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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Russian Policy Toward the Middle East Under Yeltsin and Putin

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Iran, Iraq, The Middle East, Turkey
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 461     September 2001

Under New Leadership

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main successor state, Russia, emerged in a greatly weakened geopolitical position. Complicating Russia’s problems was a politically weak and often physically sick President Boris Yeltsin. Concerned about its “soft underbelly” in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, regions that were threatened by radical Islam, Moscow focused its Middle East efforts on Turkey and Iran, both of which had a considerable amount of influence in the two regions. Moscow sold nuclear reactors and sophisticated military equipment to Iran, as the two countries developed a tactical alliance. Russia had a more mixed relationship with Turkey, alternating between confrontation and cooperation. Russia also sought to get the sanctions lifted against Iraq, a development that would strengthen the greatly troubled Russian economy as well as help Russia politically. In the case of Israel, Moscow developed very close cultural, economic, and military ties, although there were a number of ups and downs in diplomatic relations. Under Putin, there was a more centralized control over Russian foreign policy as the new Russian leader sought to have a more assertive foreign policy for his country, and became much more active than Yeltsin had been in promoting Russian interests in the Middle East.

It has now been ten years since the Soviet Union collapsed and over a year since Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as the president of the Russian Federation. This brief evaluation of Russian policy toward the Middle East over the last decade will examine the degree to which that policy has begun to change under Putin, who was elected president in March 2000.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia faced a far different strategic situation than did the Soviet Union. With a host of new states on Russia’s southern borders, six of them Muslim, the Russian leadership faced a series of new challenges in its dealings with the Middle East. In addition, while Soviet policy toward the Middle East was, at least until 1988, ideologically driven to a greater or lesser degree, the policies of Yeltsin were to prove far more pragmatic, if also far more disjointed, than those of his Soviet predecessors, as a number of often conflicting interest groups sought to openly influence Russian policy in the Middle East, although Putin has brought some of these groups back under control. Third, to a far greater degree than in the Soviet period, Russian policy-making in the Middle East became an issue in Russia’s domestic politics as Yeltsin, in responding to an increasingly right-wing Russian parliament (Duma), sought to tailor Russian policy toward the region at least to some degree to satisfy his critics in parliament. Putin, working with a much more supportive Duma, did not have to face this problem, although his nationalist policies were in tune with the majority of the Duma.


Russia’s New Regional Priorities

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia suddenly found itself with fourteen new neighbors, six of them (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaizhan [in Transcaucasia] and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan [in Central Asia]) directly bordering the Middle East. Since four of these states (Azerbaizhan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) and two other states bordering or close to Russia on its southern border (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) were dealing with the revival of Islam, which had long been suppressed under communism, concerns about Islamic radicalism were added to the geopolitical concern in Moscow about the future direction of these countries’ foreign and domestic policies. Russia also had concerns about drug and arms smuggling, as well as creating a new defense perimeter along Russia’s southern frontier (most Soviet defense installations on Russia’s south now lay in the newly independent states) and, consequently, what happened in these new countries became of paramount importance for Moscow.

While regaining a modicum of control over these countries became a primary objective of Russian policy during the decade of the 1990s, the Russian leadership soon found itself in a competition for influence with the United States and its NATO ally Turkey, and was initially concerned that Iran’s radical Islamic regime would seek to spread its influence in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Consequently, Russia’s primary foreign policy foci in the Middle East became Iran and Turkey as Moscow found itself dealing with them not only in such bilateral areas as trade and arms sales, but also in the geopolitics of Transcaucasia and Central Asia, regions that became of increasing challenge to Moscow given the two wars in Chechnya, the civil war in Tajikistan, the rise of the Islamic radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan, an Islamic insurgency in Central Asia, and the Russian-American energy competition over the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea.

If Turkey and Iran were Moscow’s first priority in the Middle East, the second main Russian priority was the Persian Gulf. In the oil-rich and strategically important region Moscow sought, albeit without a great deal of success, to balance its policy among Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The third and by far the least important priority for Moscow was the Arab-Israeli zone composed of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. During most of the post-World War II Soviet period this region was of primary importance to Moscow as the Soviet leaders sought to construct an “anti-imperialist” Arab unity based on Arab hostility to what the USSR called the “linchpin” of Western imperialism, Israel. In one of the major transformations of its policy, Moscow now sees Israel as its closest collaborator among this group of states. Not only is Israel Russia’s leading trade partner in the Arab-Israeli zone, it is also home to one million Russian-speaking former residents of the USSR who have kept close cultural ties with their former homeland, and Russia and Israel, despite serious differences over Russia’s supply of atomic energy and missile technology to Iran, have begun to closely collaborate in developing military equipment for sale to Third World countries.

In sum, Russia’s regional priorities have shifted dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Moscow’s primary focus on Central Asia and Transcaucasia significantly affecting Russian policy toward the Middle East.


The Impact of Domestic Politics

Following the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in response to the highly pro-American policy of Yeltsin in the Middle East and elsewhere during his first year as president of an independent Russia (1992), opposition to his policies began to grow in the Duma, which served as the most important sounding board for elite opponents of Yeltsin’s foreign policy. As successive Duma elections in December 1993 and December 1995 produced increasingly hardline, nationalist, and anti-Yeltsin majorities, Yeltsin, who had dissolved the Duma by force in October 1993, chose increasingly to tailor his policies to meet Duma criticism. Indeed, following the 1995 Duma elections Yeltsin fired pro-Western Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, and replaced him with the far more hardline Yevgeny Primakov, a former KGB operative with extensive experience in the Middle East, who was highly respected in the Duma. Indeed, until he became prime minister following the August 1998 economic crisis, Primakov could be seen as Yeltsin’s ambassador to the Duma.

Within the Duma during Yeltsin’s era there were three major groups. On one end of the spectrum were the “Atlanticists,” who placed primary emphasis on good ties with the United States and wanted Russia to be part of Western civilization. On the issue of Russian policy toward the “near abroad” — the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union — the Atlanticists stressed normal diplomatic relations, without Russia seeking to impose its will from a dominant position. Finally, in the area of economics, the Atlanticists advocated rapid economic reform and privatization.

In the center of the Russian political spectrum were the “Eurasianists.” They advocated a balanced foreign policy approach for Russia, with equal emphasis on Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. On the issue of relations with the “near abroad,” they advocated an assertive policy so that Russia would be clearly the dominant outside power. Finally, they advocated slower economic reform and privatization than the Atlanticists.

The group on the far end of the Russian political spectrum in the Duma was the odd combination of ultra-nationalists and unrepentant Communists. This grouping was outspokenly anti-American (and anti-Israel), called for the re-establishment of Russian hegemony in the “near abroad” and, while divided on the issue of privatization, agreed that Russia should be a strong centralized state. During the period 1993-1999, as the Duma moved steadily to the right, Yeltsin took an increasingly harder line in Russian foreign policy, especially toward the “near abroad” and the Middle East. The Duma has, at least initially, been far more supportive of Putin, himself a strong Russian nationalist with an often confrontational policy toward the U.S., especially in the Middle East.


Russia’s Military and Economic Weakness

Traditionally, countries operating in the foreign policy arena have had two major instruments with which they have pursued their foreign policy goals. First and foremost has been the threat or actual use of military force. Second, and increasingly important in the post-cold war international environment, has been the economic instrument, usually in the form of the granting of economic assistance or the denial of trade. A country’s diplomacy ideally maximizes the utility of both foreign policy instruments. The problem that Moscow faces at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that both its military and its economic instruments of foreign policy are very weak and there are very few resources to back Russian diplomacy, in the Middle East or elsewhere.

In the area of military power, despite still possessing an extensive — albeit deteriorating — array of nuclear weapons (which are of limited utility in post-cold war crises), Russia has very little in the way of capability. The disastrous performance of the Russian army in the first Chechen war and its highly problematic performance in the second have shown just how weak the Russian armed forces have become. Indeed, in mid-December 2000, Russia had to totally reorganize its military operations in Chechnya after suffering a number of stinging attacks by the Chechen rebels. Despite efforts by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev to reform the army, little progress was made. Under Yeltsin, graft and corruption were endemic and there were numerous cases of soldiers and sailors not being paid for months at a time. Other problems limiting the Russian military’s conventional war fighting capability were that its air force pilots have very few hours to train in the air, and that much of the Russian army and navy’s military equipment has sharply deteriorated. Compounding the problem was a drop in spending on the Russian military under Yeltsin which was estimated in 1999 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to have dropped by thirty percent per year since 1992. While the dash of Russian paratroops to the Pristina airport in Kosovo at the start of the NATO peacekeeping effort there and Russian bomber forays to test U.S. defenses in Iceland and near the west coast of the United States captured the headlines, they served primarily as a smokescreen for the decline of Russian military power under Yeltsin.

Putin has begun to move to shore up the Russian military in a number of ways. First, he has decided to cut the number of civilian and military staff in the army by 600,000 people over the five-year period 2001-2006. These numbers include 365,000 soldiers and sailors, 130,000 civilians, and 105,000 troops in other quasi-military forces such as Ministry of Interior troops, border guards, and railway troops. Putin also appears to have begun to crack down on graft and corruption in the Russian military by indicting Col. General Georgi Olernik on suspicion of embezzling $450 million. Perhaps most important of all, Putin has moved to increase spending on the Russian military-industrial complex by 50 percent, hoping thereby to strengthen both Russia’s military and its economy.

Russia’s economic strength is even more problematic. Even before the collapse of the ruble in August 1998, the Russian economy had been in sharp decline. In 1997, before the crisis, the Russian gross domestic product was only 58 percent of the 1989 figure, and economists of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development have estimated that it declined another 3.5 percent in 1998. While Russia continues to be the recipient of IMF loans — another sign of its economic weakness — it has yet to create a climate that fosters domestic investment, let alone one that would attract substantial foreign investment, because of fuzzy tax laws, local “partners” (some of whom are mafia) who do not respect partnership agreements, and numerous other problems, including product counterfeiting and differences between the provincial and federal governments on taxation, regulation, and the protection of foreign investments. Russia also suffers from a chronic problem of capital flight, with an estimated $100 billion having left Russia during Yeltsin’s era, as well as a deteriorating infrastructure and a continuing inability to collect taxes.

The Asian crisis of 1998 also struck a major blow at Moscow as some of Russia’s Asian arms clients had to defer their purchases of Russian arms. Indeed, arms sales, which along with oil are Russia’s main exports, fell from a high of $5.3 billion in 1995 to only $2.3 billion in 1998, although with the Asian recovery arms sales rose to $4.1 billion in 1999.

Perhaps the only bright spots in the Russian economy — something that has greatly helped Putin — has been the rapid rise in oil prices in 1999 and 2000, giving Moscow a bit more breathing room, and the fact that the drop in the value of the ruble made many imports prohibitively costly, thus invigorating some Russian industries. Nonetheless, without serious structural reform, a problem Putin has only begun to work on, the Russian economy will remain in deep trouble, and Russia, dependent on aid from the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, may well remain a recipient of economic assistance rather than a donor, as it was in the days of the USSR. This greatly restrains the ability of Moscow to seriously influence events in the Middle East, as well as elsewhere in the world. President Putin’s plan to invest more heavily in Russia’s military-industrial complex, while helpful to him politically, may not bode well for the health of the Russian economy as a whole.


Russia and Iran

Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. Russia has been providing a nuclear reactor and sophisticated military equipment to Iran, as well as diplomatic support against U.S. efforts to isolate it. The two countries are also diplomatic allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan, in helping to maintain peace in Tajikistan, and in trying to curb Azerbaizhani efforts to develop their nation into a strong state. Nonetheless, the Russian economic collapse of August 1998, coupled with internal developments in Iran, and Russia’s second war in Chechnya, threatened to erode relations.

The rapid development of Russian-Iranian relations has its origins in the latter part of the Gorbachev era. After alternately supporting first Iran and then Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, by July 1987 Gorbachev had clearly tilted toward Iran. With the Iranian air force badly eroded by the Iran-Iraq war and by the refusal of the United States to supply spare parts, let alone new planes to replace losses in the F-14s and other aircraft which the United States had sold to the Shah’s regime, Soviet military equipment was badly needed.

Given Iran’s need for sophisticated arms, the pragmatic Iranian leader, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was careful not to alienate either the Soviet Union or Russia. Thus, when Azerbaizhan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in November 1991, Iran, unlike Turkey, did not recognize its independence until after the USSR collapsed. Similarly, Iran kept a relatively low profile in the newly independent states of Central Asia, emphasizing cultural and economic ties rather than Islam as the centerpiece of their relations. This was due in part to the fact that after more than 70 years of Soviet rule, Islam was in a weak state in the countries of the former Soviet Union; the leaders of the Muslim successor states were all secular Muslims, and the chances for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution were very low. Indeed, some skeptics argued that Iran was simply waiting for mosques to be built and Islam to mature before trying to bring about Islamic revolutions. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership basically saw Iran as acting very responsibly in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and this was one of the factors which encouraged it to continue supplying Iran with modern weaponry — including submarines — despite strong protests from the United States.

Finally, a greatly weakened Russia has found Iran a useful ally in dealing with a number of very sensitive Middle Eastern, Caucasian, Transcaucasian, and Central and Southwest Asian political hot spots. These include Chechnya, where Iran kept a very low profile in the first Chechen war despite the use by the Chechen rebels of Islamic themes in their conflict with Russia; Tajikistan, where Iran helped Russia achieve a political settlement, albeit a shaky one; Afghanistan, where both Russia and Iran have stood together against Taliban efforts to seize control over the country; and Azerbaizhan, which neither Iran, with a sizeable Azeri population of its own, nor Russia wish to see emerge as a significant economic and military power. In addition, as NATO expands eastward, many Russian nationalists call for a closer Russian-Iranian relationship as a counterbalance, especially as Turkey is seen by many Russians as closely cooperating with its NATO allies in expanding its influence in both Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Finally, Iran has, so far at least, been an ally for Russia in its efforts to limit the independent development of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas by Azerbaizhan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.


Pipeline Politics

While Russia continued to cooperate with Iran in the nuclear field, however much it protested that it was not helping to provide Tehran with missile technology or nuclear weapons assistance, the two countries stepped up their cooperation over the politics of the Caspian Sea, if not over its legal status. Iran, with little oil of its own in its Caspian coastal shelf, had opposed the Russian-Kazakh agreement of July 1998 which partially divided the Caspian Sea, and continued to call for an equal sharing of the sea’s resources. Efforts of the U.S. to promote the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and the TransCaspian gas pipeline, however, drew Iran and Russia closer together. Both became increasingly concerned about Azerbaizhan’s and Georgia’s willingness to cooperate ever more closely with NATO, a development that was reinforced by the decision at the OSCE meeting in Istanbul on November 18, 1999, to move forward with the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Perhaps even more disconcerting to both Russia and Iran was the OSCE meeting’s “intergovernmental declaration of intent” to construct a TransCaspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Baku which would then transport the gas to Turkey. Moscow had been hoping to become Turkey’s main natural gas supplier through the “Blue Stream” gas pipeline connecting Russia and Turkey across the bottom of the Black Sea, while Iran had hoped to supply Turkey with gas from Turkmenistan through its own pipelines. From Iran’s point of view, both the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and the TransCaspian pipeline were projects that struck at the heart of its aspirations. First, Iran wanted Caspian oil and natural gas to go through its territory to foreign markets, not through Azerbaizhan, Georgia, and Turkey. Second, the strengthening of Azerbaizhan that would result from the two projects, were they ever to be consummated, was something also to be avoided, especially given the increasingly close ties between the U.S. and Azerbaizhan.

For its part Iran sought to persuade the major oil companies not to go ahead with Baku-Ceyhan for financial reasons. Thus, Iran cut the cost of its oil swaps with Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, and Azerbaizhan by 30 percent, beginning in the year 2000. As Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs Mehdi Hosseini frankly stated, “The reduction would give Iran the upper hand in competing with ‘political alternatives’ for the export of Caspian crude.” Yet, while Iran and Russia were acting in concert to try to stop both the Baku-Ceyhan and TransCaspian pipelines, in the long run their interests in Caspian Sea oil and natural gas differed. Russia wanted the routes to go through its own territory so that it could better control the states of Transcaucasia and Central Asia. For its part Iran continues to openly profess — with support from a number of foreign oil and gas companies — that it can provide the cheapest and safest route for the transshipment of Caspian oil and natural gas. As Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi stated, “We believe in diversity of routes for the transfer of energy, but consider Iran as the best route to the south, east and west.” Still, in the short run at least, Moscow and Tehran cooperated on the Caspian Sea and both benefited from the sharp rise in oil prices that took place in 1999, that had been made possible by increased cooperation among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.


Kosovo and Chechnya

As stories of Russian soldiers massacring Chechen civilians began to leak out, the Iranian leadership, itself divided between reformists and conservatives, was on the horns of a dilemma. As the self-proclaimed defender of Muslims throughout the world, and as the head of the Islamic Conference, Iran could not sit idly by while Russian troops slaughtered the Chechens, who were overwhelmingly Muslim. Consequently, while emphasizing that Chechnya was an internal affair of Russia, Iran gradually increased its criticism of Moscow’s behavior. When Iran then offered to cooperate with Moscow to settle the crisis peacefully, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov replied in a note to Iran (and other Muslim states) that “We are concerned over the attitude of Islamic countries to the events in Chechnya. However, it is a domestic Russian problem, and we intend to settle it independently, without any aid or interference.”


Russia and Iraq

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Yeltsin adopted an anti-Iraqi policy, not only voicing support for the sanctions against Iraq but also dispatching two warships to help enforce the anti-Iraqi embargo in the Persian Gulf. When the United States again bombed Iraq in June 1993, following the abortive Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George Bush who was visiting Kuwait, Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev supported the U.S. attack (which Washington had told Moscow of in advance), noting: “We cannot consider hunting presidents, even former ones, to be normal. Tolerating this would be tantamount to endorsing a policy of state terrorism.”

Yet political pressure from the center and right of the Russian political spectrum began to have its effect on Yeltsin, a politician who always tacked with the political wind. On April 21, 1995, the Russian Duma, dominated by right-wing forces, voted overwhelmingly to lift the sanctions against Iraq and set forth three goals for Russian policy: 1) to pressure the UN Security Council to repeal the embargo; 2) to collect Iraq’s debt if the embargo was to be partially lifted; and 3) to support Russian business investment in Iraq and large-scale cooperation with that country. Indeed, in mid-February 1996, Iraq made a multibillion dollar agreement with Moscow for oil development and the training of Iraqi oil specialists.

Yeltsin had three major interests in developing Russia’s relationship with Iraq. First, through international diplomatic activity, Russia sought to demonstrate both to the world and to a hostile Duma that it was still an important factor, despite its weakened condition, and was both willing and able to oppose the U.S. Indeed, as Andrei Piontkowski of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow stated during the October-November 1997 Iraqi crisis, “For 30 years we were a superpower equal to the United States. Now the political elite is in a difficult period, feeling diminished, and compensates at least by standing up to the U.S. on minor issues.” The second interest Yeltsin’s Russia had in Iraq was regaining the $7 billion which Iraq owed to Russia, something that could not be achieved until sanctions against Iraq were lifted. The third Russian interest in Iraq is in acquiring contracts for Russian factories and oil and gas companies, although the actual activities of these companies cannot begin until sanctions are lifted.

To spur the Russians to greater efforts to lift the sanctions, Saddam Hussein dangled major contracts before influential Russian companies, such as Lukoil, which were part of a multi-billion dollar agreement to develop the West Kurna oil field. The deal would enable Lukoil to keep 75 percent of the profits and also freed the company from paying Iraqi taxes. Consequently, Lukoil has become a major factor in the “Iraqi lobby” in Moscow, pushing for the lifting of sanctions. Russia’s basic dilemma with Iraq, one that now faces Putin, continues. Unless Russia is able both to convince the U.S. to moderate its position on Iraq, and convince Iraq to agree to Security Council Resolution 1284 linking the suspension of sanctions to renewed international inspection of suspected Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites, any unilateral move to lift sanctions would cause a very serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, that are already badly strained by the war in Chechnya, the NATO intervention in Kosovo, and a possible unilateral U.S. change in the ABM agreement under a Bush administration.


Russia and Turkey

Russia has numerous interests in pursing a good relationship with Turkey. First, until the 1998 economic collapse, trade between the two countries ranged between $10-12 billion a year, making Turkey Russia’s main trading partner in the Middle East. Not only are Turkish construction companies active throughout Russia, even acquiring the contract for the repair of the Duma, damaged by the fighting in 1993, but there is a large flow of Russian tourists to Turkey, especially to Istanbul and Antalya, and Turkish merchants donated $5 million to Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in 1996. Second, Turkey is a major purchaser of natural gas from Russia, thus giving Gasprom a real incentive to promote Russian-Turkish relations. Third, Turkey purchases military equipment from Russia, including helicopters that had been embargoed by some NATO countries (including, until recently, the United States) because of concern that they would be used in Turkey’s ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority.

On the other hand, there are serious problems in the relationship. First, Turkey is competing for influence with Russia in the “near abroad,” especially in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Second, Turkey is pushing an oil export route for Azeri oil that would go through Georgia and Turkey to its Mediterranean port of Ceyhan rather than to the Russian port of Novorossisk via Chechnya. In addition, concerned about the ecological dangers of supertankers going through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, Turkey sought to limit such traffic, thereby leading Russia to threaten to build an alternate pipeline route from the Black Sea through Bulgaria and Greece, until 1999 a major enemy of Turkey. Third, Russia has complained that the Turks were active in aiding the Chechen rebellions and thereby threatened Moscow’s control of the North Caucasus. Underlying the tension in the Russian-Turkish relationship are memories of centuries of confrontation as the expanding Russian empire came into conflict with an Ottoman empire on the decline. Turkey is also uneasy about Russian support for the terrorist PKK and about the continued Russian military presence in Armenia and Georgia, near Turkey’s northeastern border.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkish President Turgut Ozal and some of the Turkish elite saw the opportunity of expanding Turkish influence into Azerbaizhan and throughout Central Asia. Such a development would also enhance Turkey’s relationship with the United States after the cold war ended, when Turkey could serve as a bulwark against Iranian-inspired Islamic radicalism. Ozal’s initial optimism led him to pledge more than $1 billion in credits for the newly independent Central Asian states in such areas as banking, education, and transportation. In addition, Turkey established direct air communications with the region, Turkish television beamed programs to the Turkic-speaking countries, and Turkish businessmen established numerous joint ventures in these new countries.

Despite marked efforts by Russia to improve relations with Turkey, a number of important problems complicated the rapprochement. First, the increasingly close military ties between Russia and Armenia, although primarily directed against Azerbaizhan, were also worrying to Turkey. Nonetheless, Ankara had to take satisfaction over the agreement reached with Moscow at the OSCE meeting in Istanbul in November 1999, under which Russia agreed to pull all of its 2,600 troops out of Moldova by 2002 and to dismantle two of its four bases in Georgia by 2001. Second, the Baku-Ceyhan project was also moving ahead. The rise in the price of oil, and Turkey’s increased willingness to financially support construction of the project made the pipeline a more desirable undertaking for the oil companies extracting petroleum from the Caspian Sea.


Russia and Israel

Russia has a number of interests in Israel. First, on the economic front, there is extensive trade which crossed the $500 million mark in 1995 (although it would later dip because of Russia’s 1998 economic crisis), making Israel Russia’s second leading trade partner in the Middle East after Turkey. Second, on the diplomatic front, a close relationship with Israel enables Russia to play, or appear to play, a major role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Third, with almost 1,000,000 Russian-speaking Jews now living in Israel, Israel has the largest Russian-speaking diaspora outside the former Soviet Union, and this has led to very significant ties in the areas of cultural exchange and tourism. The fourth major interest is a military-technical one as the Russian military-industrial complex has expressed increasing interest in co-producing military aircraft with Israel, especially since many of the workers in Israel’s aircraft industry are former citizens of the Soviet Union with experience in the Soviet military-industrial complex.

From the Israeli point of view, there are four central interests in relations with Russia. The first is to maintain the steady flow of immigration, which has provided Israel with a large number of scientists and engineers. The second is to prevent the export of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to Israel’s Middle East enemies, including Libya, Iran, and Iraq. The third goal is to develop trade relations with Russia, which supplies Israel with such products as uncut diamonds, metals, and timber. Russia is also the site of numerous joint enterprises begun by Israelis who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Finally, Israel hopes for at least an even-handed Russian diplomatic position in the Middle East and, if possible, Russian influence on its erstwhile ally, Syria, to be more flexible in reaching a peace agreement with Israel.

Several months after Barak’s election, Putin became Russia’s prime minister and quickly became deeply involved in the war against Chechnya — a development that was to positively affect Russian-Israeli relations. While Putin was not to be responsive on the issue of arms to Iran, he was far more forthcoming in denouncing anti-Semitism than Yeltsin was (although he did not go as far as some Russian Jewish leaders wanted).

The issue of greatest importance to the relationship, at least from the Russian point of view, was Israeli support for Russian actions in Chechnya, with one Russian official stating that “Israel helps us break the Western information blockade of Russia over Chechnya.” Israel also helped Russia by sending medical supplies to the victims of the Moscow apartment house bombings, claimed by Putin to have been perpetrated by the Chechens, and also gave medical treatment to wounded Russian soldiers.

Israeli help to Moscow over Chechnya was to pay diplomatic dividends when the Al-Aksa intifada broke out in late September 2000, when Putin took a very different position than did Primakov during similar crises in the 1996-1999 period. Unlike the Russian position under Primakov, Putin’s Russia was not only evenhanded, he even seemed to tilt toward Israel as the crisis developed. Thus, then Secretary of the Russian Security Council Sergei Ivanov, who was later promoted to defense minister, linked the violence on the West Bank and Gaza to the Taliban’s increased activities in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to extremist activity in Chechnya, a position also espoused by Putin’s adviser, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The Russian Duma, unlike its anti-Israel and anti-Semitic predecessor that went out of office in December 1999, voted to blame not Israel but “extremist forces” for the escalation of the conflict.

Despite Putin’s shift to an evenhanded position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Russia’s important diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Israel, there are countervailing pressures in Moscow preventing too close a Russian-Israeli alignment. These include:

  1. Pro-Arab elements in Russia’s Foreign Ministry and in the increasingly influential secret police who hope to restore the close ties Moscow had in the Arab world in Soviet times.

  2. Anti-Semitic forces who are also anti-Israel. They are primarily found in Russia’s communist party and among Russia’s ultra-nationalist politicians.

  3. Russia’s arms sales agency, Rosoboronoexport. The new arms sales agency has been given a high priority in Putin’s efforts to revitalize the Russian economy. Indeed, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has stated that the proceeds from the arms sales are to be invested in the development of new technologies for the economy. What makes this problematic for Israel is that Russian arms sales to Iran, an enemy of Israel, are already a matter of major concern. Should these be followed by arms sales to Syria (assuming Saudi Arabia is willing to pay for the arms — a possibility if the intifada escalates and draws in Syrian forces), a deterioration in Russian-Israeli relations could well result. The situation would worsen even more if the UN sanctions on Iraq were lifted, or if Russia decided to break them unilaterally (both unlikely prospects at the current time), because in the past Moscow had been a major weapons supplier to Baghdad.

  4. Russia’s Muslim community. Approximately 20 percent of the Russian population, they are still rather quiescent politically. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership must take their views into consideration, given the dangers of radical Islam not only in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus and the Russian Federation, but also in Central Asia.


Putin’s Inheritance

In looking at the pattern of Russian policy toward the Middle East under Boris Yeltsin, and his successor, Vladimir Putin, several conclusions can be drawn. First, Russia, during a period of growing economic and military weakness, has basically been on the defensive in the region. Its priority has been to try to reestablish Russian control over Transcaucasia and Central Asia, while also putting down successive rebellions in Chechnya, in the Northern Caucasus. This geostrategic situation has strongly influenced its policies toward Iran and Turkey, countries that are deeply involved in the politics of both Transcaucasia and Central Asia. In the multipolar world which Russian leaders have hoped to see develop, Iran is a primary ally.

In the case of Turkey, Moscow, perhaps out of necessity, seems to have settled on a policy of economic cooperation rather than one of geopolitical confrontation. After clashing with Turkey over Chechnya, the Kurds, and a projected SAM missile deployment in the Greek section of Cyprus, as well as over the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil and TransCaspian natural gas pipelines, by 1999 the centerpiece of Russian-Turkish relations had become the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Putin, burdened by the Chechen war, has switched back to a more evenhanded position on the conflict, while at the same time maintaining Russia’s close economic, cultural, and even military ties with Israel. Such a strategy, in an area of less than vital interest to Russia, also enables Putin to maintain an area of cooperation with the United States at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are strained in a large number of other areas.

In sum, the Middle East legacy which Putin inherits as the leader of a weakened Russia is a rather modest one, befitting a country that has fallen from the ranks of a superpower.

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Dr. Robert O. Freedman, an Associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. An expanded version of this Jerusalem Viewpoints appeared in Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 13, nos. 1-2 (Spring 2001).