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 its growing influence in the region since Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war on September 30, 2015[i] has been on its use of more traditional means of hard power.[i] Ignoring the role of soft power strategies[ii] however, would mean considering only half of the picture in the country’s grand strategy.

Russia invested heavily in diplomatic initiatives, seeking to pursue balanced relations between traditional adversaries in the Middle East, including Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

Russia’s intervention in Syria was without doubt a turning point in bolstering its role as one of the major stakeholders in the Middle East and simultaneously, on the stage of global great power rivalry, and, of course, would not have been possible without decisive military action. Nevertheless, cementing in and developing this position also required a great deal of soft power calculations. Firstly, Russia invested heavily in diplomatic initiatives, seeking to pursue balanced relations between traditional adversaries in the Middle East, including Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.[ii] Heralding Moscow’s success in these pursuits was the fact that Russia had quickly been accepted as one of the key actors in Syria, looking to shape the future of the conflict. Moscow positioned itself alongside the Assad regime through supplies of weapons, oil investments and naval access, presented as striking back against radical Islamist groups.[iii] The Russia-Iran partnership has been strengthened as both countries support al-Assad’s leadership, despite differences over the details of post-conflict Syrian governance, military reform and state-building.[iv] Highlighting the intricacies of a foreign policy approach that combines diplomacy with military actions is what Leonid Issaev and Nikolay Kozhanov[v] have called Russia’s ‘bargaining strategy.’ Building on soft power to legitimize its footing, whether direct or indirect, in high-profile regional conflicts – such as those in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Israel and the Palestinian Territories – as well as other matters of geopolitical concern, such as Iran’s nuclear development, Russia aims to emphasise its own significance to Gulf states. This is partly to build stronger economic ties with GCC states by attracting a larger volume of investments to Russia. Attempts to coordinate prices and production in the global oil market with the help of Saudi Arabia is just as significant a motive.

Religious soft power[vi] has proven to be a particularly valuable asset of cultural diplomacy to Russia in its dealings with Gulf states. The shared Islamic identity of over 25 million Muslims living inside the Federation is instrumental in this regard. The people-to-people efforts of Ramzan Kadyrov and Rustam Minnikhanov, the influential leaders of Muslim-majority Chechnya and Tatarstan respectively, significantly contributed to building good relations between Moscow and Gulf leaders (particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain).[vii] Such connections have been frequently leveraged over the past six years for the sake of economic collaboration. For example, in 2017, the Shaykh Zayed Foundation (UAE) was established to support entrepreneurship and innovation, with $50 million to support the Chechen economy. Russia’s geopolitical status as a permanent player in the MENA region is reflected in the acceptance of its role in Syria and Libya by Gulf leaderships.

An added benefit of maintaining friendly ties with Israel is that President Vladimir Putin can project the image that Russia is far from being an isolated actor. This is further balanced by Russia fostering relations with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Fostering closer cultural ties with Israel has also led to a number of political benefits for Russia. Israel is home to more than a million Russian-speaking citizens born in the former Soviet states,[viii] allowing Moscow to deploy culture as a tool for facilitating economic cooperation, specifically trade in high-tech commodities such as nanotechnology. Moreover, an added benefit of maintaining friendly ties with Israel – Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East – is that President Vladimir Putin can project the image that Russia is far from being an isolated actor. This is further balanced by Russia fostering relations with the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank as well as Hamas in the Gaza Strip. These delicate set of diplomatic ties serve Russia’s sustained presence in the region and across state and non-state actors with markedly differing geopolitical interests.

Soft power lies at the heart of Russia’s complex relationship with Turkey too. The shared Turkic heritage of Russia’s Kazan Tatars and the Turkish population – which includes cultural norms and traditions, a similar language as well as a single religion – has already been operationalised. The head of the Republic of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov has further bolstered this connection by developing a personal tie with the Turkish president. In 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kazan while serving as prime minister[ix] and in 2018, Minnikhanov attended Erdogan’s presidential inauguration.[x] Unsurprisingly, Turks have been the primary investors in Tatarstan’s economy.[xi]

Besides paving the way for long-term investment, the relationship has also played an important role in mitigating acute political crises. In 2015, when a Russian fighter jet was shot down by the Turkish Air Force at the border of Syria[xii], Minnikhanov managed to effectively de-escalate tensions. He assured the Turkish leadership that Turkey’s business interests in Tatarstan would not suffer as a result of the incident. This came at no small political cost, since these assurances were at odds with Moscow’s de facto frozen relations with Turkey. Soft power underpins considerable economic interdependency between Russia and Turkey, complicated by more bespoke relations held by Russia’s federal regions, and assists with balancing complex relations on opposing sides of important regional matters, whether this is in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, or elsewhere. A ‘useful and informative’ meeting between Putin and Erdogan in Sochi on 29 September 2021[xiii] also indicates the furthering of Tatarstan-Turkey relations.

Without diplomatic and cultural efforts deployed in many directions in its foreign policy environment, 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, serves as an additional component in economic collaborations and underlies the ability to maintain complicated and politically delicate relations, despite disagreements between key actors.

[i] See: 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
[ii] 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.
[iii] See also: Christopher Phillips, “The Battle of Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East”, (Yale University Press, US, 2018); Igor Matveev, “Siriya v konflikte” [Syria in Conflict] (Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2020).
[iv] Ghoncheh Tazmini, “Russia-Iranian Alignment: The Pillars of a Paradoxical Partnership”, LSE blog, August 20, 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2020/08/20/russian-iranian-alignment-the-pillars-of-a-paradoxical-partnership/
[v] 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
[vi] 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
[vii] Diana Galeeva, ‘How shared Islamic identities boost Russia-Gulf ties’, Arab News, 8 January 2020, Available at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1610121
[viii] 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
[ix] 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
[x] 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
[xi] 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
[xii] 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
[xiii] See: Al Jazeera ‘Syria high on agenda as Putin and Erdogan meet in Sochi’, 29 September 2021, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/29/syria-high-agenda-putin-erdogan-meet-sochi

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