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Strategy

Russia and the Arab Spring: from Understanding to Condemnation

Introduction

The main features of the post-Soviet policy Russia was pursuing in the Middle East at the turn of the century were the following: rejecting messianic ideas, great-Powerness and confrontation. Russia became more pragmatic; its policy stopped being “pro”, such as “pro-Arab” or “pro-Israeli”. Basically, Russia tried to follow its own interest, placing the emphasis, first of all, on mutually beneficial collaboration. Competition with the West for dominance in the region did not play the defining role for Moscow any more.

Russia preferred to stay away from Washington’s affairs, although “pointed out unnecessary mistakes of its regional policy in quite a discreet way, not willing to confront, but, on the contrary, looking for possible ways to collaborate”[i]. The 2003 events in Iraq can be called the primary example of this, since Russia did not try to prevent the US-led military operation against Saddam Hussain’s regime. A certain part of the Russian political elite was calling for “protecting the amicable Iraq regime”, but was retorted by Vladimir Lukin, the head of the International Affairs Committee: “Again we dreamt of being crowned as the world’s finest peacemakers… and that resulted in damaging relations with the USA administration which deserved much more care and respect”[ii].

Understanding the Arab Spring

The Kremlin’s largest concern was the potential activation of Islamist groups in the North Caucasus and Central Asia.


The Arab revolutions of 2011 certainly raised Russia’s interest in the region. However, during the first months of the protests Moscow had no intention of “returning” to the Middle East. Russia was neutrally friendly to the Arab Spring, leaving the countries of the region the right to choose their paths of development. Moscow was only interested in the continuity of realisation of the previous agreements between Russia and the countries of the region, as well as the protests’ radicalization which could become the reason for civil wars and encourage terrorist activities[iii]. The Kremlin’s largest concern was the potential activation of Islamist groups in the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Nevertheless, during the first months of the Arab Spring, Moscow tended to demonstrate an understanding of the Arab revolutions and the inner core of social unrest. In particular, Russian officials noted the dissatisfaction of educated young people with their social status and their lack of prospects for the future. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the reasons for the demonstrations several months after they began: “The driving force behind the events that were taking place in Libya, which we observed in Egypt and other countries, was mostly the educated youth”[iv].

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov assessed the causes of the Arab revolutions as follows:

“As for the root causes of the current turmoil in the Arab countries, in my opinion they lie both in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Of course, with all the specifics of the development of events in different countries, there is much in common – in many of them the crisis of the authoritarian political system was long overdue. The irremovability of leaders and political elites in general, the low degree of social mobility, the late nature or even absence of urgent reforms, high unemployment, corruption, and other social diseases – all these internal conflict factors accumulated for many years and detonated at the beginning of this year. In addition, we must not forget that in the Arab countries, the young population predominates. They are modern, educated people who have mastered the Internet, blogs, social networks, who did not see the future in the existing coordinate system. It is not by chance that they became an important mobilising element of the Arab revolutions”[v].

The reference messages were broadcast both in the media and in expert comments. Thus, the TASS news agency, referring to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s special envoy for Africa, Mikhail Margelov, called the Arab Spring a consequence of the predisposition of the masses, not of the intervention of the West[vi]. Experts referred to internal, domestic causes, discussing the riots in other countries and comparing the situation in them with what was happening in the Arab world[vii]. Thus, the main cause of the Arab Spring was popular anger[viii].

Meanwhile, it is important to point out that, during the first years of the Arab Spring Russia still proceeded from recognizing the right of the USA to act as the preeminent power in the region, and also tried not to interfere in the policies of Washington. In this connection, Bogdanov stated that “the development of the countries of the region along the democratic path can only be welcomed. However, do not forget the mistakes of the past. After all, attempts to ‘instill’ in the Arab countries a democracy of one or another sample from outside have already been made, but they have not led to anything good. The long overdue reforming of the Arab states must take place on the initiative of the peoples themselves”[ix]. Lavrov referred to the involvement of the United States in the political crisis in his interview in March 2011 and even pointed out some strangeness in the behaviour of the Americans, who did not immediately formulate their approach to the situation in Egypt as it developed rapidly and under the influence of internal processes[x].

The voting about Libya which took place in the UN Security Council in March 2011 became the clearest statement of the fact that Russia still saw the USA as the major guarantor of the regional order in the Middle East. The Russian delegation of the UN abstained in the voting about the 1973 resolution of implementing a no-fly zone above Libya. Many Russians (including Valeriy Chamov, the Russian ambassador to Tripoli) perceived that as “betrayal of the interests of the country” [xi]. However, at that moment it was a way to carry on with the policy of pragmatism which Moscow had been following since the USSR had collapsed. Also, it demonstrated the unwillingness of Moscow to risk the relationships with the West for the sake of protecting Col. Gaddafi’s government.

Export of Revolution

The events of the Arab Spring began to be categorized as “color revolutions” with which the Russian community has quite negative associations.


The attitude of the Russian government towards revolutions, as a whole, and the Arab Spring, in particular, changed greatly under the influence of certain political events within the country. Between 2011 and 2012, the Russian regime had to face mass protests on the Bolotnaya Square in the center of Moscow, caused by total falsifications during the Parliamentary election of 2011. Since then, references to “colour revolutions” and “conspiracy theories” began to be implemented in Russian mass media discourse as well as speeches of  Russian officials. The events of the Arab Spring  began to be categorized as “color revolutions” with which the Russian community has quite negative associations. For instance, during his interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta Evgeniy Primakov, ex-Prime Minister, gave the following comments about the Syrian military conflict dynamics: “There is a full-scale military war in Syria at the moment, and with external assistance. Various kinds of foreign mercenaries and volunteers fight against the regime together with Syrians… President Obama gave the CIA a direct order to support the Syrian opposition”[xii].

The opinion according to which Russia was the ultimate goal of the Arab revolutions was gaining more and more popularity at home. In other words, “the United States supported the colour revolutions of anti-Russian orientation".


More and more often the Russian government compared the Arab Spring events to the Bolotnaya Square ones, pointing out that both cases were not about the will of the people but about certain external forces willing to overthrow regimes which were not to their liking. The opinion according to which Russia was the ultimate goal of the Arab revolutions was gaining more and more popularity at home [see: [xiii][xiv]]. In other words, “the United States supported the colour revolutions of anti-Russian orientation, then the events of the Arab Spring unfolded according to this scenario, and then such a scenario was conceived to weaken and potentially disintegrate Russia”[xv]. No wonder that apparently the opinion of Russians on the Arab Spring became more and more negative, especially after Euromaidan in Kiev in 2014.

President Vladimir Putin stated at a meeting of the Security Council of Russia in 2014 that the authorities would do everything possible to prevent such colour revolutions from occurring in Russia. According to the BBC, Putin also equated them with extremism, which, he said, was used in the modern world as an instrument of geopolitics and redistribution of spheres of influence[xvi]. As the President’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov noted, that “in the Middle East, a chain of colour revolutions took place, which was supposed to be limited to controlled chaos, but turned into an absolutely uncontrolled thermonuclear process”[xvii].

Commenting on the anti-corruption rallies in March 2017, Putin also used the narrative of the colour revolutions (as exemplified by the Arab Spring) to explain the events. Recalling the Arab Spring and Euromaidan he noted that these events “led to chaos … This is a tool of the Arab Spring: we know very well what it led to. It also became an occasion for a coup d’état in Ukraine and plunged the country into chaos … Anyone who goes beyond the law should be accountable under Russian law”[xviii].

‘Return’ to the Middle East

After Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, the rhetoric of the Russian authorities began to have a pronounced anti-Western character.


The conflict with the West that had been brewing since early 2012 and peaked in 2014 – when, because of Russia’s regional policy in Ukraine, the relationship started to deteriorate steadily – was encouraging Moscow to also make its policy in the Middle East more aggressive. After Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, the rhetoric of the Russian authorities began to have a pronounced anti-Western character, which, in turn, pushed Moscow to pursue an increasingly deterministic policy in the Middle East.

In his speech at the 60th session of the UN General Assembly in 2015, two weeks before the Russian Aerospace Forces began their operations in Syria, President Putin used the Arab Spring as an example of how external actions of external forces could destroy “steady government institutions… instead of the glory of democracy and progress there was violence, poverty, social disasters, and human rights, including the right to life, were counted for nothing” [xix]. In this regard, the Russian intervention in Syria became partially messianic, since, considering the propaganda purposes, it was aimed to right the wrongs which occurred due to the disruptive Western policy in the Middle East.

In the Syrian case, President Putin presented himself as a warrior against terrorism that is considered as a threat not only for Syrian regime and the Middle East region, but also for Russia and the entire world. At the same time, in 2015, the idea spread that Russia should act as a protector of Christianity in the Middle East. In April 2015, the Russian president noted “As far as the Middle East and Christians are concerned, the situation is dire. We have spoken about this many times and believe that the international community is not doing enough to protect the Christians in the Middle East”[xx]. And shortly after the start of Russian military campaign in Syria, at a meeting with Russian officers, Vladimir Putin announced that he was going to return Russia to its Christian roots[xxi].

Compared to previous periods when rhetoric and propaganda were the main instruments, Putin has moved on to taking concrete actions to “create facts on the ground”.


President Putin has clearly continued to construct a convenient foreign policy reality and seeks to impose his discourse, primarily on the West, in the framework of an international agenda. But compared to previous periods when rhetoric and propaganda were the main instruments, Putin has moved on to taking concrete actions to “create facts on the ground” (such as the Russian intervention in Syria or the participation of Russian private military contractors in the Libyan conflict) and promote the decisions that he takes based on his ideas on reality[xxii].

This narrative undoubtedly reached its apogee in Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018: “While surprising, despite all the problems that we faced in the economy, finance, defense industry, in the army, Russia still remained and remains the largest nuclear power. No, no one really wanted to talk with us, no one listened to us. Listen now”[xxiii].

Conclusions: Stability vs Democratization

The confrontation of Russia and the West in the Middle East caused another, even more deep ideological dichotomy between democratization promoted by the West, on the one hand, and stability imposed by Russia, on the other one. The Russian political establishment started actively promoting the idea that stability should serve as a key criterion in assessing the effectiveness of any political regime. The events of the Arab Spring only confirmed this thesis, providing vivid evidence. Russian political discourse has increasingly promoted the idea that the authoritarian but stable dictatorial regimes of al-Assad in Syria and al-Sisi in Egypt, for example, were believed to be opposed to various kinds of democratizing projects that resulted in the coming to power of terroristic groups, like ISIS, al-Nusra etc.[xxiv] In this paradigm, “all those who advocate the overthrow of the legitimate authority of Assad are terrorists, and allegations of the atrocities of the regime… are ‘active measures by [Western] intelligence services’ and anti-Syrian propaganda”[xxv].

This explains why Russia’s political solutions are top-down — that is, aligning with the entrenched regimes, even dictatorships — rather than bottom-up, that is, siding with the revolutionaries that aim to change the status quo. Moscow has not only saved the regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Khalifa Haftar in Libya, but further works to promote conflict resolution scenarios in the UN Security Council that only serve the interests of Middle Eastern dictatorships[xxvi]. This, in Moscow’s view, suits Russia’s interests better than supporting popular struggles for political rights and human dignity. These interventions, nonetheless, tend to only exacerbate the causes that led to these revolutions.

[i] Vasiliev A. Ot Lenina do Putina. Rossiya na Blizhnem I Srednem Vostoke [From Lenin to Putin. Russia in the Near and Middle East]. Moscow, Tsentrpoligraf, 2018. P. 615. (in Russian)
[ii] Olimpiev A., Khazanov A. Mezhdunaronye Problemy Blizhnego Vostoka 1960-2013 [International Problems of the Middle East. 1960-2013]. Moscow, 2013. P. 153. (in Russian)
[iii] Issaev L., Aisin M., Medvedev I., Korotayev A.. Islamic Terrorism in the Middle East and its Impact on Global Security. RUDN Journal of Political Science. No 22 (4), 2020. P.713–730.
[iv] Interview of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov by Vladimir Soloviev, Head of the Author’s Program “Actual Conversation” of the “3 Channel” TV Company. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. March 13, 2011. http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKN nkJE02Bw / content / id / 215526
[v] Interview with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia M. Bogdanov at the Interfax agency. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. July 5, 2011. http://www.mid.ru/web/guest/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/200982
[vi] “Arab Spring” is a consequence of the predisposition of the masses, and not the intervention of the West. TASS, September, 2011. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/501492
[vii] Unrest in London. Echo of Moscow. August 14, 2011. https://echo.msk.ru/programs/magazine/801635-ecfeeho/
[viii] Tamme Y. Premiya mira na volne revolyutsiy [Peace Prize in the Wave of Revolutions]. Postimees. October 5, 2011. https://rus.postimees.ee/587000/premiya-mira-na-volne-revolyuciy
[ix] Interview with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia M. Bogdanov at the Interfax agency. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. July 5, 2011. http://www.mid.ru/web/guest/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/200982
[x] Interview of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov by Vladimir Soloviev, Head of the Author’s Program “Actual Conversation” of the “3 Channel” TV Company. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. March 13, 2011. http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKN nkJE02Bw / content / id / 215526
[xi] Skandal s poslom RF v Livii: chto sgubilo kar’yeru Chamova? [Scandal with the Russian ambassador to Libya: what ruined Chamov’s career?]. BBC, March 24, 2011. https://www.bbc.com/russian/russia/2011/03/110324_russia_libya_envoy
[xii] Ochen’ Blizhniy Vostok [Very Middle East]. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 8, 2012. https://rg.ru/2012/08/08/vostok.html
[xiii] Neverov S. Pochemu v Rossiyu ne pridet arabskaya vesna? [Why won’t the Arab spring come to Russia?]. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 10, 2012. https://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-02-10/1_arab_vesna.html
[xiv] Stsenariy po tipu «arabskoy vesny» byl primenen na Ukraine, zayavil Shoygu [A scenario similar to the “Arab Spring” was used in Ukraine, Shoigu said]. Prime, April 1, 2014. https://1prime.ru/Politics/20140401/781695784.html
[xv] Vasiliev A. Ot Lenina do Putina. Rossiya na Blizhnem I Srednem Vostoke [From Lenin to Putin. Russia in the Near and Middle East]. Moscow, Tsentrpoligraf, 2018. P. 520. (in Russian)
[xvi] Putin promised to prevent a “color revolution” in Russia. BBC, November 20, 2016. https://www. bbc.com/russian/russia/2014/11/141120_russia_putin_extremism
[xvii] Peskov: a chain of color revolutions hit the “Big” Middle East. RIA Novosti, December 20, 2015. https://ria.ru/world/20151220/1345644780.html
[xviii] Putin first commented on anti-corruption rallies. RBC, March 30, 2017. https://www.rbc.ru/poli tics/30/03/2017/58dcfb469a794724c89684df
[xix] Stenogramma vystupleniya Vladimira Putina na General’noy Assambleye OON [Transcript of Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly], Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 28, 2015. https://rg.ru/2015/09/28/stenogramma.html
[xx] Putin: measures to protect Christians in the Middle East are not enough, RIA Novosti, April 16, 2015. https://ria.ru/world/20150416/1058989211.html
[xxi] Issaev L., Yuriev S. Rossiyskaya Politika v Otnoshenii Hristian Blizhnego Vostoka [The Christian Dimension of Russian’s Middle East Policy]. Asia and Africa Today, No 12, 2017. P.27. (in Russian)
[xxii] Issaev L. Russia’s “Return” to the Middle East and the Arab Uprisings. Al Sharq Forum, February 17, 2021. https://research.sharqforum.org/2021/02/17/russias-return-to-the-middle-east-and-the-arab-uprisings/
[xxiii] The President’s Address to the Federal Assembly. Kremlin, March 1, 2018. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957
[xxiv] Issaev L., Shishkina A. Russia in the Middle East: in Search of Its Place, in: Political Narratives in the Middle East and North Africa: Conceptions of Order and Perceptions of Instability. Dordrecht: Springer, 2020. P. 95-114.
[xxv] Frolov V. Munich speech – 2015. Syria,Ukraine and the post-Soviet space by Vladimir Putin. Republic, September 29, 2015. https://republic.ru/posts/57193
[xxvi] Issaev L. Russia’s “Return” to the Middle East and the Arab Uprisings. Al Sharq Forum, February 17, 2021. https://research.sharqforum.org/2021/02/17/russias-return-to-the-middle-east-and-the-arab-uprisings/