The Historic Roots of Russian Expansionism in the Middle East

The Russian Federation’s flagrant military intervention in Syria is by no means an isolated incident.  This intervention comes as the result of a rather recent line in Moscow’s policy of expansionism that had previously manifested itself in Russia’s intervention in the Caucasus and Ukraine; and it has been conducted in order to bolster and improve Russia’s position in the wider Middle East.  However, although this line of policy seems to be a recent development, I believe it pretty much follows in the footsteps of the historical model of expansionism by the Tsarist Empire / The Soviet Union.

This model of expansionism is by no means just some crude form of military intervention as it might be thought in the first glance.  Rather, this intervention comes as a result of, among other things, the historically ingrained “Russophilia” in the Middle East that comes as a consequence of Russian “cultural hegemony” in that region, which makes Russian expansionism in general more tolerable and even at times welcome.  As such, what I want to do in this article is first to make a historical survey of the geopolitical and cultural expansionism of the “Russian Discourse” in the Middle East and then to predict its immediate outcome.

The Russians were a race of Slavic people who settled in what is now western Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus during the Middle Ages.  They set up small and interdependent fiefdoms in that area; and as time went by the Russians joined those fiefdoms together to create a larger political entity with cultural/religious Russian characteristics.  For most of that period, the Rurik Dynasty, whose most prominent historical character proved to be Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), ruled the Russians.  During that time, the Russians were mostly engaged in civil wars and territorial conflicts among themselves, which eventually led to the creation of the abovementioned unified Russian political entity.

It was only after the Romanov Dynasty’s accession to the throne in the early 17th century that Russians developed major tendencies for expansionism towards the east and the south.  To their east lay the powerful Tartar khanates whose lords were the descendants of the great medieval Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan.  The Russian and later the Soviet expansionism eastwards for more than three centuries gradually subdued those Tartars, so much so that it can be said they have become almost completely assimilated in the Russian culture by now.

Since this part of the Russians’ history, although important from the point of view of expansionism, is not directly related to the subject matter of this article, I am only mentioning it in passing.  However, in that regard, I would like to suggest to the reader to read Michel Strogoff (1876), the well-known novel by Jules Verne about the Tsar’s courier during the mid-19th-century fictional Tartar Rebellion, from the perspective of Russian expansionism at the expense of the Tartars -- and in contrast to Verne’s own sympathies -- and see what they can get from it.

In the south, which is our core of concentration, the Russians clashed with the Persian and Ottoman Empires.  Regarding Persia, the Russo-Persian Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that as a whole established the Russian military supremacy over the Persians were a manifestation of Russian expansionism southwards.  Those wars led to the imposing of two humiliating “Accords” on Persia, namely Golestan and Turkmanchay, according to which vast Persian territories were ceded to the Tsarist Empire and the Tsar acquired the title of Protector of the Persian Crown, effectively making Persia a protectorate of the Tsar.

Since that time, Russia/Soviet Union/Russia has been one of the most influential players on the Persian/Iranian stage; and no major political upheaval and incident such as the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907), the First Word War (1914-1918), the Second Word War (1939-1945), the Revolution of 1979, and the Nuclear Project of the Islamic Republic has taken place without a great degree of Russian power play and at times direct intervention in that country.  Along that line, in Afghanistan -- which is the cultural continuation of Iran -- the Russians first clashed with the British Empire and then the United States.  It can be said that the contemporary sorry situation of Afghanistan has come first and foremost as the result of the ferocious Russian intervention in that country.

In contrast to the moribund Persian Empire that soon collapsed under the Russian pressure, the Ottoman Empire, which was the Tsars’ larger, more powerful and more strategically important neighbor to the south, put up a heavy resistance to the Russian encroachment for around two centuries; although along the way it would be forced to concede many obligations and cede vast tracts of lands to the expanding Tsarist Empire.

In the meantime, the Küçük Kaynarca Treaty of July 21, 1774 between the Tsarist and Ottoman Empires proved to be a pivotal point for the project of Russian expansionism in the Middle East.  After decades of tension, struggle and war between the Russians and the Turks in the proximity of the Black Sea basin, that treaty ceded de facto control over the strategic lands around the Sea of Azov, like the Crimean Peninsula, to the Russians.  As such, by establishing a route towards the “warm waters” of the south for the first time, that treaty became the realization of Peter the Great’s foremost desire.

But probably in some respects even more significant than that, according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca the Tsarist Empire was acknowledged as the “protector” of both the Christian sites of worship in the Holy Land and the Christian pilgrims in that land.  After the dissolution of Crusader states during the High Middle Ages and then the fall of Constantinople in the late medieval times, the office of protectorate of Christian holy sites in Palestine had been experiencing a long interregnum.  The Tsarist Empire, an Orthodox superpower, by securing the protectorate of those sites at the expense of the “heathen” and the “infidel,” as well as by posing as the protector of Christian pilgrims in the “occupied” Holy Land, managed to extract the respect of other Christians, including the reluctant and at times inimical Catholic and Protestant powers.

Later, the Tsarist Empire freely interpreted the provisions of that treaty to extend its status of protectorate to all the Christians in the Ottoman territory.  Thus, Russians did not only acquire political clout but also religious and cultural weight in the Middle East.  Interestingly, Putin has recently taken up that historical responsibility of “protecting the Christians all over the world.”  According to Carnet Magazine, in response to Metropolitan Hilarion’s petition to Putin to “make protection and defense of Christianity around the globe a major part of his foreign policy,” Putin has responded, “You needn’t have any doubt that that’s the way it will be.” Incidentally, Syria -- as well as Iraq -- has a rather large and politically significant Christian minority who are afraid of Assad’s losing the civil war to the “Islamists” lest they’ll be swept away with the regime.  And Putin is perfectly aware of that fact and keeps playing on it.

All the same, and despite an ongoing struggle between Russians and Turks -- whose most well-known manifestation was perhaps the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, the mere existence of the Ottoman Empire that acted like a buffer zone between the Tsarist Russia and the rest of the Middle East, for two centuries prevented the Russians from achieving their ultimate goal of full-throttle expansion southwards.  At that time, the British Empire was also at the height of its power, and would lend a hand to the old Ottoman Empire if necessary, as it did in the case of the Crimean War.

During those days, airplanes, air force, ballistic missiles, electronic facilities and other sorts of modern technologies did not exist either, via which the Russians could bypass the Ottoman Empire (and Putin has recently made a show of exactly that by claiming his Caspian Fleet has hit targets in Syria with cruise missiles from over a thousand miles away).  Therefore, in that period the Russians mostly satisfied themselves with expanding their zone of influence and making territorial gains at the expense of the Caucasian principalities and Persia.

But the full-fledged Russian expansionism in the Middle East did not begin even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.  At that time a number of hurdles stymied the Russians’ efforts for southward expansion.  The most important reason was the Russians’ entanglement first in WWI in Europe and then in the Russian Civil War (in the then vast Russia) that had flared up as a result of the Communist Revolution of 1917.

Additionally, after the fall of the Ottomans, the territories of their enormous empire in the Middle East came under the protectorate of the British Empire and the Republic of France.  The Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan became, to different degrees, British “Protectorates” while Lebanon became a French “Mandate.” As a result, during the interwar years, Russians were too busy and too short of supplies and opportunities to covet the Middle East.

WWII changed everything.  With the decline of the old colonial powers such as Great Britain and France after WWII, a process that was hastened through the emergence of various forms of movements and revolutions for independence in the region during the 1950s and 1960s, the Russians, who previously had hardly any chance for colonizing the region, found their propitious moment to present themselves as champions of “anti-colonialism” and “anti-imperialism,” and by that to embark upon their own full-fledged project of expansionism in the Middle East.

Along that line, the Tsarist model of politico-cultural expansionism that, as a principal part of the Communist ideology in the Soviet Union, had now become couched in the pompous claim of “historical responsibility” of “liberating the oppressed nations,” would be embraced by a wide variety of people in the Middle East, and would most significantly turn into a constant of the Arab revolutions and the states that emerged from them.  By then, the Ba’ath Party, which mingled a highly distilled Arab Nationalism with a somewhat diluted Soviet Communism, was the most apparent manifestation of Russophilia in the Middle East.

As a consequence, the most obvious manifestation of Russian expansionism in the Middle East was the Soviet intervention in the Arab-Israeli affairs in which the Soviet Union acted as the self-proclaimed godfather of the Arabs and kept them playing in its proxy war against the United States.  In the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviet Union many times flew its jetfighters in support of the Arabs.  During that time, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and the Arab Palestinians all played, to different extents, into the hands of the Russians.

But the most important Arab player of the Soviets in the Middle East was no doubt Egypt.  During the Nasser Presidency, Egypt heavily depended on the Soviet Union, so much so that, along with ideology, Nasser would import from arms to supplies of food from the Soviet Union.  He paid for that unwavering alliance with the Six-Day War of 1967 that was imposed on him by the Soviets, which not only annihilated the entire Egyptian air force but also divested Egypt of the Saini Peninsula, at least for a rather long time.  This was the war that also cost Syria the Golan Heights.

In contrast to Nasser, Anwar Sadat who was less “ideological” than his late predecessor and had realized the power game the Russians were playing with the Arabs, as soon as he assumed office, started to put up an effort to create a balance in Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union and the United States.  The result would be the Camp David Accords of 1978 whose provisions stipulated the retrieval of the Sinai for Egypt as well as bringing about a peace with Israel that has lasted to this day.  In that regard, even today it can be seen that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moves pretty much along the same lines that Sadat drew more than four decades ago.

Now, it can be said that Egypt’s change of policy towards the Soviet Union effectively terminated the project of Russian expansionism in the Middle East; for the Russians would cease to directly intervene in the region since 1973, that is, up to a few days ago.  Thenceforward, with the gradual decline of the Ba’ath ideology and the fall of most of the Ba’athist despots and dictators like Saddam Hussein, the Soviet cultural influence would also recede from the region.  As a result, today the last bulwark of that trend of Russophilia in the Middle East proves to be the Assad regime in Syria.

It is to be strongly taken into account that although the communist Russophilia never took office in Iran, it managed to instill many of its tenets and tendencies in the Islamist regime and of course a wide variety of its opponents; tenets like anti-imperialism -- which in effect solely constitutes “Americophobia” -- and a general ideological enmity with the West.  The truth that considerable factions of the opponents of the Islamic Republic, while ostensibly holding that regime in contempt, are still in cahoots with it becomes apparent in their Americophobia as well as their Russophilia; a fact that is obvious in their support for Putin’s intervention in Syria either overtly or covertly -- at times with a suspicious silence that could indicate satisfaction.

To return to our historical narrative, I must say that although the Russians were mired in the problematic of the downfall of the Eastern Bloc during the 1980s and 1990s, since the beginning of the third millennium they have demonstrated that they intend to resume the previous trend of expansionism pursued first by the Tsarist Empire and then the Soviet Union.  In hindsight, it can be seen that the Russian intervention in the Caucasus and Ukraine -- and assessing the West’s response -- was only a warm-up exercise for the Russians; and now it is time for Syria, and then probably all the Middle East if this process is allowed to go unchecked.

Putin is perfectly aware of the fact that, after and most probably as a consequence of the turbulence of the Bush era, President Obama prefers to pursue a policy of “minimum intervention” in the Middle East.  Obama’s insistence on conceding to the Islamic Republic in regards to the issue of the nuclear deal while at the same time refusing to seriously deal with that regime over its intervention in Iraq, Syria and Yemen has assured Putin that the United States will not strongly react to his military adventurism in Syria and the wider Middle East.

Along that line, it can be deduced that President Obama believes by making concessions to the regime of Iran over the nuclear deal he can empower that supposedly “America-friendly” fraction of the regime -- who are derogatorily called “Americanized Muslims” by those in power -- in order to draw Iran from the Russian sphere of influence into the American sphere of influence without much fray.  This is a fancy that the Islamic Republic lobbies in the United States and elsewhere in the West have made even more colorful through spending big bucks and setting up various propaganda pageants.  However, when looking at this charade from a realistic perspective, it can easily be seen that the whole thing is only a big illusion, and that the regime of Ayatollahs has no clothes on.

In line with the general trend of Russophilia in the Middle East, in the Iranian political sphere -- encompassing the Islamic Republic and a rather wide range of its opponents -- the tendency towards Russia is stronger than that to America.  One fundamental reason for this is that one of the ontological principles of the Islamic Republic -- and of course many of its opponents -- is an existential enmity with the United States and its downright negation; an attitude whose reverse is typically held towards Russia by the regime and its ideological dependents.  Truth is, many of those who now put themselves up as America-friendly Muslims were the first to climb the walls of the American Embassy in Tehran and chant “Death to America.”

In addition, from a pragmatic point of view, in the Islamic Republic almost all the key positions have always belonged to the Russophiles or at least to those who take a hard line against the United States, and these will never share power with the Americanized Muslims.  Count the days since 1997, when the so-called “moderate” and “Reformist” Mohammad Khatami took office as president, and see the truth of that claim.  And Hassan Rouhani is even a less “moderate” figure than Khatami.  Consequently, the political hegemony in the Islamic Republic would never shift as a result of “internal struggle.”

To make matters more complicated, there is also this fragment of the “opposition” outside Iran, usually in league with the above-mentioned Americanized Muslims, that although is almost entirely stationed in the West and enjoys the benefits of Western democracy, still demonstrates a strong nostalgia for the Hammer and Sickle and anything that looks so much as “red,” and as such does not lose a moment to glorify Russia at any chance it gets.  Therefore, as things stand, the Russophile discourse subdues the Americophile discourse in the contemporary Iranian political sphere.

Now, taking into account the high tension that the Islamic Republic has recently created with Saudi Arabia as well as in Syria, most obviously with Russia’s backing; and the Supreme Leader’s recent enjoinment that “negotiating with the United States, for the innumerable disadvantages it imposes [on the regime], is forbidden,” it can apparently be seen that how misguided and misleading the Obama administration’s “Iran advisers” have been regarding the willingness of that regime to pursue a “peaceful” policy in the region should the nuclear deal be reached.

It is even a possibility that Putin’s and the Ayatollahs’ military adventure in Syria has been partly financed by the overseas frozen assets of Iran that were released as a result of the deal.  To bolster that claim, it was recently announced that the Islamic Republic has made a contract with the Russian Federation for the purchase of $21 billion worth of space equipment and aircraft.  And that is only beside the previous contract for the purchase of game-changing S-300 ground-to-air missiles.  As such, it can be concluded that Obama’s flagship of peace has been scuttled even before it has left port.

In such a situation, while on the one hand the Obama administration is caught up in its yarn of Middle East policy, and on the other the EU is entangled with its economic slump and refugee crisis, Putin will have his hands open for a rather easy intervention in Syria; at least up to the point when he and the Ayatollahs have stretched themselves too far again, and, short of vital resources, are forced to return to the negotiating table with the West.

However, in the meantime Putin will have enough time to purge Syria of any “legitimate” and “popular” resistance to Assad so that when he and his allies return to negotiations Syria has become so deprived of any reasonable alternative that the West would once again have to bow to a Putin-Ayatollah-crafted kind of “solution,” which is partly being done even now.  And such will be the horror story of the Middle East for many days to come.  A final note: as long as there is no “democracy” in the Middle East, the consequences will continue to afflict not only that region but also the whole world.