ANALYSIS: Is Russia’s ‘neutrality’ over Qatar Crisis a sign of its dilemma?

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During the past month, the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt has attracted global attention.

When the Qatari foreign minister visited Moscow on June 11 and held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Moscow expressed a positive outlook for a quick resolution of the crisis and its readiness to take necessary steps to this end.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also had telephone discussions with the Qatari leader and stressed the need for diplomacy to end the dispute, the Kremlin said on July 1.

It is interesting that Russia appears to remain neutral, while closely monitoring the situation. It is also true that the most important agenda of Russia’s Middle East policy is Syria. For a long time, Russia has been supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime against the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. For Russia, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood presents threats not only in Syria but also in Egypt and Libya.

With a close eye on this scenario, while Russia is expected to stand beside Arab countries under Saudi Arabia’s leadership against Qatar, Moscow prefers to remain silent and neutral on the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Allying with Iran

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that in its Middle East policy, Russia has an important ally in Iran, as well as those close to the Baathist ideology. It is necessary to make sense of this policy.

After the Cold War, Russia’s relations with Tehran became a decisive factor in Moscow’s Middle East policy. The weakening of Iran in the Middle East means that Moscow is losing one of its most important ally in the region.

Russia is trying not to disrupt its relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan as well as Qatar, and in a sense is trying to balance all these relations. Since Iran is an ally of Russia, it is also trying not to push Arab countries and their leaders against it.

Energy ties

Most analysts have overlooked the fact that strong economic and energy ties exist between Russia and Qatar.

Due to Russia’s problems with Ukraine, and the subsequent embargo on Russia, in 2016 the Qatar Investment Authority received a 19 percent share of Russian state oil company Rosneft worth $10 billion.

İn the same year, Qatar received a 25 percent share of Germany’s Forport and Greece’s Copelouzos joint venture company for the Vnukova Airport located in Moscow. As a result, Qatar became one of the most important investors at a time when Russia was experiencing economic embargoes from the West, and it was able to emerge from a sticky situation.

For Russia, these investments have great symbolic and material values and were important factors in promoting relations between the two countries. Some rumors go to the extent of suggesting that Qatar has helped Russia with large sums when it experienced an economic crisis.

The Astana process

It is also possible that economic relations between Doha and Moscow are one of the reasons that triggered the changes in the Syrian policies of Russia in 2016 and the Syrian peace process in Astana.

As a result, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood have not been perceived as the most important obstacle in Russia’s Middle East policy and Qatar’s economic investments have played an important role to overcome the disparities towards the country.

On the other hand, Moscow, which is aware of the danger of Iran’s interference in the Middle East, could have looked for opportunities to benefit economically and geopolitically by following a neutral position in the crisis between Qatar and other Arab countries.

This way, Russia may believe it can sustain its own existence as well as further its economic and geopolitical interests in the region.
Orhan Gafarli a Political Risk Analyst at the Ankara Policy Center and also is a contributor analyst at The Jamestown Foundation.