A view from Moscow

In the years since the break-up of the USSR, two differently directed processes have unfolded simultaneously in Russia’s relations with the countries of the Middle East. On the one hand, Russia established and actively developed relations with new partners (this process began even before the dissolution of the Soviet state). Cases in point are Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The end of the Cold War, the immigration of a great number of Soviet Jews to Israel, Russia’s renunciation of a "zero-sum game" in the Middle East, and the end of the policy of state-sponsored anti-Semitism radically changed the situation in Russo-Israeli relations, generating an interest among the Russian elite in promoting bilateral relations of cooperation.

On the other hand, the importance of the Middle East on the list of Russia’s foreign policy priorities has gradually declined. For Russia, the region as a whole has not been a supplier of energy resources (as it has for all western countries and Japan) or a forward-deployment base for the defense of its interests and those of its allies (as it has for the United States); indeed, it had no such bases in the region in the first place.

Despite lingering ties of traditional friendship with the Arab countries, relations with some of them completely lost their ideological underpinning and gradually began to lose their economic foundation as well. With the end of the era in which the Soviet Union rendered assistance on preferential terms in creating industrial enterprises and supplied arms on credit to Arab countries, the volume of trade and economic cooperation between the latter and Russia turned out to be extremely low.

Yeltsin’s Russia, beset–indeed, completely preoccupied–by its own problems, started to lose interest in a Middle East settlement and in a political presence in the region in general. True, Russia inherited the place of the USSR as one of the two co-sponsors of the peace process and had an opportunity to work with all the parties to the conflict. But in terms of its financial and economic capacities it could not be a match for the other co-sponsor. Nor did the Arab countries, for their part, display much interest in developing relations with Russia on a new basis; instead, they grieved to see the Soviet Union, the powerful counterbalance to the USA, leave the historical arena.

Russia’s relations with Turkey and Iran stand in stark contrast to the above. These two countries bordering on the CIS territory have ranked among the priorities for Russia’s interests.

Ankara quickly became one of Russia’s main commercial and economic partners, with Russia regarding Turkey as a major consumer of its energy resources, natural gas in particular, an investor and contractor (notably in construction projects), and a haven for Russian tourists. The political conflicts that existed in the first part of the 1990s (CFE limits, "cultural pan-Turkism", NATO enlargement, the situation in Chechnya, etc.) were gradually mitigated, and the path ahead appears to lead to further rapprochement.

With Iran things went differently: relations in the economic field initially lagged behind political relations. A major role in the rapprochement with Iran was played by Tehran’s constructive approach toward the conflict in Tajikistan and its position of support for Armenia, Russia’s ally in the Caucasus. All this allowed Moscow to solve an important strategic task–ensuring a "friendly environment" along the CIS perimeter. A new high point in relations with Iran was reached after the signing of the contract for construction of the atomic power station at Bushehr. Moscow viewed American (and Israeli) pressure on this issue as reflecting a desire to oust it from the promising international atomic energy market. However, as a result of that pressure it tightened control over the export of technologies and materials that may be used in military nuclear and missile programs.

Aggravation of the situation in Chechnya and the increased threat of international terrorism have modified Russia’s strategic interests in the Middle East. The task of neutralizing the international terrorist threat and ensuring a favorable attitude by Middle Eastern states on the Chechen question has come to the fore. Since September 11, 2001, the new partner-like relations with the United States in the war on terror have significantly impacted Russia’s policies in the Middle East. However, Russia’s aversion to US military action in Iraq and its negative attitude toward the American strategy of unilateral action as a whole as well as to the American concept of "regime change", have predetermined a certain cooling of the partnership which has in turn to an extent affected cooperation regarding a Middle East settlement.

In Putin’s Russia, interests and policies in the region have largely been determined by the "multivector" strategy. Policy has become more active and even more pragmatic, Russian business interests have become entrenched, and Russia has increasingly acted without reference to the positions of other global players. At the same time, guided by its national interests, Moscow is keen to avoid actions that would seriously jeopardize its partner-like relations with the West.