Global Independent Analytics
Theodore Karasik
Theodore Karasik

Location: USA

Specialization: Geopolitics, Geoeconomics

Western Russianists Miss their Mark on the Kremlin’s Near East Policy

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Problem

It is worrying that Western Russianists, specifically, in America, are missing the mark on the Kremlin’s foreign policy in the Near East. This point only became more acute over New Year’s 2016 when a slew of articles in both the English and Russian press appeared that argued that Moscow was now in trouble in Syria and with other Arabs for the Kremlin’s policies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Informational Background

This international security tragedy becomes more apparent is the real lack of understanding Arab views on what makes Russia tick. The bottom line is that there are no real experts on both Russia and the Near East simultaneously. It is a lonely experience for some scholars who have both the depth and knowledge of both regions and their interlocking mechanisms. It is telling that there is a real lack of Russian specialists in the United States. The gap in American understanding of the Kremlin is based on an
uninformed and a real lack of comprehension of Russian politics and culture especially with the real concepts of Rodina or Otechestvo and how they push Gosudarstvo as a soulful triad. In addition, there are complaints from US, and NATO officials, that America’s depth of knowledge of Russia is sorely
missing. Gone are the days of those individuals well trained in Russian language, concepts, culture, identity, and, most importantly, security concepts and protocols up to including PhDs. In other words, real life experience has been replaced by neophytes and political appointees who lack objectivity, lengthy study and travel in Russia, or interacting with Russians on a regular basis. Three days in Moscow doesn’t make an American an expert. To make the situation even worse, there are senior American policymakers who see Russia as a bigger threat than Islamic State or other violent extremists. Russia, they argue, is a huge country with nuclear weapons: this is a far cry from the days of Westerners arguing the Soviet Union and then Russia from “Upper Volta with Missiles to Nigeria with Snow” It is an approach that was and continues to be just plain wrong. In the current context, the director of the infamous Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, stated, “When senior administration officials go up to the Hill, it’s presumed they have expertise. The dirty secret is that our capability is terrible, it stinks.”
If America and NATO allies had any real clue, it was obvious what Putin’s Russia intended to do in the Near East early on even before the Arab Spring when the Russian President visited the Arabian Peninsula in 2007. Moscow was paving the way for a new, Russian foreign approach to the heart of the
Arab world. The Russian idea, at the time, focused on the building of a North-South Corridor based on mutual economic and security interests. Almost 9 years later, the idea is being seen in an uptick in reciprocity in areas such investment, food security, and, ultimately, finding workable solutions to the region’s many ills. In late 2015, Russia, in the role of honest broker continues to be strong. Some are arguing that Moscow has allowed itself to be entangled in the Shia alliance with Iran, Assad's regime in Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah, the sectarian Shia government in Iraq and armed Shia militias on Iran's
payroll. Russia, whose Muslim population is predominantly Sunni, now finds itself bombing Sunni Arabs and Turks in Syria while protecting foreign Shia militias who are no less extremist than the Sunni jihadists Russia is fighting. That picture is not accurate and just plain wrong. This viewpoint emerges
from a lack of understanding the true Russian nature—and the Arab view—of what the Kremlin can do in the region to the benefit of the Near East. What Russia and its Arab allies—Jordan, UAE, and Egypt—are attempting to do is to redefine extremism; that point, if Washington was educated enough,
should ring clear and loud. When Russia entered Syria in September - October last year, the goal was clearly to eradicate Islamic State, al-Nusra, and other extremists, perhaps numbering up to 150 groups, no matter their location or inclination. The Kremlin shares a mutual interest with these Arab states to crush extremism—before dealing with Syrian President Bashir Assad’s future- in whatever form this type of fanaticism takes. Clearly, key Arab countries view the extremist groups being hit by Russian
airstrikes as extremists. There was and still continues to be complaining from the emotional to the uninformed from the West that airstrikes have not only targeted the Islamic State but other groups. This concept of other groups is very important, because Russia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE consider other actors in Syria to be extremist, including portions of the Free Syrian Army, because the FSA has been an abject failure after millions of dollars spent by America and Saudi Arabia on training programs for the
Syrian opposition that went awry immediately. But all of the above is loss to the Obama Administration about what their Arab colleagues desire to achieve in the Levant and other critical, strategic locations in the Near East. Although there seems to be synergies between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there is still a strong residue of hatred for the Kremlin by the West at this key juncture. Perhaps its jealousy brought on by obliviousness to regional requirements and
potential futures.

Conclusion and Forecasts

Age matters in understanding geopolitics with today’s challenges. Mentoring is critical and the requirements for mixing and matching disciplines that are transregional in nature is paramount. What is notable are those who claim Russian expertise and Near East expertise but not both. There needs to be a serious review of a who’s who with the capabilities to cover all angles of the current situation between Russia and the Near East starting with the Western knowledge base. It is most likely American policy makers misunderstand the concept of Blizhni Vostok (Near East) from the Russian point of view and what that very concept means from an Arab intellectual standpoint. The longer such ignorance continues the more dangerous the situation will become in the long term picture. There are major challenges that are shifting the geo-political environment at break-neck speed. Requirements for accurate policymaking are now, then ever before, a 24/7 necessity. The forecast, based on the above analysis, is that America is in deep trouble when it comes to the future of the region. Primarily, it will be up to the next American president in mid-2017 (yes, mid-2017 because the process of moving from one administration to another takes time due to bureaucracy) and his or her administration to wake up to the Kremlin’s long term vision in the Near East. In the meantime, there should be an American, and Western call, to drum up the original Sovietologists who continued their Russian and Central Asian studies along with being veteran militarily or academically since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991. Typing these individuals would help Western Russianists better understand the current and, more importantly, the future forecast of relations between Russia and the Near East.

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