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Nov 12, 2012 | 11:16 GMT

10 mins read

Russia's Interests in the Middle East and South Asia


Russia is reassessing its relationships with many countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Some long-established relationships, such as those with Syria and Iran, are being tested while ties with other countries (Iraq and Pakistan) could become more important. How these relationships develop will depend on numerous ongoing trends in the region, such as the political changes resulting from the Arab Spring, Iraq's potential re-emergence as a major oil exporter and the looming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the regions will continue to be vital to Russia in maintaining leverage over the West — particularly the United States. The tension between Russia's direct interests in the Middle East and its interests relative to the United States will be critical for understanding Russian behavior in the region moving forward.

While Russia has had an interest in the Middle East and South Asia for centuries (for instance, in the "Great Game" between the Russian and British empires over Afghanistan and Central Asia), the contemporary framework of Moscow's interests in the region was established in the Cold War era. During this period, the Middle East and South Asia were two of the primary theaters of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. 

The weakening of British and French influence in the region after World War II opened the door for the Soviet Union and the United States to become the two most important external actors in the region. Countries like Turkey and Iran (initially) fell into the U.S. camp and were key parts of the U.S. containment strategy against the Soviet Union. In order to try to break out of this containment (among many complex reasons), the Soviets supported socialist military regimes in much of the Middle East — most notably in Egypt, Syria, the former South Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The Soviet Union provided military, financial and technical assistance to these regimes and in exchange received political support and alignment from these countries. Moscow also backed communist, socialist and Marxist parties in many of these countries. In South Asia, the Soviets developed a good working relationship with India but avoided close political alignment, while Pakistan was driven closer to the U.S. camp. Then there was the direct Soviet intervention in Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Russia turned inward and its competition with the United States over the Middle East and South Asia significantly declined. However, Russia's presence in these regions did not evaporate, as Moscow maintained its weapons exports to several Middle Eastern and South Asian countries like Libya and India and kept its naval base in Syria. Although the driving motive of breaking out of U.S. containment was no longer there, the utility of maintaining pressure against and leverage over the United States in the region still was. This especially became the case as the United States became militarily active in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, at the same that Russia regained influence as a regional power under Vladimir Putin's leadership.

Current Ties and Significance

As they were in the past, Russia's current relationships with countries in these regions are not uniform. Broadly speaking, these countries fit into three main categories: those that are important to Russia primarily for commercial reasons, those that pose direct security concerns for Russia and those that are important for Russia in maintaining leverage over the United States and the West.

Trade and Commercial Relationships

Russia's Top Trade Partners

Russia's Trade Partners

Turkey is by far Russia's most important trading partner in the region, a relationship that is buoyed by Russia's significant oil and natural gas exports to Turkey. Also, Russia has extremely important weapons exports to India, Iran, Syria and Algeria. Russia provides countries like Iran and Syria with anti-tank missiles, while it has sold submarines and bomber aircraft to India and Algeria.

Direct Security Concerns

The countries that directly border Russia's former Soviet periphery pose the most immediate security concerns for Moscow. First there is Turkey, which borders the Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey is especially important because it is a NATO member and potentially a participant in the planned NATO ballistic missile defense system.

Russia and Turkey historically have competed over the Caucasus and Southern and Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine. While Russia is currently much stronger than Turkey in projecting influence into these areas, Turkey still poses a challenge to Russia in this region, particularly through its political and military support of Azerbaijan. And as Turkey gradually expands its influence, it will have a hard time avoiding encroaching on Russia's interests. The bilateral trade relationship between Russia and Turkey mitigates their competitiveness but does not preclude it.

Second is Iran, which directly borders both the Caucasus and Central Asia. While Iran's influence in both regions is limited and much of its attention is focused on its western periphery of Iraq, Syria and the Levant, Russia is still concerned about Iran's ties with countries like Tajikistan and its involvement in Azerbaijan. Iran can also be expected to increase its role via proxies in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal in 2014. And despite Russia's support of Iran in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant, Moscow is just as concerned with Iran developing a nuclear weapons program as the West is, given Russia's historical competition with Iran.

Third is Afghanistan, which borders the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Russia is concerned with the instability in the country and the militant activity in the Afghan-Pakistani theater, which could spill over into Central Asia and even Russia proper. This is an issue Russia will have to contend with particularly after the United States and NATO withdrawal.

Finally, Russia is concerned about radical Islamists from across the Middle East and South Asia. An influx of militants affected Russia directly in conflicts like the two Chechen wars in the 1990s, and growing extremist movements have threatened to destabilize Russia and its interests in other regions such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Central Asia. Saudi Arabia has been instrumental in supporting ultraconservative and radical groups and figures that operate in these theaters, leading to greater tensions between Moscow and Riyadh (as has Moscow's support of the regimes in Syria and Iran). While Saudi Arabia has reduced its support of Islamist militants in Russia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this could change if Russia starts arming the Shia in Iraq or expands its role in Afghanistan.

Leverage over Washington and the West

Perhaps more important than the Middle Eastern and South Asian countries that pose direct security threats to Russia (which have been relatively manageable in the last decade), numerous countries in these regions have been instrumental in giving Russia leverage over the West and particularly the United States.

Iran has been the biggest lever. The ongoing standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program and the concern over Iran's rise as a regional power in general have given Russia an opportunity to build its clout. Russia has involved itself in Iran's nuclear ambitions, helping the country construct the Bushehr nuclear plant, but has stopped short of aiding its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Russia has also been engaged in negotiations to sell the S-300 air defense system to Iran, though Moscow also has not followed through with this since it is meant as a bargaining chip with the United States in issues like ballistic missile defense and Western engagement in Russia's periphery.

Another important lever for Russia is Syria. Russia has historical ties to the country that involve significant weapons sales, and Russia's only direct access to the Mediterranean is the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia was not able to prevent a U.S. military intervention in Iraq, but Moscow's financial and weapons support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been a major factor in the preservation of his regime. Russia has been involved in all major negotiations over the fate of Syria, with both the regime and the opposition. Moscow's position is therefore crucial to Syria's future.

Afghanistan is another significant country that Russia has used as leverage over the United States. With the primary supply route into the country via Pakistan coming under threat, the Northern Distribution Network — which includes Russia and several former Soviet states — has emerged as the principal logistical route for NATO operations in Afghanistan. This has granted Russia a great deal of power over the United States in an important theater, but Afghanistan will become much less significant as the 2014 withdrawal date approaches.

Other countries have also been important for Russia, though to lesser degrees. Until recently, Russia had derived leverage from its relationship with Libya, but the fall of Moammar Gadhafi has weakened Russian influence. Russia is becoming increasingly involved in Iraq's burgeoning energy industry, though it has not become deeply involved yet. The ongoing political transitions in these countries will have important consequences for Russia's role in the region and its bargaining position relative to the West.

Changing Regional Dynamics

Several ongoing trends are changing the dynamics of the Middle East and South Asia and thus Russia's position there:

Arab Spring

Far from being a sweeping wave of Western-style liberal democracy, the Arab Spring represents a generational change from secular military regimes established in the Cold War era (Egypt, Libya and Syria) to governments that are more Islamist to varying degrees. Russia was the main sponsor and beneficiary of the military regimes, and the political evolutions in these countries will have a big impact on Russia's energy and weapons relationships in the region (as Libya has shown). Furthermore, the secondary effect of the Arab Spring is a region-wide reshuffling of geopolitical relationships, such as the potential reassessment of Egypt's security treaty with Israel. Russia's political relationships will therefore be affected by the nature of the change in each country, both internally and in its foreign policy realignment.

Syrian Uprising

While the Syrian uprising falls within the same wave of political discontent that swept much of the region during the Arab Spring, this particular conflict has been unique because of Syria's strategic position. Although the conflict is driven by Syria's fractious sectarian nature and minority Alawite regime, there are other deeper layers to the conflict, including a Sunni-Shiite proxy war between Iran on one side and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the other (particularly Turkey, which is trying to shape a Sunni-led Syria that can fall within its sphere of influence). This also affects the U.S.-Russian competition mentioned previously. Therefore, the nature of the conflict as it continues could significantly affect Russia's ability to derive leverage from its relationship with Syria, particularly if al Assad and the Alawites are driven from power.

U.S. Pullout From Afghanistan

The expected withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will place tremendous pressure on Russia to maintain security in its southern buffer zone of Central Asia. This could force Russia to get more directly involved in the security of the Central Asian countries, though the internal dynamics in the region will make that a complicated task for Moscow. A more restive security situation in Central Asia and an unclear political future in Afghanistan could be Russia's biggest concern in the region in the coming years. Russia's cooperation with Pakistan and India will be a significant factor in a post-NATO Afghanistan, and will largely depend on how the U.S. relationship with these countries develops. 

Future Regional Energy Landscape

One key dynamic that could change Russia's position is Iraq's re-emergence as a major oil exporter (although Iraq continues to be plagued by a range of constraints that will hinder its re-emergence in the short term). As one of the leading oil exporters in the world, Russia has an interest in limiting its competition or at least being involved in other countries' energy sectors. This explains Russian energy companies' involvement in oil exploration and drilling in many of Iraq's oil fields. Other countries, like Algeria, Libya and Qatar, pose potential challenges to Russia's energy position as the liquefied natural gas market becomes larger and more cost-efficient. Therefore, the region will be instrumental in shaping Russia's global energy strategy.

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