The year 2015 was very controversial and ambiguous for Russia, particularly regarding its military and foreign policies. Its unprecedented involvement in the Middle East, and its engagement with the Muslim world, reflect fundamental changes in Russia’s self-positioning on the world stage.
Many Middle Eastern countries became important strategic partners, and Russia - where Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully - showed readiness to contribute to the global fight against extremism, and to promote moderate Islam.
Moscow increased cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Even the current ban on flight communication between Russia and Egypt, temporarily imposed by Moscow, cannot spoil bilateral ties because it is based on security matters, not political ones.
The coming year will be marked by the improvement of Russian ties with Middle Eastern countries.Maria Dubovikova
Russia has demonstrated its willingness to challenge U.S. dominance of the Middle East military market, with cheaper and sometimes better military equipment. Moscow finally delivered the S-300 missile system to Iran following a deal reached long ago, and its delivery did not have regional repercussions. Nor did Russia’s S-400 deployment in Syria - on the contrary, it has forced all sides involved in the conflict to be more restrained and think twice before acting.
In 2015, Russia demonstrated how far it would go to defend its national interests, with little to lose after being put under pressure and threatened for too long, particularly due to the Ukraine crisis. Russians view Western sanctions as unmasking unfriendly intentions, and so have had the effect opposite to the one expected.
The coming year will be marked by the improvement of Russian ties with Middle Eastern countries. The Kremlin awaits the visits of the Saudi and Moroccan kings, and the inauguration of investment, industrial and commercial projects in and with Middle Eastern countries. Russia will also try to substitute European and Turkish goods with those from the region.
However, developments from 2015 will limit Moscow’s room for maneuver. The dramatic fall in oil prices will continue to dampen the Russian currency. The bombing of a Russian civilian plane over the Sinai that killed 224 people, and the continuing terrorist threat will weigh on personal liberties and domestic security, hurting civil society and democracy in Russia.
The deterioration of relations with Turkey due to the downing of a Russian fighter jet complicates Moscow’s position in the Middle East. Its expensive military operations in Syria will not end soon as there is no predetermined time limit and the goals are vague - this will weigh heavily on the national budget and economy.
To overcome these difficulties, Russia will diversify and develop its ties with Middle East countries. Most likely its policies will remain unchanged, no matter what the risks. The year 2015 was tough, but the coming year may be tougher.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme
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