these ideas actually benefit Russian national interests in the long term remains to be seen. But for the United States, the Kremlin’s counterproductive policies in the Middle East–and the corrosive ideology underpinning them–are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
–Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.