GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Russian Foreign Policy towards the Indian Ocean region and the GCC-Iran Rift: A New Trap for Moscow’s Diplomacy?
Paper Proposal Text :
The increased complexity and intensity of Russian contacts with the countries of the Indian Ocean region since 2012 is directly connected to the overall changes in Moscow’s diplomacy caused by the Kremlin’s confrontation with the US and EU. Within the framework of these transformations Moscow’s focus is shifting to the improvement of its contacts with non-European countries in Eurasia, including the states of the Indian Ocean region. When addressing the Federal Assembly on 4 December 2014, Putin stated that Russia’s “goal is to have as many equal partners as possible, both in the West and in the East. … We will continue our cooperation with Africa and the Middle East”. In his speech at the Russian Diplomatic Academy in Moscow on 27 February 2015, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went further and argued that the turn to Asia and the Pacific reflects Russian national interests in the 21st century. He also emphasised that these changes should not be considered “opportunistic” measures taken by Moscow in response to the current conflict with the West.
By intensifying its current activities in the region, the Kremlin is pursuing the following three goals:
1.Economic (compensating for the sanctions on the Russian economy; securing sources of income; protecting the interests of Russian energy companies and their share in different markets);
2.Political (avoiding complete international isolation; creating leverage to affect US and EU behavior; promoting Moscow’s conception of the “right world order”; shaping Russian popular opinion);
3.Security (reducing security threats to Russia and the post-Soviet space posed by the situation in the Middle East and beyond).
Growing confrontation between Tehran and the GCC is unlikely to aid Russian goals in the region of the Indian Ocean. The GCC-Iranian conflict will force Moscow to make a hard choice: stand with its Iranian partner or step aside and remain ostensibly neutral. Whichever way it goes, the consequences for the Kremlin will be negative. On the one hand, keeping quiet on GCC (especially, Saudi)-Iranian spat would affect the dynamics of Russian-Iranian relations that had been on the rise. Moscow invested diplomatic and economic effort in improving the dialogue with Tehran, including the opening of a credit line. It cannot afford to lose these dividends considering Russia’s economic dire straits. The Russian authorities are desperate to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and avoid any drift westwards. Without Iranian ground forces fighting the opponents of the Assad regime it will be difficult for Moscow to attain its goals in Syria-Russia needs Iran’s military and political support to compel the Syrian opposition and its sponsors to negotiate with Bashar Assad. Moscow silence on diplomatic quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh will also provide opponents of Russo-Iranian rapprochement among Iranian reformists and Russian pro-Western policymakers with further proof that the two countries are unable to forge any kind of effective partnership.
If, however, Moscow takes the Iranian side, this will affect Russian relations with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council - whose money is still considered by the Kremlin as a potential source of investment in the Russian economy. The financial support and political blessing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is important for the successful implementation of Russian-Egyptian joint projects such as the creation of the joint industrial zone or the development of the nuclear industry in Egypt. Moscow is also interested in working closer with the GCC countries to stabilize the situation in the oil and gas markets. The Russo-Iranian alliance in Tehran’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia undermines Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to settle the Syrian crisis by making the Saudis less willing to talk to Russia and effectively drags Moscow into the middle of the broader Sunni-Shia confrontation, allowing anti-Russian political forces in the Middle East to portray Kremlin as an enemy of the Sunni world. This will be a serious threat, not only to the Russian position in the region, but also, conceivably, for the domestic security of Russia whose 15 million-strong Muslim community is predominantly Sunni. Salafi groupings in the Gulf have depicted Russians as new Crusaders at least since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moscow received a warning signal in October when approximately 50 Saudi clerics signed an open declaration calling for Jihad against Moscow. This has created an ideological background for the unification of radical forces in Syria and provides motivation for supporters of radical Islam in the GCC to intensify their financial support for Islamists inside Russia. Consequently, Russian silence on Tehran’s diplomatic confrontation with Riyadh might also be an attempt to improve Moscow’s image in the Sunni world. This image severely suffered after the beginning of the Russian bombings of the Syrian opposition that together with the radical Islamists became one of the main targets of the Russian air forces in the autumn 2015.
The Russian authorities do understand the difficulty of their situation. Consequently, they try to fudge it and avoid both complete neutrality and allying fully with Tehran. Are there any alternatives? Shortly after the beginning of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the early January 2016, Russia declared its readiness to play a mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran. This would allow the Kremlin avoid a further diplomatic disaster and to win much needed spurs in the international arena. Sadly, the initiative has little chance of success: the Saudis simply do not trust Russia. They consider it a loyal ally of Iran. Besides, Riyadh is interested in Tehran’s isolation, not its reintegration. So Moscow must choose from two bad options. The core task of this paper is to assess existing challenges rising from the GCC-Iran confrontation for Moscow’s interests in the region of the Indian Ocean and to suggest how these problems could be managed.