Understanding Moscow's Mideast Policy

Elements of the Kremlin's current policy—such as supporting Assad and fearing the Turks—echo those of czarist Russia.

Depiction of the 1770 Battle of Chesma between the Russian and Ottoman navies.A spoof of a BBC promo has been circulating on the Internet: “Greece is Collapsing, Iranians are getting aggressive & Rome is disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC!”

But you don't have to go back to antiquity for news: “The Levant and the Balkans are boiling, the Turks are angry, the Russians are aggressive & the West is nervous. Welcome back to 1853!”

The bloodshed in Syria, the economic collapse of Greece, an assertive Russia and a nervous West are not going to produce a rerun of the Crimean War, when czarist Russia fought against a military alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.

But at a time when neo-Ottomanism is rising in Ankara, it may not be surprising that Moscow is experiencing a resurgence of neo-Byzantinism.

Back in the early nineteenth century, international diplomacy was preoccupied by the Eastern question, posed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and its loss of dominance over the greater Middle East.

Today, that same region remains a concern for the United States and its European allies as the collapse of the old order in the Middle East shatters the balance of power and erodes the West’s regional influence.

In early 1800s, Britain and France worried that Russia would exploit the weakness of the Ottomans and hence strengthen its position in the region. That’s why they allied themselves with the Turks.

Today, the United States views a more assertive Turkey as a bulwark against a Moscow that has been resisting pressure from Washington, London, Paris and Ankara to help oust Syrian president Bashar Assad.

As the Cold War ended, many Americans expected Moscow to end its interventionist policies in the Middle East, given that these policies were seen as being driven by the Soviet Union’s geostrategic interests and ideological pretensions.

And it has been Washington that has pursued a supercharged military interventionism and ideological crusade in the Middle East, while Russia’s role has been marginalized.

But, now that America's unilateral moment in the Middle East is ending, Russia is back. And this time, it's not grand Soviet strategy or communist ideology that is stirring Russian interest.

Just as in the nineteenth century, Moscow's policy is partly reactive, reflecting fears over anti-Russian Islamist movements in the Caucasus, wariness over American ambitions in the Middle East and a protective attitude toward Russian interests in the Balkans.

Also, as in the years preceding the Crimean War, Russian interests in the Middle East are driven by Russian nationalism—a mix of pan-Slavism and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As British historian Orlando Figes recounts in The Crimean War, central to Russian nationalism is the notion that Moscow was the last remaining capital of Orthodoxy (the “Third Rome”) following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The idea of “Holy Russia” assumed the creation of an empire of the Orthodox in all the lands of Eastern Orthodoxy, with liberated Constantinople as its capital.

An effort to advance this nationalist project, including by sponsorship of Greek and Serbian nationalism in the Turkish-controlled Balkans, placed Moscow on a collision course with the Ottoman Empire and its Western backers.

Even the most ardent Russian nationalist is not fantasizing today of establishing an empire stretching from the Balkans to Hindu-Kush and liberating Constantinople. And of course no one in Ankara is daydreaming about a caliphate ruled from Istanbul. But some elements of Russian policy in the Middle East echo those of czarist Russia.

Russian opposition to Western and Arab efforts to depose Syria's Assad is a continuation of the Soviet policy of supporting the Baath regime in Damascus. But the current Russian position also is influenced by pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears the Christians in the former Byzantine province, including a large Orthodox community, would be persecuted if Muslim fundamentalists came to power.

This Russian support for Assad has produced tensions between Moscow and the Turks, who have joined the Saudis and the Western powers in calling for regime change in Damascus.

The growing Russian concern with the political repercussions of the Arab Spring, including the perceived threat of radical Islam’s rising power in the Middle East, is shared by Israel. This creates a sense of common interests between the Jewish State and Moscow, regarded for most of the Cold War as an ally of the Arabs.

Further, both Moscow and Jerusalem are troubled by a more assertive Turkey sponsoring political Islamist movements. This perception of a common Turkish threat may explain the evolution that Michael Lee of the German Marshall Fund sees as “an alliance in the making, bringing together Israel, Cyprus and Greece.” Israel is helping the Republic of Cyprus develop offshore natural-gas deposits with the idea that the resulting energy products could be shipped through Greece to markets in Europe.

Ankara opposes Cyprus’s plans and has announced its own gas exploration in the area. Moscow criticized the announcement and stressed its backing for the Israel-Cyprus-Greece energy triangle.

But Israel's recent rapprochement with Nicosia and Athens “is only a partial substitute for its previous close relations with Turkey,” according to the Marshall Fund’s Lee, who insists that Ankara and Israel continue to share a common interest in establishing stability in Syria.

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