This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Tehran for a summit of the guarantors of the so-called Astana process, which aims to find a political settlement in Syria.
Apart from a joint session with the other two participants, Iran’s Ibrahim Raisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin will hold talks with each separately. The visit comes soon after the Russian leader’s trip to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – the latter for the Caspian summit that brought together Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and the host state. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, has recently traveled to Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, where he also met with counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
With relations between Russia and the West beyond repair for the foreseeable future, Russian diplomacy is focusing on non-Western countries, and the Middle East and North Africa feature prominently in Moscow’s new foreign-policy geography. Since Russia’s spectacular return to that part of the world in 2015 by means of a military intervention in Syria, the MENA region has been the principal area where Moscow’s post-Soviet approach to foreign affairs has taken shape, and where it has been most successful. Key elements of that approach have included: focusing strictly on Russia’s own national interests, while acknowledging the concerns of regional states; being flexible and able to manage differences with the main partners; staying in touch with all relevant players, while neither patronizing nor antagonizing anyone; managing relations with states which see each other as antagonists; and refraining from imposing any selfish design or demands on the region.
This has worked, so far. Not that Russia’s record in the Middle East is impeccable – it has had its share of mistakes and failures – but it has been remarkably better than in many other parts of the world, including some much closer to home. This is even more remarkable when you consider the diversity of the Middle East and the intensity of conflicts there. As a result, this pattern of foreign policy making, based on profound knowledge of, expertise in, and empathy toward the region, which has miraculously survived –and expanded– in various agencies in the immediate post-Soviet years, makes it a useful template for adapting to other regional dimensions of Moscow’s global foreign policy.