Russia Pushes Its Influence in the Middle East
by James M. Dorsey
Russia hopes to blow new life into a proposal for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, with the tacit approval of the Biden administration.
For now, Vitaly Naumkin, a prominent Russian scholar, academic advisor of the foreign and justice ministries, and head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is testing the waters, according to Newsweek, which first reported the move.
Last week, he invited former officials, scholars, and journalists from feuding Middle Eastern nations to a closed-door meeting in Moscow to discuss the region’s multiple disputes and conflicts, and ways of preventing them from spinning out of control.
Naumkin, who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, co-authored a plan first put forward in 2004. The Russian foreign ministry published a fine-tuned version in 2019.
Russia appears to have timed the revival as the Houthi rebels are seemingly gaining the upper hand against Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s seven-year-long devastating war.
The Iranian-backed rebels appear to be closer to capturing the oil and gas-rich province of Marib after two years of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. The conquest would pave the way for a Houthi takeover of neighboring Shabwa, another energy-rich region. It would put the rebels in control of all northern Yemen.
“The battle for Marib could be a final stand for the possibility of a unified Yemen,” said Yemeni writer and human rights activist Nabil Hetari.
A self-declared independent North Yemen would potentially resemble an Afghanistan sitting on one of the world’s critical chokepoints for the flow of oil and gas. North Yemen would be governed by a nationalist Islamist group that presides over one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The Russian initiative also appears geared to take advantage of efforts by Middle Eastern rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran to reduce regional tensions.
Russia seems to be exploiting what some describe as paused and others as stalled talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by Iraq. Iraqi officials insisted that the talks are on hold until a new Iraqi government has been formed following October’s elections.
Naumkin suggested that the Russian initiative offers an opportunity to carve the Middle East out as a region of cooperation as well as competition with the United States — in contrast to southeastern Europe and Ukraine, where US-Russian tension is on the rise.
In the Middle East, Russia and the United States “have one common threat, the threat of war. Neither the United States nor Russia is interested in having this war,” Naumkin told Newsweek.
A State Department spokesperson would not rule out cooperation. “We remain prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas in which the two sides have common interests while opposing Russian policies that go against US interests,” the spokesperson said.
The Russian proposal calls for integrating the US defense umbrella in the Gulf into a collective security structure that would include Russia, China, Europe, and India alongside the United States. The structure would include, not exclude Iran, and would have to extend to Israel and Turkey.
Inspired by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the proposal suggests that the new architecture would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.
Russia sees the architecture as enabling the creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolving conflicts across the region and promoting mutual security guarantees.
The plan would further involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British, and French forces and bases in various Gulf states and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It calls for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”
In Naumkin’s reading, Middle Eastern rivals “are fed up with what’s going on” and “afraid of possible war.” Negotiations are their only remaining option.
That seems to have driven men like UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi to reach out to one another in a recent flurry of activity.
But, “these are talks between autocrats keen to protect their own grip on power and boost their economies: not peace in our time, only within our borders,” cautioned The Economist.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.