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From: "Robert O. Freedman" <rofreedman@comcast.net>
Subject: Article on the Russian Reaction to the Arab Spring
Date: Tue, 19 Jul 2011

By Robert O. Freedman

[DJ: Footnotes not here]

Dr. Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches courses on Russian Foreign Policy and on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Among his recent publications are RUSSIA,IRAN AND THE NUCLEAR QUESTION:THE PUTIN RECORD and CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL: DOMESTIC POLITICS,FOREIGN POLICY AND SECURITY CHALLENGES

"I think that these processes (of the Arab Spring) have no direct impact on us. Although one should recognize that there are certain financial costs as we had to stop our involvement in some economic projects and military and technical cooperation in some cases. I am sure that the ongoing events cannot break the huge, mutually fruitful potential of cooperation that has been stockpiling for years... (However) If the region's countries turn out to be under weak control of the central authorities, this would be fertile soil for international terrorism's efforts, illicit drug trafficking , trans-border crime, and illegal migration"
-- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, 5 July 2011

When the "Arab Spring" erupted on the world scene in January 2011, Russia, like the rest of the world, was caught by surprise. Before going into the Russian reaction to the developments in the Arab world, however, it is necessary to first evaluate the position of Russia in the Middle East at the time of the uprisings. Thus we will first examine Russia's goals in the region under Russian leader Vladimir Putin, although, as will be noted in the essay, several elements of Russian policy in the Middle East, particularly Russian policy in Iran and Libya, have also been shaped by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Second, an assessment will be made of the success Putin had achieved in attaining his goals on the eve of the Arab Spring. The final section of the paper will discuss the Russian reaction to the Arab Spring, with particular attention to Libya and Syria, countries where Russian policy has diverged most strongly from that of NATO..

A. Putin's Goals for the Middle East

As they have developed in the more than ten years since he became Russia's leader, Putin's goals in the Middle East are basically fourfold. First , he has sought to restore Russia's status as a great power, thereby ending US dominance of the post-Cold War world, and the Middle East, where the US had become vulnerable because of its on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure of its leadership in the Arab-Israeli peace process had both angered and alienated many Middle Eastern states. Second, he has sought to develop the Russian economy, particularly in the high-tech area, and he has sought to sell not only sophisticated armaments but also nuclear reactors to Middle Eastern States, while at the same time trying to get them to invest in the Russian economy Third, as Russian oil and natural gas reserves become more expensive to exploit, Putin has sought to establish partnerships with Middle Eastern oil and natural gas producers. Finally, he has sought to minimize Middle Eastern aid to Chechen and other Islamist insurgents in Russia's North Caucasus region.!1)

B. The Russian position in the Middle East in December 2010

There is no question but that after Yeltsin's decade of relative absence from the Middle East(1991-2000)---except for Iran and Turkey- and Putin's own first term in which his posture to the Middle East was basically defensive, the Russian leader has succeeded in restoring Russia's presence in the region. Second, while Russia certainly has a renewed presence, there is a real question as to the degree in which Moscow has been able to exercise real influence in the Middle East. Third, as Moscow increased its presence in the Middle East, it has also increased its dilemma of choice as to which side to back in the numerous conflicts that pervaded the region. Finally, the Middle East has become of increasing economic importance to Moscow, and Putin has pursued economic relationships with almost all the countries in the region.

One of Putin's goals as he began to pursue a more assertive role in the Middle East beginning in late 2004, was to demonstrate Russia's renewed visibility in the region, as Putin sought to compensate for setbacks in Beslan and Ukraine. He accomplished this through personal visits as to Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in the December 2004-April 2005 period, to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iran in 2007, to Libya in 2008, and to Turkey in 2009; major arms sales, as to Iran and Syria in 2005;diplomatic support for rogue states and organizations such as Syria and Iran in 2005,and Hamas and Hizbollah in 2006; and by gaining observer status in the Islamic conference in 2005.

There is a question, however, as to how much this renewed presence had led to renewed influence for Russia in the Middle East. To be sure, at least formally, Saudi Arabia committed itself to help the official government in Chechnya instead of the Islamic rebels fighting it, and Israel agreed to attend Russia's long desired---and long postponed---Moscow Middle East peace conference. Yet these were relatively minor concessions. On the more important issues, Putin has been less successful. Thus he had been unable to get Iran to desist from its uranium enrichment program, or even to get Tehran to send its enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment. He had also been unable, by December 2010, to forge a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, or even to get Hamas to change its program which calls for Israel's destruction, despite Moscow's carrying on formal negotiations with Hamas since 2006. In addition, Moscow's openings to Turkey and Saudi Arabia were made possible, in large part, by these countries' disenchantment with the United States invasion of Iraq and its aftermath which strengthened both the Kurdish and Shia sectors of the Iraqi population; while Moscow's deepened relations with both Syria and Iran was facilitated by these countries regional and international isolation.

Nonetheless, as Moscow deepened its relations with many of the countries of the Middle East, it began to run into serious problems of choice. Not only was it stuck on the horns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Moscow endeavored, with limited success as its conflicting votes in the United Nations on the Goldstone report indicated, to maintain good ties with both Israel and Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, but also, after the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza in June 2007, to try to maintain good ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. By the latter part of 2009, perhaps frustrated by Hamas's obduracy, Moscow had tilted a bit closer to both Israel and Abbas and away from Hamas. However,in 2010, with prospects for the Middle East Peace Conference in Moscow fading, Putin and Medvedev made it clear both to Israel and to Abbas' Palestinian Authority, that Moscow was continuing its contacts with Hamas, and Medvedev even recommended that Hamas be included in the Middle East Peace process. Another difficult problem of choice for Moscow lay in the rapidly escalating political conflict between Iran and the Sunni states of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. It would appear that the fact that Russia agreed to minor UN Security Council sanctions against Iran both before and after Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar in 2007, the delay in completing the Bushehr reactor, and the Russian vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency in late 2009 to condemn Iran for building a secret nuclear facility near Qom, were aimed, in part, to assuage Sunni Arab anger at the role Moscow had played in developing Iran's nuclear program and military capability.This, plus an improved tie to the United States(the START Agreeement had just been signed), would appear to explain Moscow's willingness to agree to a somewhat tougher sanctions resolution against Iran in June 2010, as well as to its cancelling its SAM-3000 deal with Iran This, in turn, however, angered Iran and put the worst chill in Russian-Iranian relations since Putin became Russia's President in 2000. Nonetheless, it was still a very open question as to whether Russia, given the expanding Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus, and its own expanding economic interests in Iran, especially in Iran's oil and natural gas sectors, would actually vote to endorse serious sanctions against Iran which would include a ban on trade with and investments in the Islamic Republic, in particular in the energy sector.

Finally, economic gain was also a goal of Putin's increased activity in the Middle East, and in this area his efforts met with a modicum of success. Turkey became a major trade partner for Russia, especially as a market for Russian natural gas exports, and it could also become a major hub for Russian oil and natural gas exports to Europe and the Middle East. Russia and Turkey also signed an agreement in 2010 under which Russia would sell nuclear reactors to Turkey. Arms sales, as in the case of the Soviet Union, were also a component of Russian foreign economic policy, and while Iran was a major market for such Russian weapons systems as combat aircraft and submarines, until the June 2010 sanctions resolution which barred certain classes of arms. Moscow has also begun to penetrate the arms markets of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Whether Moscow would be able to get the major investments it wants from the Gulf Arabs, however, remains to be seen, although the United Arab Emirates has invested in Russia. Economic relations also played a role in Russian-Israeli relations, as Putin's desire to wean Russia off its dependence on energy exports made Israel's small, but high tech economy very attractive, particularly in the area of nanotechnology which Russia was trying to develop. Israel also signed an agreement to provide military drones to Russia and agreed to build a drone factory in Russia. In addition, by the latter part of the decade Russia was beginning to run into problems producing oil and natural gas which had become more difficult and more expensive to extract. Consequently, Gasprom, Lukoil and Rosneft, among other Russian energy companies sought deals with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar , Algeria, and other Middle Eastern states where the cost of production was considerably below that of Russia. The success of these ventures, as well as those with Cuba and Venezuela and other countries with which Russia has signed exploration agreements, however, is not yet clear, although Russian energy companies did sign a series of agreements with Libya,Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

Thus, by December 2010, Russia had reemerged in the Middle East under Putin as a diplomatic, economic and military supply actor. Yet its political influence remained limited and it appears that Putin's Putin's primary achievement in the region was to demonstrate that Russia was again a factor in the Middle East, even if its influence in the region remained limited. The Arab Spring, however, was to challenge all of Putin's goals , and it is not yet clear, despite the optimistic tone of Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov's comments, whether Russia has yet come to grips with the implications of the. Middle East revolutions, which, at the time of writing(July 2011), continue to sweep the Middle East.


The Arab Spring caught Russia, as it did the United States and indeed the rulers of the countries affected, by surprise(2) In a dynamic somewhat reminiscent of the events in Eastern Europe in 1989, the revolutions quickly spread from Tunisia to Egypt and then to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Jordan. Although each country differed significantly from the others, there were four common themes: [1] resistance to autocratic rule, [2] widespread perception of corruption [3] the lack of social mobility for the "youth bulge" in each country combined with high youth unemployment, and [4] a steady rise in the cost of living. When long-time dictator of Tunisia, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown by a popular uprising in mid-January 2011, primarily youthful demonstrators staged similar protests in Egypt, ultimately toppling President Hosni Mubarak in mid-February, and the Arab Spring, as it came to be known, spread from there.

As far as the Russian leadership was concerned, there appeared to be some initial concern that the revolutions in the Arab World could spread to Russia as well. Russia too was marked by an autocratic government, widespread corruption---something Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had openly complained about---and rising prices, with inflation reaching nearly 10% in 2010 .( 3) Indeed, Russia's pro-democracy opposition cheered the events in Tunisia and Egypt, with comments such as "The(revolutionary) train stopped at the station in Cairo. Next stop: Moscow" and " Start packing your bags, Vladimir" (4). Medvedev took a tough line on such attitudes, and in an almost cold war era response, asserted that the revolts in the Arab World were instigated by "outside forces" that were also trying to topple the Russian Government. In the words of Medvedev, "Lets face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it." (5)

However, Medvedev's concern was very much exaggerated. Russia had gone through a very chaotic period only a decade before under Yeltsin, and with the exception of a relatively small group of reformers, Russians showed little inclination to oust the ruling duo of Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by street protests. Second, unlike the case in Egypt, the Russian religious authorities in the Orthodox Church had closely aligned themselves with the regime(a situation somewhat reminiscent of Tsarist Russia) As far as Western instigation of the Arab Spring was concerned, Russia's leading Middle East expert(and former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) Yevgeny Primakov, no friend of the United States, publically ruled out the idea that the US had orchestrated the revolts, asserting that he was convinced, after visiting the United States, that the developments in Egypt "provided a true shock for the Americans" (6)

In weighing the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East caused by the Arab Spring, Moscow could note some short term gains to its Middle East position, as well as the possibility of some long-term losses. By early March 2011, the price of oil had risen 24% as compared to the beginning of January, reaching over $110 per barrel. This enabled Russia to meet its projected budget deficit from the increased oil revenues, and even rebuild its sovereign wealth fund which had been depleted by the 2008 world economic crisis, even though Russia remained plagued by capital flight. (7) In addition, with the possibility of natural gas supplies to Europe being cut off due to the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa---the Europeans had been trying to diversify their sources of natural gas by buying LNG (liquefied natural gas) from the Middle East so as to lessen their dependence on Moscow---Russia saw the possibility of increasing its natural gas sales to Europe. Indeed, in a visit to Brussels in late February, Putin took pride in pointing to Russia as a reliable natural gas supplier (8)

On the downside, however, Moscow had to worry about its own oil and gas investments in the Middle East which were at risk if the turmoil got worse, as well as the possible loss of arms and industrial deals it had signed with countries such as Libya and Syria (see below). A second problem for Moscow lay in the possibility that conservative Islamist forces, both of the Salafi and Moslem Brotherhood type, could be the big winners of the Arab Spring, particularly if free and fair elections were held in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Given the fact that Russia's North Caucasus continued to simmer with Islamic unrest, with continuing Islamist attacks in Dagestan, Chechnya, Northern Ossetia, and Ingushetia, and an Islamist terror attack on Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January 2011, Moscow had cause for concern. Islamist victories in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria , and possibly in Libya as well, could give added impetus to the Islamic uprising in the North Caucasus---something Putin had tried to prevent by having Russia admitted to the Islamic Conference as an observer and by courting Saudi Arabia (9)..Indeed Putin, in Brussels, had stated : " Regardless of the calming theories that radical groups coming to power in North Africa is unlikely, if it happens it can not but spread to other areas of the world, including the Northern Caucasus" (10)

On the other hand, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, the ouster of leaders closely linked to the United States and the West held some potential benefits for Moscow, Especially in Egypt, the close link between the Mubarak regime and the United States had, among other issues, such as the Arab-Israeli Conflict, made the United States highly unpopular, despite US President Barak Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009. Whether or not Moscow could benefit from the situation was, however, an open question. First, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was running the country until the planned September 2011 elections, had close ties with the US military, and there was a good bit of suspicion that the Egyptian Army would be highly influential in the new government. Second, because of a serious drought in Russia in 2010, Putin had declared a ban on wheat exports in August 2010, thereby considerably complicating Egypt's efforts to import the grain because Russia had accounted for more than half of Egypt's wheat imports before the embargo. The end result was that when Russia again began to export wheat in 2011, the Egyptians excluded Russia from the June 2011 tender, with the Vice Chairman of Egypt's State Wheat Purchasing Agency stating "Last year the Russians failed to ship some quantities that were agreed upon, even before the ban came into effect, and that is why I am wary of the Russian side. When we are sure that the Russian side is stable, we will reinclude it. " (11)

If Russia hoped to make gains in Tunisia and Egypt, it sought to avoid losses in Libya and Syria, whose regimes were seriously challenged by the Arab Spring. Indeed, the Russian leadership may have remembered the "Death to Russia" signs carried by anti-regime demonstrators in Iran in 2009. In the case of Libya, Russia appeared to be following what might be termed a zig-zag policy, first opposing sanctions on Libya, but then agreeing to them; first opposing a no fly zone over Libya, then agreeing to it; and then, while criticizing NATO for using excessive force in Libya, agreeing to serve as a mediator between the Libyan rebels and the Kaddafi regime, even as it urged Kaddafi himself to step down. What explains these apparent contradictions in Russian policy ? In part, they were caused by disagreements between Medvedev and Putin---disagreements that broke into the open over the no-fly zone . In part they were also caused by the fact that Moscow did not want to oppose the Arab consensus which supported both sanctions and the no-fly zone. Third, by offering to mediate the conflict Russia was able to demonstrate that it was an important factor in the Middle East. Finally, by maintaining ties with both the Kadddafi regime and the rebels, who with NATO support had been able to consolidate their position in the city of Benghazi, by May, Moscow evidently hoped to preserve both its investments and its markets in Libya, no matter which side eventually won the civil war.

Unlike the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, Russia had major economic interests in Libya. According to a Russian arms supply specialist, Russia had signed $ 2 billion in arms contracts with Libya and had another $ 1.8 billion in contracts under negotiation (12). Thus Russia could lose almost $ 4 billion in arms sales should Kaddafi fall In addition, during his 2008 trip to Libya, Putin had signed a number of major industrial agreements, which were now also in jeopardy. Consequently, when the US and its NATO allies began to call for sanctions against the Kaddafi regime, because of its brutal crackdown on dissidents, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the proposed sanctions would not be effective and rejected them, although Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in a joint statement with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, did say " We condemn and consider unacceptable the use of military force to break up peaceful demonstrations " (13) Several days later, however, Medvedev reversed the Foreign Ministry's position and agreed to the sanctions, which included an arms embargo,, joining in a unanimous Security Council Resolution (No.1970), which also called for Kaddafi's actions to be referred to the International Criminal Court. As Medvedev stated: "We strongly call on the current Libyan authorities to show restraint and not allow a worsening of the situation and the killing of civilians. If they do not, such actions will qualify as crimes, carrying all the consequences of international law." (14)

Kaddafi,however, rejected Medvedev's threat, and as Libyan government forces bore down on Benghazi, there were increasing calls for a no-fly zone to protect the inhabitants of that city. These calls came not only from the US and the European Union, but also from the Arab League, an organization that Moscow, as it was seeking to increase its influence in the Middle East, was loathe to oppose. While Lavrov initially denounced the proposed military intervention as "unacceptable" (15) he was overruled by Medvedev and the end result was that Russia chose to abstain on the UN Security Council Resolution (No. 1973), thus allowing the no-fly zone plan to be adopted. Russia's abstention, however, brought to the surface a major dispute in the Russian leadership over Libya policy. Medvedev had already fired the Russian ambassador to Libya for opposing the sanctions (16), but Putin, speaking at a missile factory in Votkinsk, publically denounced UNSC No. 1973, calling it "defective and flawed" , and asserting, "It allows everything. It resembles Medieval calls for Crusades" (17) Medvedev, in turn, publically contradicted Putin several hours later, stating, " In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that ensure the clash of civilizations, such as crusades and so forth. This is unacceptable. Otherwise everything may wind up far worse." (18) The Putin-controlled Duma , perhaps trying to prevent the dispute from escalating, adopted a compromise position, voting 350-32 to call on NATO to stop all military action against Libya, but also stating that the Russian abstention on UNSC 1973 was "appropriate" (19)

Over the next several months, as NATO airstrikes increased in intensity, Russian criticism of NATO military action grew, but Moscow proved unable to stop the NATO attacks. By the latter part of May, therefore, Moscow adopted a new policy, one of mediation between the rebels and the Kaddafi regime. Thus it invited representatives of both the Kaddafi regime and the rebels to Moscow, and at the G-8 Summit in late May, Medvedev , after meeting with US President Barak Obama, offered to try to persuade Kaddafi to step down from power. As might be expected, Kaddafi was less than enthusiastic about the Russian mediation offer, and the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalid Kaim, stated at a news conference that Libya had expected solidarity from Russia after 40 years of close commercial and political links, not a deal made in France that aligned Moscow with the West in their attempt to oust Kaddafi. Kaim also stated that Libya would not accept any mediation efforts from Moscow unless Russia worked through the African Union---long an ally of Kaddafi, (20)

It appears that Moscow got Kaddafi's message because Medvedev, after appointing a senior Russian political figure, Mikhail Margelov, who was Chairman of the Russian Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, as his special envoy to Libya, sent him not only to meet the Libyan rebels in Benghazi, but also to the African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea in late June, where, after meeting with a number of African leaders, he stated that Russia would step up its contacts with the African Union in seeking a settlement on Libya (21) Moscow appeared now to back the African Union's roadmap for settling the Libyan conflict which, in calling for "broad dialogue" between the sides, was unacceptable both to the Libyan rebels and to NATO. However, the fact that the African Union had offered to mediate the talks seemed to eclipse the month-long Russian effort, although Medvedev, who personally met with South African leader Jacob Zuma when Zuma was on a visit to Moscow in early July, sough to highlight Russia's close cooperation with the African Union in its peace-making efforts. (22)

Thus, at the present time(July 7,2011) it seems that Russia has followed a ziz-zag course on the uprising in Libya, from opposing sanctions to endorsing them,from opposing a no-fly zone over Libya to tacitly endorsing it by abstaining on UNSC 1973, to trying to mediate the conflict itself, to associating itself with the African Union's mediation efforts. It would appear that we might see additional ziz-zags in the future as Moscow tries to deal with the Libyan uprising.

Unlike Libya, however, Russian policy toward the Syrian uprising has been much more consistent. Although the crackdown by the Bashar Assad regime on its citizens has been every bit as brutal as that by Kaddafi, not only has Moscow opposed Libya-type military intervention in Syria, it has also opposed sanctions.against the Assad regime. This has been the case because Syria has long been a major ally of Moscow in the Middle East and, unlike the mercurial regime of Muammar Kaddafi, the Assad regime has real, if diminishing, influence in the Arab World, given its ties to Hizbollah, which since February 2011 has been the dominant power in Lebanon,and Hamas, which controls Gaza and whose headquarters are in Damascus. In addition, Syria has close ties to Iran, and Moscow, whose relations with Iran had deteriorated because of its vote for the UNSC sanctions resolution against Iran in 2010, appears to have little interest in further alienating Tehran with pressure on the Islamic republic's primary Arab ally,Syria. Third, Syria was a major market for Russian arms, most recently the Bastion anti-ship missile, the Pantsir air defense system and the Yakhont cruise missile system (23), and unlike the case in Libya, Moscow had been given the use of naval facilities in Tartus by the Syrian government . Finally, unlike the case in Libya, there was no Arab consensus on dealing with Syria.

Consequently, when the uprising in Syria began, Moscow steadfastly opposed foreign intervention, especially intervention legitimized, as it had been in Libya, by a UN Security Council resolution. In late April, as the uprising against Assad intensified, Alexander Pankin, Russia's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations stated, ":The current situation in Syria, despite the increase in tension, does not represent a threat to international peace and security." Intervention would be "an invitation to civil war" (24) While constantly opposing UN resolutions on Syria, not only those condemning the Assad regime for its crackdown on peaceful protesters but also those dealing with its secret nuclear program first revealed by an Israeli raid in September 2007, Russia was willing to call on the Syrian government to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of demonstrators (25), and for the Assad regime to make reforms. Consequently, when Assad did make some halfhearted reforms, they were praised by Moscow, with Lavrov urging the Syrian protesters to engage in a dialogue with the Syrian regime. After meeting with the French Foreign minister in early July 2011, Lavrov stated that what was needed to calm the situation in Syria was to "transfer the Syrian situation onto a political track as expeditiously as possible. It requires good will on both sides, The authorities need to continue reforms, to pursue them more intensively---this is what we say to our partners in Damascus...On the other hand, the opposition must give up its absolutely uncompromising stance as well as ignoring any suggestions from the Syrian authorities, and begin a dialogue. After all, what has been done and promised is no small thing (26)

As in the case of Libya, however, Moscow sought to keep ties not only with the Syrian government, but also with the Syrian opposition. Thus a delegation of the opposition was invited to visit Moscow by the Russian Afro-Asian Solidarity and Cooperation Society---a low level invitation reminiscent of the times when the Soviet Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Association would make similar invitations to maintain contact with opposition groups (27) Interestingly enough, however, the Syrian group also met with Medvedev's special envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Margelov---possibly as a means of generating additional pressure on the Assad regime to commit itself to serious reforms that could preserve it. As Margelov pointedly noted, "Leaders come and go, politicians come and go, but for Russia there remains a single reliable and trusted friend, the Syrian people." (28) In any case, as far as both Syria and Libya were concerned, Moscow was trying to maintain ties with all sides so as to try to salvage its position no matter who came out on top in the struggle for power. Indeed, the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation visiting Moscow, Radwan Ziadeh, dutifully stated, " We would like the warm relations between Syria and Russia to be preserved even after the President Assad regime is replaced in Syria "(29) Whether the relations would in fact be preserved in such an eventuality, of course, remains to be seen.

If Russia had run into problems in Libya and Syria because of the Arab Spring, it appeared to have better luck, at least initially with the Palestinians. After calling for Palestinian unity since the Hamas-Fatah split of 2007, Russia's hopes seemed to have been realized in early May 2011 when, in part because of popular pressure due to the Arab Spring, Hamas and Fatah finally agreed to tentative unity talks. .. Russia warmly welcomed the agreement, with a Russian Foreign Ministry statement noting, "We welcome the signing of the agreement. (30) Palestinian reconciliation will consolidate the mandate of Abbas' internationally recognized leadership to conduct a full and equal dialogue with Israel". (31) Unfortunately for Moscow, however, the reconciliation efforts ran into trouble almost from the beginning over the selection of the new prime minister and over the release of prisoners.. Despite holding meetings in Moscow at the end of May between Fatah and Hamas(31) , and in early July with a Fatah delegation, that was primarily looking for Russian support for its UN General Assembly statehood bid in September (32), Russian efforts, at least by July 7,2011 to help reunify the factions had not succeeded.

In any case, the visit of the Palestinian delegation to Moscow in early July provides a useful point of departure for drawing some conclusions about Russian policy toward the first half year of the Arab Spring.


The Arab Spring caught the Russians, like everyone else, by surprise. After exhibiting undue concern that the popular uprisings in the Arab World would spread to Moscow, the Russian leadership sought to formulate a policy to deal with the new situation. While Moscow hoped to take advantage of the ouster of pro-Western leaders in Tunisia and Egypt,it also was genuinely worried that Islamist regimes might come to power in these countries, with a negative impact on Russia's restive North Caucasus region. In addition, while it certainly profited from the rise in oil prices caused by the Arab Spring, it had to be concerned about the possible toppling of regimes in Libya and Syria---regimes with which it had major economic, political and military ties. In the case of Libya, open disagreement between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev appeared to account for the zig-zag nature of Russian policy---first opposing and then endorsing UN sanctions, and then first opposing and then acquiescing in a UN Security Council Resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. In the case of Syria, Russian policy was much more straightforward as Moscow came out strongly both against sanctions and against Libya-like foreign military intervention. However, in the case of both Libya and Syria, the Russians sought to hedge their bets by establishing ties with rebel groups, albeit at a lower level in Syria than in Libya.where Medvedev tried-and failed---to serve as a mediator. In the case of both Libya and Syria, Moscow called for the regimes to stop attacks on peaceful protesters, in this area at least, acting in solidarity with the United States and the European Union. As the events unfolded, Moscow also sought to closely coordinate its actions with key regional organizations such as the Arab league and the African Union in the case of Libya, first siding with the Arab League in its call for sanctions and a no-fly zone over Libya, and then with the African Union in its attempts to generate dialogue between the Kaddafi regime and its opponents. Then , in the case of the intra-Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah, Moscow initially benefitted from the apparent reconciliation between the two groups, but when serious disputes between them arose again, Moscow proved, at least so far, unable to forge a new reconciliation.

In sum, in its response to the first six months of the Arab Spring, Russian policy while highly visible in the region has also been highly reactive and in the case of Libya, not well coordinated. Whether, as the Arab Spring spreads into the Summer and Fall, Russia will be able to formulate a more pro-active policy remains to be seen.

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