Photo illustration by John Lyman



Russia Rising? The Soaring that Precipitates a Free Fall

Dimitar Bechev, Nicu Popescu, and Stanislav Secrieru’s Russia Rising: Putin’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa prompts you to ask what the MENA countries want from their rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or precisely what the Arab states want from their relations with Russia. Once you have that answered, one can start registering whether Putin’s policy is indeed on the rise and if that rise is concrete or rather chimerical.

Popularly contested and chased by successive U.S. administrations to improve their meager human rights records, beleaguered Arab establishments reach for Russia less to balance their relations and more to break their isolation via finding a patron that does not chastise them over democracy and human rights. Putin understands this Arab anxiety and spoils his reputation by rolling out the red carpet for the likes of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). In doing so, Putin is neither naïve nor fooled by his counterparts’ mimic displays of admiration and awe.

As the editors of Russia Rising elaborate and will be unfolded below, Putin knows the exact stakes from his adventure in Syria, the risks from courtships with the Gulf monarchies, or the burden of the camaraderie with Egyptian and other North African partners, but he goes along with these strongmen, corroborating his momentary objectives at the expense of long-term interests. Such objectives, in his assessment, are worth the trouble.

Like all stories, the one regarding Russia’s reach for warm waters is never new. During the Cold War and a few days into the fourth Arab-Israeli war in 1973, or the Yom Kippur War, the editors recall how Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had to wake up Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev twice at night, literally begging for boots on the ground: “Save me,” Sadat cried over the phone. Brezhnev’s adamant rejection went down in history as an exasperation less with an ally and more with a disgruntled adolescent, recklessly calling for World War Three. Irrespective of how Egyptians today read that war as a great victory or otherwise, Brezhnev’s veto against sending Soviet troops to fight for the Egyptians had convinced Sadat to switch sides to the Americans through his policy known as infitah, the Arabic word for opening.

‘Russia Rising: Putin’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa’ by Dimitar Bechev, Stanislav Secrieru, and Nicu Popescu. 225 pp. I.B. Tauris

As Russia Rising rarely fails to specify that in its relations with the Arab part of MENA space, Russian policymakers cannot put the Brezhnev-Sadat split behind them. Putin, we read, is never that reckless or an irrational head of state who pursues Russian interests with his counterparts outside space and time. That explains why he is cautious and does not want to overinvest, particularly in Egypt but also in the Maghreb and with Gulf Sheikhdoms.

Experience says that with the slightest pressure from Washington, Arab leaders will instantly abandon Russia. The recent removal from office of Pakistan’s Imran Khan underlines Washington’s overreaching hand that Arab leaders know first-hand. President Hosni Mubarak’s abdication in 2011 with the Obama administration’s active role in forcing that abdication is still fresh in these leaders’ memory.

Indeed, Putin does not take his MENA clients (not allies) seriously. The world still remembers December 11, 2017, whereupon his visit to the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria, a Russian military stopped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from following Putin as the protocol of state visits goes. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia vying for supremacy pinpoints its eagerness for business. In one word, Putin in the MENA fantasizes about little beyond securing a niche for Russian oligarchs to market the gadgets they produce. Even the quest for grandeur and the challenge of U.S. policies can be secondary and exactly operates in the way of boosting that unflinching hunt for ever-shrinking markets. Nevertheless, large sways of Arab populations hypnotized by yellow media do not read Russia’s motive accurately. The Cold War has its grip on collective memory in the region and Arabs keep entertaining a second life of the Soviet Union in Putin’s Russia.

Suffice it to note that Russia’s intervention in Syria is at the receiving end of almost everything Arab ruling elites want their public to know. Giant outlets such as MBC, Al Arabia, or the quasi liberal-minded Al Jazeera rarely underline the fact that while having saved Assad’s regime and neutralized the very structure that could propagate towards a democratic Syria, that is, forces belonging to liberal-secular opposition, Russia’s intervention has so far never given Damascus any advantage to expand its rule over all Syrian territory. Anton Lavrov notes that Russia could not help capitalize on its military ‘victory’ or effectively use it as a card to negotiate its Ukrainian problem with the U.S.

Most Arab leaders either overlook this Russian shortcoming or the possibility that Russia could be abusing them as pawns in future settlements with the U.S. Their flat narrative spells a simple David against the Goliath. Without the Russian intervention of 2015, Daesh would have been all over the place. Russia, we are told, has rarely bombed Daesh positions. The flat narrative continues that since Assad’s head did not roll like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi’s, then Russia must be a superpower or at least qualifies as a reliable patron.

The rush for this conclusion is staggering and underlines a political economy marred in miserable thinking wherein non-elites, the subaltern of the MENA, find themselves submerged. What is left unsaid vis-à-vis that Russian intervention is how while Assad is still Damascus’ strongman, his jurisdiction is limited to a seventh of total Syrian territory. Carol Saivetz reports that Iran’s successful deployment of non-state fighters in its war against Assad’s contestants infuriates the Russians. And Assad plays the Russian-Iranian rivalry to his advantage. That explains why Russia’s plans for a political track in Syria have been reversed.

But for purposes of maintaining domestication and hypnotizing their public opinion, Arab leaders push for a second life of the Cold War scenario. Toward this end, they have no qualms in appearing to go to bed with Putin to ward off the American threat of democratization. Posing for cameras to feed the illusion they are making history, five Arab foreign affairs ministers flew to Moscow and Warsaw on April 5, allegedly to mediate peace in Ukraine. MENA leaders truly have a penchant for what the French call: faire de cinéma, making a spectacle.

Vladimir embracing one of his only friends, Bashar. (RIA Novosti)

Still, their survival instinct plays into the interests of their class of unpopular rulers and little for ordinary Egyptians, Algerians, or Syrians. Like in the past, Arabs (ruling elites and populations) marshal an inflated sense of Russian power, assuming meanwhile that U.S. power is fatally hit or is indeed in decline. If there is a single lesson to take from Russia Rising is how even Russia does not afford to entertain the myth of American decline. The Kremlin is aware of its limitations and above all Russia cannot be fooled by the excessive zeal or unnecessary maneuvers on the part of whoever thinks he is standing now by the economically-sanctioned Russia, especially if these pretenders are some Arab leaders.

No less central in registering Putin’s realism and Arabs’ romanticism is the Kremlin’s awareness that the bilateral relations Putin has built during his tenure are rooted in personal chemistry between him and his counterparts: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, MbS, and Benjamin Netanyahu. No one in the Arab world seems to raise this simple question: Since when does personal chemistry guarantee state-to-state relations? What can or may happen should Putin or these counterparts leave or are replaced? And here Putin matches his Arab nemesis who read the lack of institutionalization as a vindication of their personalist rule and Oriental despotism! While conscious of American superiority, Putin still enjoys cameras and spectacle. Like other sociopathic rulers in history, he is setting a role model for the likes of Sisi and MbS.

Another pertinent reason behind Arab black-and-white portrayals of Russia and the presumed friendship with Putin precipitates a more sinister account. Other than keeping the narrative simple for infantilized populations, overblown perceptions of Russia’s grandeur in the Arab part of the MENA serve in enforcing these establishments’ status quo. While giving Russian industrialists market shares that would have landed on more skilled and competitive industrialists, contracts of arms purchases are mouth-watering for the Egyptian and Algerian militaries alike. And who is ready to conclude contracts with unrealistic commissions and inflated bills for both signatories but the Russians?

Indeed, Russian arms sales are a source of a lot of pain for democracy activists in the MENA. Not only the quality of Russian weapons are second-rate, except rockets perhaps, but the sales contracts come with overblown price tags, often involving unprecedented levels of corruption and graft. Selling Egyptians and Algerians each a license to assemble T-90 tanks is perhaps the shortest way of getting Egyptians and Algerians outside history and for generations to come. I have always wondered what are these senseless arm sales for. Regarding Algeria, the dispute with Morocco over Western Sahara has been an alibi for continuously postponing civilian rule, a way for perpetually engineering renewed trust in the military establishment.

Civilian rule, the propaganda goes, is a recipe for disaster; civilians-in-power cannot shelter Algerian populations from their neighbor’s wild intentions. This explains why democracy and the rule of law are constantly postponed. With truly representative parliaments, the defense budgets will be discussed, senseless purchases are cut and funds will be redirected to education, health, and infrastructure. To maintain its interests, Putin’s Russia has a principal role in preserving the retrogressive and reactionary status quos in the region.

But what exactly are these Russian interests after all? Here, one starts tapping on what the contributors of this volume do not wade deeply into. For the contributors’ gaps indicate the path. Yes, parts in the arms and energy, even grains, markets in the MENA region are not negligible. But all over, these parts are leftovers from other solid and lucrative markets that the U.S. used to leave for the Soviet Union and later for Russia. No longer the case now. Fierce competition with other producers leaves little margins for Putin’s oligarchs to expand. It is not news that without expansion, capital asphyxiates. Here is a situation of what Karl Marx labels the tendential fall in the rate of profit, specifying that more mechanization and technology only deflect momentarily, never reverse definitively, the catastrophe of losing profit margins with which capital self-regenerates. Right now, this asphyxiation of profits (not the U.S. or NATO) stifles Putin’s capitalists as their traditional space for expansion never ceases shrinking; their market shares go to more robust and technologically advanced Chinese or American firms.

But the downing effects of the terminal crisis of capital are never immediate. It will take decades, perhaps, even a century or two before capitalism breaks down. For the time being, what Arab ruling elites miss is that the post-1945 world order still holds.

In sum, Russia has chosen the wrong side of history as it touted with the most conservative and reactionary elements in the region at the expense of subaltern who since 2011 has sought freedom and paid dearly for it. Without Russia’s intervention in 2015, the butcher of Damascus simply could not have gifted his wife David Hockney’s The Splash (1966) worth £23 million, five years later, in contempt of half a million Syrians he has killed. Those Arabs breathing the spiritless degradation from surviving at the big shots’ refuse can neither forget nor forgive Putin’s day-and-night bombardments of Aleppo, reducing major towns into rubble and instigating the exile of no less than twelve million Syrians. To those Arabs, history is on their side and Russia is rising only to ‘enjoy’ a free fall. Its current grievous campaign in Ukraine vindicates the cries and tears of its victims in Syria and beyond.