Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?

Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?

Vladimir Putin stands in front of a map of Arab countries in Cairo, in 2005. (AFP)

Russian Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Bogdanov last week released Russia’s “new” approach to securing the Gulf region through the concept of “collective security” and the creation of an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe-type group to settle regional and local disputes.

This document is applied in a shifting geopolitical space. Much of the proposal is repetitious from 10 to 15 years ago, maybe more. What has changed is the attitude of the Gulf Arabs toward Moscow and the leverage that Russia now has in the region and beyond because of the Kremlin’s overall victory in Syria, but also Russia’s expanding goodwill in the region through a number of specific tactics. This effort began with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Gulf in 2007.

At about that time, there were discussions about new ways to design Gulf regional architecture to include Russia, China and India by the US, but that was before November 2016 and the extreme downturn in US-Russian relations. The architecture design challenge was how exactly to fit Russia, China and India into any future scheme for security. At the time, the US was repositioning its forces from Iraq with a requirement for how best to move forward with regional security options within a strategic framework that accounted for Washington’s own interests and those of key regional and extra-regional countries.

Now the ground is ready for this push by Moscow, as Russia acts as an interlocutor between many different parties. This is typically Primakovian — named after former Prime Minister and boss of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate Yevgeny Primakov — and is not a new phenomenon. With the US, UK and others shifting the way security architecture works — or not — in the region, a door is opening for Russia to put forth such proposals. Moscow is now deeply concerned about what happens next across Gulf waters and through the Strait of Hormuz.                                         

It is no surprise that Russia is receiving buy-in from China, but also from the wider BRICS countries, to its security proposal. Beijing — already a security partner with Russia in the economic security organizations, in conducting joint exercises, and in the ongoing testing of neighbors’ sovereignty with air or naval border penetration — is supporting Russia’s push within the context of “collective security.” Russia and China cooperate on a host of issues and, within the context of the Gulf, both are seeking a larger role, from politics to economics to security. China’s use of Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Djibouti rounds out the maritime picture. Here, the BRICS come in to play, as Brazil and South Africa — two countries where Moscow feels it has leverage on this issue — help bring extra-regional support to Russia’s proposal.

The key issue will be the triangulation between the US, the Gulf and Russia, where sentiment is swinging in Moscow’s direction but with caveats. America’s relationships with Gulf allies are robust but, at the same time, Washington’s struggle over President Donald Trump’s agenda is affecting those relationships in the political sphere, while the military arena remains healthy. With the White House’s maximum pressure policy ongoing against Iran and the current Gulf crisis with tankers, Moscow is able to push ideas of collective security as a counterweight and appear as the voice of reason.

The key issue will be the triangulation between the US, the Gulf and Russia, where sentiment is swinging in Moscow’s direction but with caveats.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

But a positive reception for Russia’s ideas may be used against Western and local interests. Discussions about Russia’s role in places such as Yemen by Mikhail Bogdanov (the Soviet Ambassador to South Yemen from 1974 to 1977) are raising questions about how America’s Arab allies intend to fix regional problems themselves and how much Russia is helping in this process, which may counter Western interests. US pressure points on Arab partners who interact with Moscow continue to be potential sanctionable actions and other measures. A future Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act action is highly likely.

However, the temporal nature of Moscow’s initiative must be taken into consideration: The entire region is bubbling because of shifts in American policy and European division, but also the ongoing struggle between Turkey, Qatar and the members of the Anti-Terror Quartet. Russia, and other state and non-state actors, know that, between America’s immediate political future and the upcoming Brexit, these two countries may be severely distracted by domestic events. Events surrounding Iran will certainly not be over. The 2020-2021 time frame will be extraordinarily important for Russia to come up with new ideas, not old ones, if it is serious.

Nevertheless, momentum is carrying Russia forward. Putin’s trip to the region in September will further set the tone regarding Moscow’s vision. In addition, the Russia-Africa Summit being held in October in Sochi is being chaired by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. This event is going to try to attract support for Moscow’s proposal for collective security from Russia’s Africa supporters.

At the end of the day, the key question about the Russian proposal is: Is this — a collection of old thoughts — really the best Moscow can put forward? A novel idea would be for the Russian Foreign Ministry to get the Houthis to stop using drones against Saudi Arabia and civil aviation. Certainly, Russia understands the impact of terror against civil aviation based on past incidents.Yet old habits die hard, as Russia and Iran are planning joint maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean in early 2020. This type of action pushes Arab Gulf states away from Moscow and is counterproductive. The US, UK and France will have much to say about such a development in the current atmosphere.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a national security expert, specializing in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East. He worked for the RAND Corporation and publishes widely in the US and international media. Twitter: @tkarasik​
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