The Soviet and post-Soviet era
Russian involvement in the Middle East has a long history, dating back even before the two World Wars when the new-born Soviet Union attempted to spread communism by promoting an anti-Western sentiment. The Soviet Union’s presence in the Middle East continued, reaching its first turning point during the first half of the Cold War. Indeed, this was the period in which a clear Soviet foreign policy agenda was drafted in the region; a period in which the opposition between the US and USSR was high and the two poles began to compete massively for the support of the independent countries that had just emerged after the beginning of the decolonisation process.
With Khrushchev in power (1953-1964), the Soviet Union concentrated on three main objectives:
Supporting Communist governments and limiting Western interventions within Middle Eastern countries.
Preventing internal disorders and conflicts in the region to establish, consolidate, and increase the USSR hegemonic influence in the Middle East and internationally.
Achieving strategic parity with the United States and expanding the USSR military forces.
In order to achieve these objectives, the USSR decided to focus on certain Arab regimes, notably Egypt and Syria. In the 1950s, Egypt was facing a domestic revolution, which the USSR saw as a great opportunity to reach the Near East. The Soviet Union started to organise and establish arms trade connections and aid programmes to help anti-Baghdad Pact countries, giving birth to a profitable market. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, the relationship between Egypt and the Soviet Union further consolidated thanks to the substantial military support provided by the USSR to Egyptian President Nasser and his plan to nationalise the Suez Canal. The following USSR client became Syria, which started to purchase Soviet weapons. During the Brezhnev administration (1964-1982), Khrushchev's successor, a crucial event changed the Soviet Union’s relationship with the Arab countries: the 1967 6 Days Arab-Israeli War. After the war, indeed, the Soviet Union significantly increased its military support to Egypt, and other Arab countries, including Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen. The second change was the increase in Soviet military presence in the Middle East. The USSR established several naval military bases in local ports, especially in Egypt and Syria, for their strategic geographical position, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, so as to expand its influence in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in the Middle East started to suffer. A tangible example was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where Arab countries blamed the Soviet Union for insufficient military support to the OAPEC countries (Organisation of the Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) against Israel. However, the USSR regained its importance in the area during the 1978 Camp David Accords, when American President Carter, by mediating a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, gave the impression of protecting and favouring Israel. Regaining its previous position of prestige gave impetus to the USSR that decided to invade Afghanistan in 1979.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was the second turning point in the Soviet foreign policy agenda in the Middle East, representing one of the various signals of the Soviet Union’s failure. During the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, in fact, the Soviet Union was experiencing an internal crisis characterised by economic, political, and social difficulties strictly related to the 1980s International Debt Crisis and technological inferiority. With a third-class economy, the US strengthening its defensive strategy of containment against the USSR, and the emergence of new powerful countries such as Germany, China, and Japan, the USSR was no longer able to preserve its great power status and its military superiority. These difficulties favoured risky decisions within the Russian elite: Glasnost and Perestroika. These policies were introduced by Gorbachev (Soviet Union politician and the last Secretariat-General of the Communist Party of the USSR, 1985-1991) in order to try to recover the Soviet Union through modernity, reconciliation, and rebuilding of the relations with the Western Countries. Unfortunately, the reforms were unsuccessful with a consequently negative effect not only domestically but also on the USSR’s foreign policy and its role in the Middle East.
The precarious situation led to the Soviet Union dissolution in 1991 and to the end of bipolarity in world affairs. The USSR disappeared from the Middle East scenario; nonetheless, two significant events registered in the international arena in the 2000s rekindled Russian interest: the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2010 Arab Springs. The terrorist attacks against the American Twin Towers brought to light a serious issue that was about to become an essential part of the 2010s Russian foreign policy agenda: transnational terrorism. The Arab Springs of 2010 and NATO's 2011 intervention in Libya, on the other hand, refocused attention on the role of Western countries in the Middle East, influencing Russia’s desire to become a reference point in the area again.
It is equally important to point out that since the end of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of Russia in the Middle East in the 2010s, political dynamics have transformed in Russia, as well. In 2000, the new president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, was elected, revolutionising Russia's foreign policy. During the first and, mostly, the second term in office, Putin reorganised the political and economic spheres, succeeding in rehabilitating the country. Moreover, he took advantage of international dynamics to increase Russia’s role internationally and to regain its importance in the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in 2015 in the Syrian conflict is evidence of that.
Author: Greta Bordin
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