The Russian government, like its counterparts in the West, the Middle East, and elsewhere, was caught off guard by the outburst of Arab uprisings beginning in January 2011 that swept away long-ruling authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and (it appears) Yemen, and have threatened to topple those in Bahrain and Syria. The response of the Russian government to these events has, like that of Western governments, often been confused and inconsistent. Just as Western governments have done, Moscow has sought to protect its interests in the region. But while Russian and Western interests have been similar (or perhaps more accurately: while Moscow has aligned itself with the Western approach) in some cases, Russian and Western policies have differed sharply in others, especially with regard to Syria.
This article will examine what Moscow’s reaction has been to each of the Arab uprisings and the extent to which its policies have been similar or different from those of the West. The article will then conclude with a discussion of the larger significance of the Arab Spring for Russian interests as well as for Russia’s relations with the West.
While surprised (like everyone else) by the events leading to the flight of President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali on January 14, 2011, Moscow took the fall of his regime in stride. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 26, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev noted, “I think that what happened in Tunisia was a big lesson for governments all around the world. Governments should not sit on their laurels and settle back in comfy chairs, but need to grow and develop together with society, regardless of where they are: in Europe, Africa, or Latin America.” Here, Medvedev seemed to be aligning Moscow with the West in accepting democratic change in Tunisia.
Although many Russian commentators were by now describing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as American-sponsored “color revolutions,” the Russian government reacted circumspectly to the dramatic events in Cairo. President Medvedev emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution to the situation. Although more supportive of Mubarak before his downfall, Moscow quickly emphasized the importance of a “strong, democratic” Egypt, as Medvedev put it, after his fall, thus signaling Moscow’s willingness to work with the new government. Here again, Russia aligned itself with the West in accepting political change in Egypt.
Moscow, however, reacted differently to the uprising against Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. Whereas regime change in both Tunisia and Egypt occurred largely through peaceful means without outside intervention, Qadhafi forcefully resisted his opponents and appeared on the verge of defeating them. Discussion arose in the West about the possibility of military intervention against Qadhafi. All of this was apparently too much for the top Russian leadership. Medvedev warned about the rise to power of “fanatics” in the Middle East, and warned of “fires for decades and the spread of extremism” there. He even suggested that “foreign elements” were fomenting these uprisings, and that their ultimate intention was to bring political change to Russia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that “external interference” could lead to the rise of Islamists, and that their rise in North Africa could negatively affect other regions, including Russia’s North Caucasus.
However, after the Arab League called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya to protect its citizens from the use of force by Qadhafi, Russia — along with China — abstained from the vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorized it, thus allowing the resolution to pass. This Russian move suggested that despite its extreme discomfort with American-led military interventions aimed at promoting democracy, Moscow valued maintaining good relations with America, the West, and the Arab League even more. However, almost immediately after it began, Moscow, as well as the Arab League, began criticizing how the U.S. and NATO were conducting the intervention.
Then in a bizarre episode on March 21, 2011, a statement by Prime Minister Putin criticizing Western military action against Libya as a “crusade” was followed two hours later by President Medvedev saying that it was “inexcusable” to use a term such as “crusade,” and indicated that he did not oppose the U.N. Security Council Resolution on Libya. Yet while some observers saw this as evidence of a serious breach between Putin and Medvedev, others (especially Russians) saw it as a contrived disagreement with Putin’s statement aimed not only at pleasing the Russian domestic audience, but also at currying favor with the West.
Later, though, the Russian position on Libya moved closer to that of the West. At the G-8 Summit in Deauville on May 27, Medvedev declared that Qadhafi “should leave,” and offered Russian mediation in order to bring this about. In early June, Medvedev sent Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign relations committee of Russia’s Federation Council, as his personal representative to Libya for talks with both the Qadhafi government and with the rebels. After initially resisting and then not opposing Western policy toward Libya, Moscow later, in effect, aligned itself with it.
Russia kept a low profile during the tumultuous political protest conducted by the Arab Shi‘a majority in Bahrain against the Sunni minority royal family and government. Russia also kept a low profile when this protest was crushed by Bahraini security forces with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In late March, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that these protests were “an internal matter” that should be “solved through dialogue,” but did not object when they were resolved (for the time being, at least) through violent means. In January 2012, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov visited Bahrain to discuss the possibility of establishing direct air service between Moscow and Manama as well as economic and cultural cooperation — as if nothing untoward had ever taken place in Bahrain. There was no appreciable difference between Russia and the West when it came to Bahrain; neither wanted to see the downfall of a Gulf monarchy that might lead to instability in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the oil rich Gulf.
Similarly, Russia — like the West — kept its distance from the growing opposition to Yemen’s long-reigning authoritarian President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih. In April 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called for the opposing parties inside Yemen to reach a solution. In early June, though, he called for acceptance of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s proposed solution for Yemen, which in turn called for Salih and his entourage to step down in exchange for immunity).  Also like the West, Moscow was not willing to get directly involved in the escalating violence in Yemen, but was willing to go along with Saudi Arabia’s efforts to mediate conflict resolution following Salih’s departure for the Kingdom after being injured in an opposition attack on June 3, 2011. In late February 2012, the Russian Foreign Ministry praised the peaceful transfer of power from Salih to his vice president via elections in which the latter was the sole candidate. Once again: there has been no appreciable difference between Russian and Western approaches regarding Yemen.
Moscow and the West, though, have not agreed about how to react to the popular opposition that has arisen against Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Asad. Despite repeated violent crackdowns, widespread opposition to the Asad regime has continued. In the West, this has led to growing criticism of Damascus and calls for sanctions against it. Moscow, by contrast, sees Asad as an ally. In late May 2011, President Medvedev declared that Russia would not support the imposition of sanctions against Syria by the U.N. Security Council. In early June, Foreign Minister Lavrov bluntly warned that the international community “should not permit any provocations aimed at securing a regime change.” Indeed, he added, “We think that they need to be suppressed.” Moscow, it appeared, had no intention of allowing the Security Council to approve of military intervention against Syria as it did against Libya.
Russia and China have also blocked passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution seeking to impose economic sanctions on the Asad regime in response to its treatment of internal opponents. Moscow has been particularly vociferous about preventing “external interference” in Syria or of even supporting the call for Asad to cede power to his vice president, as had occurred — at least officially — in Yemen. By contrast, China’s position has been more measured and even tactically-motivated. According to China-watcher Yun Sun, “While Beijing saw little to lose, it saw much to gain by vetoing the Syria resolution. China’s veto saved Moscow from international isolation … a favor that Russia now has to return.”
Why, then, has Russia in particular been so adamant about protecting the Asad regime? Many observers, especially Russian ones, note that Moscow felt betrayed by what happened in Libya in 2011. After abstaining (along with China) on the Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya, America and NATO actively supported the Libyan opposition that eventually overthrew the Qadhafi regime and formed a new government. Moscow fears that allowing the passage of a similar resolution against Syria would lead to a similar NATO intervention with similar results. Moscow would then lose its closest ally in the Middle East, along with access to naval facilities at Tartus, a close arms relationship, and investments in the petroleum and other sectors of the Syrian economy.
But as Najib Ghadbian of the opposition Syrian National Council’s (SNC) secretariat-general noted on the U.S. government-sponsored Al Hurra TV on February 3, 2012, the SNC has been in frequent talks with the Russians seeking to reassure them that close Syrian-Russian relations could continue after the rise of a new government in Damascus. Surely, then, it would behoove Russia to be somewhat neutral in the ongoing Syrian conflict just to hedge its bets in case the SNC becomes the new government. But Moscow is not doing so. Why?
There appear to be three main reasons for this. First, Moscow genuinely believes that Washington and its European allies misunderstand what is going on in Syria. Instead of the downfall of the Asad regime leading to a democratic government as the West believes, Moscow fears that it could give rise to a radical Sunni regime that is not only anti-Western, but also anti-Russian. In Moscow’s view, American-led interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have left all three of these countries in a mess. Moscow fears that U.S. intervention in Syria will lead to the same result, and that Russian interests will be negatively affected long after what Moscow sees as an inevitable American withdrawal.
Second, Moscow does not see the Obama Administration, or even a future Republican one, as seriously interested in bringing about regime change in Syria. This is because of domestic American politics (war weariness, election year), and because of the potential negative impact this could have on Israel. If Washington were serious about bringing down Asad, it would lead a coalition of the willing to do so — with or without U.N. Security Council approval. By the U.S. calling for U.N. Security Council economic sanctions against the Asad regime, Moscow sees the Obama Administration as wanting to be seen to be doing something while actually doing little or nothing.
Third, Moscow sees the main impetus for bringing down the Asad regime as coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The events of the Arab Spring have revived Moscow’s fears of Saudi Arabia that were prevalent from the mid-1990s until the Saudi-Russian rapprochement of 2003. Before 2003, Moscow saw the Kingdom as attempting to spread radical Sunni Islamism to Chechnya, the North Caucasus, and elsewhere in the former USSR. Relations improved in 2003 (Putin himself visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2007), especially since Riyadh made clear that it supported Moscow’s solution for Chechnya. Now, though, Moscow sees Saudi Arabia as attempting to make use of the Arab Spring for its own geopolitical interests by supporting Salafists in Egypt and Libya, suppressing Shi‘as in Bahrain, and replacing the pro-Iranian Alawite minority regime in Syria with a pro-Saudi Sunni regime. Nor is it clear to Moscow what the limits of Riyadh’s ambitions are. What Moscow does see, though, is that Washington is not alert to this danger.
This last point may seem belied by the outcome of the meeting on March 10, 2012, between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and his Arab League counterparts in Cairo in which they all agreed to a five-point “solution” to the Syrian conflict: a complete cease-fire; a mechanism for “objective monitoring;” “unhindered humanitarian access;” support for the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria; and non-interference in Syrian affairs. But what, in fact, was actually agreed to? An Al-Sharq al-Awsat editorial claims that Russia secretly agreed to the removal of Asad. Some Russian media, though, claimed that Qatar has backed off its call for intervention. Russian commentator Yelena Suponina wondered whether Russia and the Arab League pretended to agree when they actually did not. Qatar’s subsequent call for military intervention in Syria (which Lavrov claims violates the just-signed agreement), and Moscow’s announcement that it will continue arms sales to Damascus indicates that the most important signatories to the Russia-Arab League agreement are not taking it very seriously.
Russia supports the Asad regime not just to preserve its arms contracts, oil investments, and naval access. Nor is it just concerned that the downfall of Asad would result in Syria switching from a Russian ally to an American one. What it fears instead is that the downfall of the Asad regime will spell the end of an important obstacle that has served to contain the rise of a Sunni fundamentalist movement, directed by Saudi Arabia, which will seek to continue spreading.
America and the West, of course, also fear that the Arab Spring might result in the rise of Islamic radical regimes and not democracies. When an uprising reaches a certain critical mass, though, there is little that any outside power may be able to do to halt it. And if they see that an authoritarian Arab government is about to fall, the only realistic option that America, Europe, and Russia may have is to try to establish friendly ties with the group coming into power. Thus, although Moscow opposes the passage of Security Council resolutions (and certainly Security Council-approved intervention) against the Asad regime in Syria, the absence of such resolutions may not serve to keep it in power. And if the Asad — or any other authoritarian — regime appears about to fall, Moscow can be expected to do exactly what the West will do in this situation: try to establish good relations with the opposition. Of course, whether such American, European, and Russian efforts succeed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or anywhere else there is regime change in the Arab world very much remain to be seen.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA), and is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
. “Dmitry Medvedev Address the World Economic Forum in Davos,” Kremlin.ru Archive, January 26, 2011, .
. “Medvedev Hopes for Peaceful Stabilization in Egypt,” Interfax-AVN, February 4, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Statement by the President of Russia on the Situation in Egypt,” Kremlin.ru Archive, February 12, 2011, .
. David Nowak, “Medvedev Sees ‘Fires for Decades’ in Arab World,” cnsnews.com, February 22, 2011, .
. Yekaterina Savina, “We Can Take the Liberty of Deviating from the Canons of Law,” Gazeta.ru, February 26, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Russia’s Putin Warns Against ‘External Interference’ in North Africa, Mid East,” Rossiya 24 TV, February 24, 2011 (World News Connection).
. See, for example, Boris Makarenko, “A Small Aircraft Carrier War,” Kommersant, March 1, 2011, p. 8; and Aleksei Arbatov, “Is the World Going to See a Domino Effect?” Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 10, 2011, p. 10 (both in Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 63, Nos. 9–10 [February 28–March 13, 2011], pp. 6–8).
. Vladimir Solovyov et al., “Resolution Is Ripe in Russia,” Kommersant, March 22, 2011, p. 1 (Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 63, No. 12 [March 21–27, 2011], p. 5).
. Maksim Glikin, “Quote of the Week,” Vedomosti, March 22, 2011, p. 4 (Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 63, No.12 [March 21–27, 2011], pp. 5–6).
. “In About-Face, Russian Leader Calls for Gaddafi to Leave Libya,” The Washington Post, May 28, 2011, p. A10.
. Sergey Strokan: “Russia Seeks Out Island of Tranquility for Libya,” Kommersant Online, June 21, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Moscow Calls for Internal Dialogue in Bahrain,” Interfax-AVN, March 31, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Russia, Bahrain Planning Direct Air Link, Investment Protection Deal,” Interfax, January 19, 2012 (World News Connection).
. “Russian FM Welcomes News of Talks between Authorities, Opposition in Yemen,” Rossiya 24 TV, April 6, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Russia Backs Efforts to Start Dialogue between Opposing Political Forces in Yemen — Lavrov,” Interfax-AVN, June 29, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Presidential Elections in Yemen Indicate People’s Support of National Unity Policies — Russian Foreign Ministry,” Interfax, February 22, 2012 (World News Connection).
. “Russia Doesn’t Support Sanctions on Syria — Medvedev,” Interfax-AVN, May 30, 2011 (World News Connection).
. “Attempts to Change Power in Syria Should Be Suppressed — Lavrov,” Interfax, June 2, 2011 (World News Connection).
. Indeed, one Russian commentator warned that a Yemeni-style solution would not work in Syria. Nikolay Surkov, “The Yemen Scenario Is Being Imposed on Syria,” Nezavisimaya gazeta online, January 27, 2012 (World News Connection).
. Yun Sun, “Syria: What China Has Learned from its Libya Experience,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, East-West Center, No. 152 (February 27, 2012), .
. Matthew Rojansky, “The Method to Putin’s Syria Madness,” Global Public Square, CNN.com, March 23, 2012, .
. “All Directions,” No. 409, Al Hurra TV (Arabic), February 3, 2012, .
. Tariq Alhomayed, “Mullah Lavrov!” Arab News, March 22, 2012, .
. For an elaboration of this argument, see Mark N. Katz, “Do Russia and America Really Disagree on Syria?” Travels and Observations blog, March 9, 2012, .
. Mark N. Katz, “Saudi-Russian Relations in the Putin Era,” The Middle East Journal, Vo. 55, No. 4 (Autumn 2001), pp. 603–622.
. Mark N. Katz, “The Emerging Saudi-Russian Partnership,” Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January–March 2008), .
. Will Englund, “Russia Sends Mission to Syria,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2012, p. A20.
. Yelena Suponina, “Arabs, Russia Pat Themselves on Back over Syria,” RIA Novosti, March 12, 2012, .
. Henry Meyer, “Lavrov Says Qatar Call for Syria Intervention Violates Deal,” BloombergBusinessweek, March 13, 2012, ; and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Says It Will Keep Selling Weapons to Syria,” abcnews, March 13, 2012, .