Russia and the Middle East

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From Catherine the Great's 1774 victory against the Ottoman Empire until the late twentieth century, Russian/Soviet policy was to rule the Black Sea and the lands around it.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Russia increased pressure on the Ottoman and Persian empires in an attempt to capture parts of the Black and Caspian seacoasts, as well as of the Caucasian interior. Persia's refusal to recognize Russia's 1801 annexation of Georgia led to a war (18041813) and a Russian victory. According to the Treaty of Golestan (1813), Persia lost a large part of the Caucasus, including Georgia, as well as parts of the western Caspian coast. Persia also recognized Russian naval preeminence in the Caspian Sea.

The next round for the control of the central Caucasus was fought between 1826 and 1828. It, too, ended in a Russian victory. Under the terms of the Treaty of Turkmanchai (1828), Persia relinquished to Russia part of Armenia and recognized the Aras River as the Transcaucasian boundary between the two states. In addition, Persia granted Russia important commercial concessions and extraterritorial privileges, enabling Saint Petersburg to establish a strong political and economic position in the Persian Empire. In the late 1850s Russia turned its attention to Transcaspian Muslim central Asia, conquering the Khanate of Khiva in 1873 and Kokand and Bokhara in 1876. The process was completed in the mid-1880s with the annexation of Merv and Panjdeh, situated near the Afghan border. In 1881 Persia agreed to the Atrek River as the Transcaspian boundary with Russia.

Russia's southward expansion alarmed Great Britain, for Russian control of the Turkish Straits would threaten part of the maritime lifeline of the British Empire. London was also alarmed at the steady Russian encroachment into Persia and, later, Afghanistan. If unchecked, these advances would ultimately bring the Russians to the border of India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. Hence, throughout the nineteenth century, London attempted to prevent Russia from overrunning the Ottoman and Persian empires and from making major inroads into Afghanistan. In the early twentieth century, however, fear of imperial Germany prompted Britain and Russia to reconcile their differences
in Asia. According to their 1907 treaty, Afghanistan became a British sphere of influence and Persia was split into three zones: Russia dominated the northern and Great Britain the southern parts of the country; separating them was a third, or neutral, zone. After the outbreak of World War I, the two allies concluded the Constantinople Agreement (1915), stipulating that after the war Russia would occupy the Turkish Straits. This dramatic reversal of long-standing British policy was dictated by the necessity of keeping Russia in the allied coalition.

Tsarist Russia did not survive to enjoy the fruits of victory over the Central powers. The communist regime, in power after November 1917, renounced the concessions secured by its predecessor, proclaimed itself an ally of the exploited masses, and, in 1921, concluded treaties of friendship and neutrality with Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan. Non-aggression treaties with Turkey and Afghanistan were signed in 1925 and 1926, respectively.

The Soviet Union and the Middle East, 1945 to 1991

During World War II, after Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, Soviet and British troops occupied Iran to secure a safe supply route for the flow of Allied war matériel to the Soviet Union. The treaty of alliance concluded between Iran, Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. in 1942 provided for the withdrawal of foreign forces not later than six months after the end of the war. By early 1946 the British had pulled out, but the Soviets remained. They left later in the year, after Tehran had signed an agreement permitting Soviet oil exploration in northern Iran (it was never implemented). More significantly, Washington exerted pressure on Moscow to abide by the 1942 agreement.

Stalin's refusal to leave Iran was but one of the perceived indications of his aggressiveness. As seen in the West, his ambitions in the Middle East complemented Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and the Far East. In 1945 Stalin renounced the Soviet-Turkish nonaggression treaty and renewed tsarist claims to Turkish territory, including the Straits. He was also held responsible for efforts by Greek communists to topple that country's pro-Western government. Washington responded by promulgating the Truman Doctrine (1947), which assumed responsibility for the defense of Greece and Turkey. The U.S. Sixth Fleet was deployed in the Mediterranean in 1946 and its presence was later augmented by Strategic Air Command bombers based in Morocco, Libya, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Jupiter missiles followed in the 1950s and Polaris submarines in the 1960s. By means of the Eisenhower Doctrine (1955), Washington pledged to defend the Middle East against Soviet aggression, and the Baghdad Pact, consisting of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Great Britain, was formed during the same year.

The vast accumulation of U.S. power in and near the Mediterranean was seen in Moscow as a threat to its security. Hence, for much of the post-Stalin period the U.S.S.R. worked hard to neutralize the U.S. military presence in the vicinity of its southern border. As part of the general superpower competition, the Soviets made a major effort to establish a viable naval and air presence in the Middle East. A naval squadron was permanently deployed in the Mediterranean in 1964, but naval and air bases became available in Egypt only in 1970. Cairo withdrew these privileges later in the decade, but by then the Middle East had ceased to represent a major strategic threat to the U.S.S.R. Ironically, this was due not to Soviet countermeasures but to technological advances: Washington came to rely on land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles. Until 1991 the U.S.S.R., mainly for political reasons, maintained its Mediterranean squadron and had access to facilities in Syria, Algeria, Libya, and Yemen. The most dramatic projection of Soviet power in the post-1945 Middle East occurred in Afghanistan. To preserve a faltering communist regime, Soviet troops entered the country in 1979. They were withdrawn in 1989, leaving Afghanistan stalemated militarily and politically.

An early Soviet political objective was to undermine Western positions in the Middle East. The trend was set by Stalin's support of the partition of Palestine and of the State of Israel (19471948), and it lasted into the Gorbachev period. Western influence has declined from the peak reached in 1945, but this process was initiated by local actors, pursuing their own (not Soviet) interests. The U.S.S.R. played a part by lending moral and material support to regional leaders who were refused Western assistance or arms, but its role was facilitative and, therefore, secondary.

In addition, especially during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, the U.S.S.R. attempted to strengthen its own position and to gain U.S. recognition as a political equal in the Middle East. Efforts to improve Moscow's standing were crowned with some short-term successes. In the 1950s the Soviet Union established working relations with Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Algeria. Later, treaties of friendship and cooperation were signed with Egypt (1971), Iraq (1974), and Syria (1980). However, these apparent gains did not net the U.S.S.R. any permanent, long-term benefits.

Egypt abrogated its treaty in 1976. In 1980 Iraq attacked Iran without consulting the Kremlin. Moscow's ensuing attempts to maintain evenhanded relations with the combatants during their eight-year war led ultimately to a deterioration of both sets of relationships. Gorbachev's realization of the cost-ineffectiveness of the Kremlin's political involvement in the Middle East was partly responsible for his decision to disengage from the Soviet commitment to the Arabs in their conflict with Israel, an obligation that Moscow had maintained through the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods. Lastly, efforts to gain U.S. recognition of Moscow's political parity in the Middle East had also been unsuccessful.

One of the regional problems that the U.S.S.R. had used to advance its political interests in the Middle East was the ArabIsrael conflict. In 1953, in a major about-face, the Soviets abandoned Stalin's policy of support for the Zionist cause and sided with the Arabs. In the ensuing years Moscow extended Egypt and Syria large-scale military and economic assistance and adopted a strong pro-Arab and anti-Israeli position. With some modifications, this attitude was maintained well into the 1980s. Among other things, the U.S.S.R. recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the official representative of the Palestinian Arabs and backed the Arab states in the ArabIsrael wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973. In 1967 Moscow broke diplomatic relations with Israel. As noted, a major change in the Soviet position occurred in the late 1980s when "new thinking" in Gorbachev's foreign policy led the Kremlin to improve relations with Israel. Large-scale Jewish emigration from the U.S.S.R. to Israel was accompanied by the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1991. As Moscow's policy became "evenhanded," to the chagrin of the Arabs, the U.S.S.R. ceased to play an important role in the Arab-Israel conflict.

Before 1970 the U.S.S.R. had no important economic interests in the Middle East. In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviets became heavily involved in selling arms to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Iran. These transactions, worth tens of billions of dollars, ranked second to petroleum sales as the U.S.S.R.'s main earner of foreign currency. (The stunning superiority of Western arms over the Soviet weapons in the hands of the Iraqi military during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 has seriously eroded the market value of such Russian-made armaments for the foreseeable future.) In addition, the U.S.S.R. bartered various types of goods and services for Iraqi, Libyan, and Algerian oil and Iranian gas. Until its dissolution, the U.S.S.R. looked at the oil-rich Persian Gulf states as sources of capital in restructuring the Soviet economy.

On balance, between 1945 and 1991 the U.S.S.R. can be said to have improved its military position vis-à-vis the Middle East in the sense that no strategic threat to Soviet security emanated from the region. But the U.S.S.R. also suffered disappointments and setbacks, and its military and political gains usually proved temporary. In the 1990s the U.S.S.R.'s position was further weakened by the collapse of the Soviet economy and Gorbachev's frantic efforts to revive it by normalizing relations with the Western powers, especially the United States. Given these priorities, the continuation of superpower competition in the Middle East made little sense from the new Soviet perspective. As contiguous states with a large Muslim population, however, Russia and the various independent republics that were formed from the Soviet Union in 1992 will inevitably remain interested parties in the regional affairs of the Middle East.

Relations with the Russian Federation States, 1991 to the Present

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, a weakened Russian Federation, no longer following the "anti-imperialist" foreign policy of the U.S.S.R. and increasingly concerned with economic development and protecting Russia's southern borders, focused its Middle East policy primarily on four countries: Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Iraq. Iran was the closest Middle East ally of post-Soviet Russia. Moscow was Iran's primary supplier of military equipment; the two countries cooperated diplomatically in a number of areas including Tajikistan, where they jointly arranged a cease-fire; TransCaucasia, where until 2001 they worked together against Azerbaijan; and Afghanistan, where they both opposed the Taliban. The centerpiece of the relationship was the nuclear reactor that Russia, despite strong U.S. opposition, was constructing for Iran at Bushehr. The one major area of disagreement was the demarcation of the Caspian Sea.

Economics also was a major factor in the Israeli-Russian relationship, with trade rising to over a billion dollars per year by 2002. The relationship was also marked by extensive cultural cooperation and the joint development and sale of military equipment. The major problem in the relationship was Russia's supply of the nuclear reactor to Iran, which Israel saw as a major enemy. Similarly, economics played an increasingly important role in the Turkish-Russian relationship. With trade rising to over $10 billion annually before the Russian economic collapse in 1998, Turkey became Russia's leading trading partner in the Middle East. There had been a rivalry between Turkey and Russia in Central Asia in the 1990s, as well as serious disagreements over ethnic issues, with Russia alleging Turkish aid to the Chechen rebellions, and Turkey alleging Russian assistance to the terrorist Kurdish Workers Party. But by 2000, with the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline being built to carry Russian natural gas to Turkey, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov could state that the Turkish-Russian relationship had moved from rivalry to partnership. Finally, in its relations with Iraq, Russia hoped to recover as much as possible of the $8 billion in debt owed to Moscow by the regime of Saddam Hussein, as well as obtain business opportunities for Russian companies such as LUKOIL. Despite opposing the Anglo-American attack on Iraq in 2003 that ousted the Hussein regime, and the subsequent military occupation of the country, Russia pursued business opportunities with the Iraqi Governing Council that was appointed by the United States, and Moscow held out the possibility of reducing the Iraqi debt in return for contracts for Russian companies.

see also afghanistan: soviet intervention in; baghdad pact (1955); brezhnev, leonid ilyich; communism in the middle east; turkmanchai, treaty of (1828).


Freedman, Robert O. Moscow and the Middle East: Soviet Policy since the Invasion of Afghanistan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Freedman, Robert O. Russian Policy toward the Middle East Since the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Challenge for Putin. Seattle: The Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, 2001.

Kuniholm, Bruce R. The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East: Great Power Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lenczowski, George. The Middle East in World Affairs, 4th edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Roʾi, Yaacov. From Encroachment to Involvement: A Documentary Study of Soviet Policy in the Middle East. London: Croom Helm, 1974.

Rubinstein, Alvin Z. Red Star on the Nile: The Soviet-Egyptian Influence Relationship. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Smolansky, Oles M. The U.S.S.R. and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

oles m. smolansky
updated by robert o. freedman

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Russia and the Middle East

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