Bear Trap: Russia’s self-defeating Middle East policy

By Inna Lazareva

Russia’s foreign policy in the MENA region has traditionally been explained in one of three ways: as a zero-sum game – i.e. whatever is good for the West is bad for Russia and vice versa; as a vehicle for promoting and supporting its energy interests; and as an opaque compromise between various elite interests.

The unifying element in these assessments is a fundamentally cynical attitude towards a region in crisis. Analysing Russian policy towards Libya, Syria and Iran, this report contends that the Russian government’s approach1 to those countries will ultimately undermine the Kremlin’s long-term ability to exert economic and political influence in the MENA region. Although Moscow may, in some cases, act as a “spoiler” in undermining the interests of other powers, this strategy ultimately will not yield dividends domestically or internationally.

Russian policy towards Libya demonstrates how Russian energy, arms, infrastructure and diplomatic interests were prejudiced by the zero-sum “spoiler policy” approach, as manifested by Moscow’s strong stand against NATO’s actions in 2011. In Syria, the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to preserve the economic and political benefits it derives from the Assad regime will likely prove counter-productive, regardless of whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power. In Iran, Russia’s current policy is arguably one of “controlled- tension,” 2 where economic interests clash with its support of UN Security Council nuclear sanctions.

Ultimately, it is clear from the analysis of Russia’s conduct in Libya, Syria and Iran that the Kremlin conducts its foreign policy on the basis of misconceived short-term calculations, which will potentially cause significant damage to its long-term interests.

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