Russia took some two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to reshape its policy towards the Arab world. It has succeeded in marketing itself to appeal to several Arab interests and alliances, making it appear as if Moscow adopts different policies with different Arab countries.
The ideological considerations that dominated Soviet-Arab ties between the 1920s and 90s disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prior to the Soviet rise, Czarist Russia sought to exploit the weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire, which dominated vast parts of the Arab world. It advanced towards the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus by waging direct wars or supporting local uprisings against the Ottoman rulers. It backed the rebellion led by Ali Bey al-Kabir, the governor of Egypt, and his alliance with Zahir al-Umar in Palestine. This led to the Russian navy’s bombardment of Beirut, which was held by the Turks, and its brief occupation in 1773. Russia also established several religious schools and monasteries in the holy land in Palestine.
The Soviets ended such policies because the Bolsheviks were marginally interested in the Arab world. This changed after World War II and the emergence of the Middle East as an important arena to compete with the West during the Cold War. The Soviets therefore, supported national liberation movements, which were called “progressive regimes” that opposed and rose up against colonialization.
Ideology was not the only factor that shaped Soviet policy in the region. It supported progressive movements, while also waging a fierce war against the United States and its allies to remain in the Middle East. It scored victories by backing Gamal Abdel Nasser and dispatched troops to the region during the 1967 war to support Arab allies. Russia ignored at the time the oppressive practices against Communist Arabs, who were supposed to be Moscow’s natural allies. Russia, instead, opted to prioritize its geo-strategic interests.
The winds shifted in the Middle East, however, when Anwar al-Sadat expelled the Soviets in 1972 and when Hafez Assad adopted a policy of openness to the West in Syria, breaking away from his leftist predecessor Salah Jadid. The Gulf states, none of which had diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, were also on the rise.
Relations between Russia and the Arabs witnessed a lull in the 1990s when Moscow was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its policies during this time focused on cementing Russian security throughout Eurasian territories. It also focused on establishing allies with former Soviet republics, China, as a rising economic power, and Europe, with which it enjoys historic ties.
In the early 2010s, the Arab world again returned to Russia’s attention. The region witnessed relative calm in the 1990s, which preceded the turbulence that kicked off with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent Arab revolts.
Europe, meanwhile, continued to warily eye Russia, stoking tensions with it over its insistence to deploy American rockets and support whom Russia perceived as enemies in Ukraine, Georgia and other countries. Things came to a head with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the repercussions of which were felt in the Middle East when Moscow intervened militarily in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar Assad against the local uprising.
It was believed that Russia’s intervention would completely wreck relations between it and Arab countries that support the Syrian opposition. Russian diplomacy, however, succeeded in shifting Arab attention towards issues that concern them both, such as energy. Russia has, throughout this period, maintained its policy on sensitive issues that concern Arabs, such as the Palestinian cause.
Pragmatism, therefore, dominated Russian-Arab relations and both parties succeeded in averting a clash by adopting a list of priorities, although not ideal, that reflects the balance of power on the ground.