Russia has seemed open to all parties with high diplomatic capabilities and wisdom in managing its policy, says Nourhan ElSheikh, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, in an interview with valdaiclub.com. According to her, it is moving along parallel paths to achieve its objectives and interests, while avoiding confrontation with other great powers active in the region.
In recent years, Russia has spectacularly returned to the Middle East. How was this development perceived in various countries of the region, in particular, your country?
Russia’s return to the Middle East has been welcomed at both the governmental and public levels. Arabs in general and Egyptians in particular have felt the importance of the Soviet Union, especially after the US occupation of Iraq and the destruction and unprecedented human violations that accompanied it, as well as the catastrophic repercussions of Washington's unilateralism in Middle East affairs. It is usually said that “If the Soviet Union was still there, the United States would not have done it.” This was confirmed with the outbreak of the Arab revolutions in 2011 and the American efforts to enable the Muslim Brotherhood from power not only in Egypt but in the whole region. Within such context, the Russian role in Syria and its strikes against the terrorists have been fully supported by Egypt and other countries in the region, as it matches their interest and national security requirements.
Which regional players welcome Russia’s return, and which ones are rather opposed to it?
Russia’s return has been welcomed obviously in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya’s Haftar and Sudan. Turkey and GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar dislike Russia’s return as the Russian role contradicts their policies that support terrorist groups in the region. They were forced later to develop their relations and reach consensus with Russia.
Does the Soviet legacy impact the perception of modern Russia in the Middle East?
The Soviet legacy still has a certain influence on the image of Russia in the region from two perspectives. On the one hand, there is wide appreciation of the Soviet role, and Russia is an extension of this role in supporting the Arab countries both politically and militarily. Russia is an important partner in achieving progress and development in Arab countries. But on the other hand, many have not realized yet the changes in Russian politics and economy. The communist system and economic deterioration is still in their mind when thinking about Russia.
Russia has managed to maintain ties with all major regional players in the Middle East. What are the peculiarities of its approach, as seen from within the region? In what ways is it different from other external forces’ approaches?
Russia has been able to maintain its relations and develop cooperation with all main regional players in the Middle East, despite the contradictions among them: Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Egypt, Palestine and Israel. Russia has seemed open to all parties with high diplomatic capabilities and wisdom in managing its policy. It is moving along parallel paths to achieve its objectives and interests, while avoiding confrontation with other great powers active in the region.
Despite the contradictions created by the Russian stance on the Syrian crisis with some countries in the region, on the long-term the Russian position was appreciated. Russia seemed to be a “respectable” partner supporting its allies, does not interfere in the internal affairs of the countries in the region, and does not manipulate the stability of these countries, using ethnic, religious, sectarian differences to serve its interests. Similarly, with regard to regional differences, Moscow usually takes a position that supports containment and compromise solutions through dialogue and direct negotiations between the parties concerned, which gained respect and confidence of regional players and encouraged them to build “stable” partnership with Russia.
This is quite different from the impression on US policy. US policies and positions have eroded Washington’s credibility, especially following the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and the US recognition of the Syrian Golan Heights as the territory of Israel.
What countries are seen (or would like to be seen) as Russia’s allies in the region. What are the advantages that closer ties with Russia can give the region’s countries?
Russia has good relations with all the countries in the region, with different degrees. Iran and Syria are strategic allies for Russia. Egypt, Iraq and Algeria are close partners. Libya’s Haftar is a promising one. Russia has also very important cooperation with Turkey. The relationship with Russia gives those countries greater ability to confront hostile US policies and to strengthen them in their fight against terrorism through military and intelligence cooperation. As well as supporting development efforts through technical cooperation and joint investments.
How are Russia’s strategic goals seen in the region?
Russia’s growing role in the region is one of the dimensions of Russia’s policy aimed at asserting its status as a great power and breaking the US encirclement and pressure, especially those related to sanctions that have been renewed and expanded by Washington and its allies in Europe and Asia since March 2014. Russia also protects its status and interests in the energy market. The security considerations of eradicating terrorism in its incubator areas in the Middle East, which represents Russia’s South-Western belt, and from which support for terrorism inside Russia comes, is also a main goal.