All participants in the conference “The Middle East Vector of Russia’s Foreign Policy: Goals and Consequences,” which took place in Kyiv on the initiative of the Center for Russian Studies, fully agreed that the Kremlin’s recent intervention in the so-called settlement of the Syrian conflict, which actually was launched to rescue the regime of Bashar Assad and at the same time to strengthen its military presence in Syria, was a demonstration of imperial aspirations.
Head of the Center for Russian Studies Volodymyr OHRYZKO stressed this thesis in his introductory speech. At the same time, he drew attention to the passive reaction of the West, which allowed Russia to effect a peaceful entry into this region and to act in Syria effectively as it pleases. The result of all this, in his opinion, is not only consolidation of Russia’s presence in the region, but also destabilization of Europe through a wave of refugees forced to leave their country because of the actions of the Assad regime and Russian troops.
According to Ohryzko, the West is still failing to get rid of the illusions about true goals of Russia which aims to protect Assad, and unfortunately, it is hardly possible to talk about the adequate reaction of the Western community to what is happening in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, director of the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine Serhii KORSUNSKYI, who served in Turkey before his appointment to this position, said that the vacuum of political will which had been created through the US’s voluntary withdrawal during Barack Obama’s presidency could not stay there forever, so Russia entered the region easily.
Doctor of Political Sciences Alexander SHUMILIN, who heads the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, delivered a speech in English (which, together with Ukrainian, was a working language at the conference) entitled “Presentation of Russia in the Middle East: Achievements and Losses,” which drew attention to the fact that assessments of Russian policy in the Middle East are discussing two theses currently: 1) Russia has returned to the Middle East as a great power; 2) Russia has become trapped in the Middle East.
First of all, the Russian expert considers any claims that Russia has increased its presence in the region to be overblown. In his opinion, Russia is trapped in fact, and tries to get out of the trap, including through the Geneva talks, where the Kremlin wants to bring the Syrian opposition to the table, simultaneously excluding Iran from the political process in Syria. This explains the recent visit of the Saudi king to Moscow, which caused dissatisfaction in Tehran, Shumilin stressed.
According to him, the recent visit of Sergey Shoygu to Israel was indicative in this respect. This is not so much an attempt by Russia to find communication channels through Israel to the US on the final solution to the conflict in Syria, but rather a demonstration that the Kremlin is distancing itself from the Iranian government. Israel is a strong opponent of Iran in Syria, and therefore the visit was a testimony to the trap which Russia had fallen into, and it was now hard-pressed to find an exit strategy, Shumilin noted.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian political scientist from Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, former member of the Sejm (1996-2003) Alvydas MEDALINSKAS delivered a speech entitled “Russia’s Middle East Policy and International Security: A View from the West,” which stressed that Russia’s engagement in the Syrian conflict was a demonstration of global claims. He reminded those present that Syria was the only place in this region where Russia had something of a military presence before the crisis.
According to him, as early as four years ago, some experts were saying that Russia could return to the Middle East, and it finally did happen as a result of US policy which allowed Russia to do so. The Lithuanian expert explained the defeat of the West by its lack of real allies and the lack of a united opposition in Syria, which could, at least, effectively oppose the Assad regime inside the country.
“Russia, on the contrary, was able to find in Iran an ally in Syria, but I am not sure that Russia will win the war in Syria, as Iran is more likely to come out as the winner. As Russia is trying to destroy the international system, it fails to notice that its efforts will benefit Iran in the region of Middle East, and China overall,” Medalinskas believes.
The Lithuanian expert drew attention to a proposal of the Stratfor Center, which emphasizes the importance of leaving Russia, and not the West, as the player responsible for rebuilding both Syria and Ukraine, which would gut the Russian budget.
In a speech entitled “Middle East in the System of Geopolitical Aspirations of the Russian Federation: a Ukrainian Assessment,” director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv Oleksandr BOHOMOLOV noted that Russia came there not for the sake of peace, because it did not aim to reconcile the Sunnis and the Shias. According to him, the Russian Federation sees a fragmented competitive environment in the Middle East, especially against the background of the West’s fatigue, as an opportunity. In addition, it was the overblown fear of Islamic movements that prompted the Kremlin to take action.
In fact, Russia is not a partner of the West and is not interested in ending the conflict in Syria, because then there will be no reasons for its continuing presence, the Ukrainian expert said. Obama described Russia as a merely regional power which annexed a part of Ukraine out of weakness, Bohomolov continued, but the Kremlin has shown that great successes can be had on the cheap, because it is successfully playing on contradictions.
The expert drew attention to another phenomenon that occurs in Russia, namely to the fact that de-Westernization makes Russia increasingly similar to nations of the Middle East. “The idea of the ‘Russian World’ is a sign of this process. This is the Arab World which has been remodeled in the Russian style. Previously, Russia traditionally borrowed meanings from the West, but now it has begun to borrow them from the Middle East instead,” Bohomolov summed up. For his part, director of the Center for Middle East Studies in Kyiv Ihor SEMYVOLOS’s speech entitled “Russia in the Hot Spots of the Middle East: Actual and Expected Results (Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict)” reminded the audience that the British and the French once tried, unsuccessfully, to keep peace in the Middle East. Eventually they had to leave the region, after which the US took their place with a clear desire to resolve these conflicts, but it has not succeeded either. So the whole business of the Middle East peace process has come to a standstill, and Syria has become a failed state as a result, the expert noted. According to him, Russia remained an active player in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Russia is a country that operates with tactical efficiency due to the fact that it makes decisions quickly. One person has all the authority to decide. Even if the war in Syria continues for a certain period of time, it is unlikely that this will affect the economic costs of the war, which are no higher than the costs of two to three major military exercises, but the economic effect of the use of weapons in Syria is greater, because Russia can receive more arms orders due to it. Many more,” Semyvolos said. However, he also noted that Russians often win wars, but lose the peace.
Meanwhile, any compromise solution which can ensure a sustainable peace should involve enfranchising 70 percent of Syrians who are Sunnis, and until this happens, the conflict will not stop. But even after the liberation of all the key cities of Syria from the Islamic State, none of the external forces that are currently controlling the situation in the country is interested in the recovery of Syria. Turkey, as the Ukrainian expert explained, expresses sentimental attachment to northern Syria, the Kurdish forces that have greatly expanded their territories can retreat on the territorial issue if the Assad regime makes major concessions, and meanwhile, the Iranian forces have firmly become a part of the decision-making processes in Syria.
Semyvolos believes that Iran will remain a key player in Syria, and it must be reckoned with, and in the long run, we should also expect a clash of interests between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
According to him, Russia has largely been able to achieve its tactical goals in Syria, but it has failed to turn the page in relations with the US. It is stuck, and needs to continue to be a powerbroker and offer something to the regimes in the region.
According to the Ukrainian expert, the defeat of the Islamic State will lead to the return of a large portion of the trained and surviving Islamic fighters who fought in Syria to their homelands, and in particular to the countries of Central Asia. Thus, Semyvolos emphasized, a process which is the reverse of Russia’s policy of letting radical Islamists to go and die in Syria will take place. According to him, this means that destabilization will happen in Central Asia and some Russian regions which have a large Muslim population. In other words, the boomerang launched by the Kremlin’s use of Islamist fanatics in Syria will return to its originator.