Middle East, Russian role in

   In the pre-Soviet era, Russia’s relations with the Middle East were colored by the long-running rivalry with the Ottoman Empire, most notably the Crimean War (1853–1856), which began over the treatment of Orthodox Christians in Palestine. During the Soviet era, Nikita Khrushchev expanded Moscow’s relations with the nationalist and socialist Arab regimes to offset Western backing of the new state of Israel and the anti-Communist regime of pre-revolutionary Iran, including providing arms, logistical support, and economic aid.
   During the 1960s and 1970s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) developed particularly close ties with Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The Kremlin has also been a longtime supporter of Palestinian statehood and Kurdish separatist movements. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980– 1988), the USSR officially adopted a policy of neutrality, though fear of spreading Islamism and losing Iraq to the West tempered this position. In the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule, the United States–led Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein created a crisis within the foreign policy community, as well as domestic problems for Gorbachev, who attempted to maintain his promises to the United Nations while satisfying economic and political interests at home. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Boris Yeltsin adopted a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy orientation, effectively eschewing the ideological support for local potentates that had characterized his predecessors; however, established interests in the region—particularly arms exports—ensured that Russia would continue to play a role in regional politics. Yeltsin also normalized relations with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Turkey. Under the influence of Yevgeny Primakov, Russia began to renew its political—rather than just economic—ties to the region, particularly Syria and Iran, both major critics of Washington. With a generation of foreign policy specialists trained in Arabic and Middle Eastern affairs, the new posture was welcomed by many siloviki>. Gazprom and other corporate interests also backed the return of Russian interest in the region.
   Such trends continued under Vladimir Putin, who condemned the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, brought Russia into the Organization of the Islamic Conference as a permanent observer in 2005, and invited a senior delegation of Hamas officials to visit the country after their 2006 electoral victory in the Gaza Strip. In 2007, Putin was the first Russian leader ever to visit Saudi Arabia. He also reinvigorated Russian participation in the Middle East peace process as part of the Quartet, which also includes the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations. Putin’s rejection of a “one-size-fits-all” model of Western democracy proved exceptionally palatable to many of the region’s leaders, especially monarchs and long-serving autocrats like Muammar al-Gaddafi. Russia’s relations with Israel have also been in flux, partly due to the large Russophone diaspora in the country and increased economic ties between Moscow and the Jewish state.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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