Russia’s Soft Power in the Middle East

Russia has for long deployed soft power as part of its overall strategic objectives in the Middle East and yet, most of the focus in analysing and explaining the growth of its influence in the region has been on its use of means of hard power.[i] while ignoring the role of soft power,[ii] which has been equally crucial for achieving Russia’s objectives in the Middle East and is central to understanding Russian strategies.

Russia’s intervention in Syria was without doubt a turning point in bolstering its role in the Middle East, and would not have been possible without military action. However, to cement and develop this position, soft power was crucial. Firstly, Russia invested heavily in diplomacy, seeking to balance between adversaries and maintain good relations with all sides (Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine)[iii]. Moscow was largely successful in establishing good relations with all parties, which contributed to an acceptance of Moscow as the key actor in the Syrian conflict. For example, Leonid Issaev and Nikolay Kozhnov call Russia’s balancing policies with the Gulf states ‘a bargaining strategy.’[iv] They explain that by applying such an approach, Russia uses its indirect and direct presence in the major reginal conflicts (in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear issue) to highlight its own significance to the Gulf states; at the same time Russia aims to build stronger economic collaboration with the GCC states by attracting a larger number of investments from the GCC in Russia, and coordinating attempts with Saudi Arabia in the global oil market. Moreover, relations with the Gulf states were developed by another soft power tool – cultural diplomacy (more precisely religious soft power[v]) – drawing on the shared Islamic identity offered by the 25 million Muslims living in Russia. Ramzan Kadyrov and Rustam Minnikhanov are well-known Muslim leaders of Russian republics with large Muslim populations (Chechnya and Tatarstan, respectively), and their people-to people diplomacy significantly contributed to building good relations with the Gulf leaders.[vi] These connections and affinities have been frequently leveraged to make investment and collaboration more palatable, leading to the acceptance of Russia as a permanent player in the region, including its Syria interventions.

As already hinted at, soft power has also been mobilised to boost economic collaborations with the regional actors. For example, the cultural ties between Russia and Israel have been a positive factor for bilateral relations. Israel is home to more than a million Russian-speaking citizens born in the former Soviet states.[vii] This allows Russia to use the soft power tools of cultural affinity and personal connections to facilitate economic cooperation, including high-tech trade with Israel, especially in the area of nanotechnology. Moreover, maintaining positive ties with Israel – Washington’s closest ally in the region – allows President Vladimir Putin to project the message that Russia is not isolated. This is further balanced by Russia maintaining relations with the Palestinian Authority leadership and Hamas, pragmatically connecting with different players over the longer term. These delicate diplomatic efforts serve Russia’s sustained presence in the region as an important actor, often despite and across geopolitical differences between other states and influential non-state actors.

This soft power component lies at the heart of the complex relations between Russia and Turkey. Russia’s soft power via its Tatar population has been made possible by the fact that both the Kazan Tatars and Turkey are Turkic nations with a related culture, common traditions, similar language, and a single religion. Rustam Minnikhanov has also developed interpersonal diplomacy with his Turkish counterpart. In 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kazan while he was the Turkish prime minister[viii] and in 2018, Rustam Minnikhanov attended Erdogan’s presidential inauguration.[ix] It is unsurprising that the Turks are the biggest investors in the Tatarstan economy,[x] along pathways made possible by soft power attractions of regional culture and connections. Such connections also played an important role in managing political crises. For example, in 2015 a Russian jet was shot down by the Turkish air-force, creating significant tension between the states.[xi] The personal connections and efforts of Rustam Minnikhanov did much to diffuse the situation and assured Turkish businesses in the territory of Tatarstan of their continued safety and welcome. Soft power underpins considerable economic interdependency between Russia and Turkey, and assists with balancing complex relations, even when they are on opposing sides of important regional matters, whether this is in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, or elsewhere.

Without diplomatic and cultural efforts in many directions, Russia would not be able to implement and sustain its hard power presence in the Middle East. Despite its general underestimation in the literature, soft power is a vital component of Russia’s policies in the region. It complements its military actions (Syrian case study), serves as an additional component in economic collaborations (Israeli case study) and underlies the ability to maintain complex relations, despite disagreements and complications between actors (Turkey case study).

[i] See: John Raine, ‘Russia in the Middle East: heard power, hard fact’, IISS,  25 October 2018, Available at: https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2018/10/russia-middle-east-hard-power
[ii] Soft power is usually thought of as the use of attraction, rather than coercion to achieve objectives.
See: Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004 (New York: Public Affairs).
[iii] See: Mark N. Katz, ‘Better than before: comparing Moscow’s Cold War and Putin era policies toward Arabia and the Gulf’, Durham Middle East Paper, 96/ Sir William Luce Fellowship Paper, 19, Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, August, 2018, Available at: https://dro.dur.ac.uk/25863/1/25863.pdf; Diana Galeeva, ‘How have Russia’s policies in the Middle East changed since the Arab uprisings?’, Middle East Institute, 21 April 2021, Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/how-have-russias-policies-middle-east-changed-arab-uprisings-0
[iv] Leonid Issaev and Nikolay Kozhanov, ‘Diversifying relationships: Russian policy toward GCC’, International Politics, 2021, Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41311-021-00286-4
[v] Sherrie Steiner, ‘Religious Soft Power as Accountability Mechanism for Power in World Politics: The InterFaith Leaders’ Summit(s)’, SAGE OPEN, 2 November 2011, Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244011428085
[vi] Diana Galeeva, ‘How shared Islamic identities boost Russia-Gulf ties’, Arab News, 8 January 2020, Available at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1610121
[vii] Nikolay Kozanov, ‘Russia’s difficult balancing act between Iran and Israel’, Al Jazeera, 1 Feb 2020, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/2/1/russias-difficult-balancing-act-between-iran-and-israel
[viii] See: Government of the Republic of Tatarstan, ‘Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Tatarstan and Turkish people have common hears and they are beating in unison’, 17 March 2011, Available at: https://prav.tatarstan.ru/eng/index.htm/news/81571.htm
[ix] See: RBK, ‘Erdogan priglasil Minnikhanova na svou inauguraciu v Ankaru [Erdogan invited Minnikhanov to his inauguration in Ankara]’,  9 July 2018, Available at: https://rt.rbc.ru/tatarstan/freenews/5b43742b9a7947a49d025258
[x] See: Tatturk, Tatarstan, ‘Sotrudnichestvo Tatarstana i Turcii [Cooperation between Tatarstan and Turkey], 7 April 2020, Available at:  https://tatturk.tatarstan.ru/sotrudnichestvo_tatartsan_turkey/1665397
[xi] See: RBK, ‘Ocenka ekonomicheskih otnosheniy Tatarstana I Turcii: ‘pridetsya drizhit’?’ [Evaluation of economic relations between Tatarstan and Turkey : ‘will you have to be friends?’,  25 November 2015, Available at: https://rt.rbc.ru/tatarstan/25/11/2015/5655a1129a7947893bf1f99b;
Current time, ‘Tatarstan ne hochet rvat’ otnosheniya s Turciye [Tatarstan does not want to break off relations with Turkey’,   24 December 2015, Available at: https://www.currenttime.tv/a/27445311.html

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.