Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia Feb. 11 was the first ever for any Russian or Soviet leader. Mr. Putin also visited U.S. allies Jordan and Qatar.
Coming from Munich, where he delivered his most bellicose anti-American speech (https://www.heritage.org/Research/RussiaandEurasia/wm1356.cfm), Mr. Putin further delineating a Russian Middle Eastern policy at odds with Washington in an interview with Al Jazeera. Mr. Putin reiterated Russia’s opposition to the Iraq war, and disputed the justice of Saddam Hussein’s execution.
He was also critical of U.S. democracy promotion in the Middle East, citing the empowerment of Hamas and Hezbollah as a result of parliamentary elections promoted by Washington. At the same time, he justified Russia’s refusal to recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations on the basis of their victory in parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza in January 2006.
Also during his visit to the Saudi capital, Mr. Putin stunned the world with an offer to sell Saudi Arabia “peaceful” nuclear reactors. also He also offered 150 T-90 tanks and other weapons. During his Middle East tour, the Russian president indicated willingness to sell helicopters, build rocket propelled grenade (RPG) factories, provide sophisticated anti-aircraft systems-the Carapace (Pantsyr), TOR M1 and Strelets-and topped it off by offering the Saudis expanded satellite launches and an opportunity to join the Russian satellite navigation system, GLONASS.
During his visit to Qatar, the world’s third-largest natural gas producer, Mr. Putin also indicated the Iranian offer to form an OPEC-style cartel of gas producers was “an interesting idea” — after his minister had dismissed it out of hand — and invited Saudi banks to open wholly owned subsidiaries in Russia.
Mr. Putin summed up Russia’s new foreign policy and Middle East policy as follows:
From the viewpoint of stability in this or that region or in the world, the balance of power is the main achievement of these last decades and indeed of the whole history of humanity. It is one of the most important conditions for maintaining global stability and security. This realpolitik talk was praised in Arab capitals, where the old Soviet anti-Western and anti-Israel stance is still remembered fondly. King Abdullah I of Saudi Arabia bestowed the King Faisal Award on Mr. Putin, calling him “a statesman, a man of peace, a man of justice.” Quite a turnaround from the jihad funded against the Soviets by the Saudis 20 years ago during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It is also worth noting that Saudi Arabia officially decries the 100,000 killed and 500,000 displaced Muslims in Chechnya, while private groups in the Gulf support terrorists there.
A number of factors drive Mr. Putin’s recent rhetoric and Middle East actions:
(1) By embracing monarchies and Iran’s Islamist authoritarianism, he signals Russia’s continuous distancing from Western norms of internal political behavior.
(2) Russia is following the Soviet model of opposing first British and then the U.S. presence in the Middle East by playing to anti-Western sentiment in the “street” and among the elites. Mr. Putin solidified the Kremlin’s public diplomacy message, emphasizing its differences with Washington.
(2) The Russian leadership is concerned with the high Muslim birthrates in Russia, especially as the Slavic Orthodox population is declining. Russia is facing an increasingly radicalized Muslim population along its southern “soft underbelly”, particularly in the North Caucasus, where two Chechen rebellions, though effectively crushed, led to the spread of Salafi Islam. Many young Russian Muslims view themselves more as members of the global Islamic Ummah (community), than as citizens of Mother Russia. Keeping Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran at bay, preventing them from supporting insurgencies in Eurasia, and toning down radicalization through Islamist education and propaganda is an unspoken but important item on the Kremlin’s agenda.
(3) Finally, Russia is a high-cost oil producer, the largest oil producer in the world, the largest oil exporter outside of OPEC, and the largest gas producer. As such, it is interested in maintaining a high-energy price environment, usually generated by tensions and conflicts in the Middle East. Russia is perfectly willing to sell weapons to both sides of the growing Sunni-Shia divide. As one Russian observer put it, weapons sales create allies. Russia is using weapons and nuclear reactor sales the way Imperial Germany used railroads — to bolster influence and to undermine the dominant power in the Middle East.
Clearly, the new Middle East, in which U.S. power and prestige are threatened in Iraq, and where Moscow challenges the U.S. superpower status, will be a more competitive and challenging environment. Today’s Middle East needs to be viewed with the realism and toughness its history and culture requires.
The United States, as a status quo power in the Middle East, should bolster its relations with pro-Western regimes in the Gulf. While some weapons sales and business projects will inevitably take place, only by maintaining a security umbrella in the Gulf can the U.S. have a bigger clout in the region than Russia.
The U.S. should continue dialogue with Moscow on issues of mutual concern, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and destabilizing weapons sales. But more important, it should provide military assurances to Gulf countries against Iranian encroachment, assurances of which Russia is incapable; expanded cooperation in the fight against terrorism, which threatens the Middle Eastern monarchies; and competing in cutting-edge economic ventures where Russia lacks expertise, while granting access to U.S. capital markets for development projects.
After a 20-year hiatus, Russia is forcing its way back through the open Middle East door. Washington decisionmakers had better take note.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation.