Russia sees Europe’s standing in the Middle East mostly in terms of geopolitical competition. The country views European policies through the lens of not opportunities for cooperation in the Middle East but its own interests. Even where there have been openings for European-Russian collaboration – such as in preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), fighting the Islamic State group, or stabilising the Middle East more broadly – Russia has treated Europe as a weak actor whose space for action is largely determined by US policy.
Russia perceives Europe as partly responsible for the instability in the Middle East that followed the Arab uprisings. In this context, the Libyan war had a considerable impact on Russia’s approach to Europe in the Middle East. For Moscow, the war showed that the European Union could not be trusted to act as an honest broker or a successful actor in post-conflict stabilisation. Libya further illustrated to Moscow the primacy of NATO in EU policymaking, as well as the outsized role that the United States continues to play in the implementation of European foreign policy. Eight years after the Western intervention in Libya, Russia has not altered this broad assessment of European power.
Russian officials argue that European policy in the Middle East, particularly that on Syria, is dependent on Washington. The Kremlin wishes to see a European approach to the Middle East that is not overshadowed by the US (and that is, of course, more aligned with Russian strategy).
Due to EU member states’ lack of unity on Middle East policy, Moscow seeks willing partners in Europe’s national capitals rather than EU institutions, to which it ascribes only a ceremonial role. Moscow sees this discord on a variety of issues – ranging from the EU’s failure to find consensus on hosting refugees to the open rivalry between France and Italy over Libya – as, to some extent, an opportunity to enhance Russian influence. Russia’s objective is not to sow discord among Europeans on the Middle East but to independently build relationships with countries that it believes could be instrumental in supporting Russian security designs on the region.
Russian policymakers sometimes express surprise at the ineffectiveness of European countries’ policies on the Middle East, given that events in the region have so many direct implications for Europe’s security and economic wellbeing. In Russia’s view, Europe was essentially blackmailed by Middle Eastern and north African states in the face of the refugee crisis that began in 2015. Europe failed to consolidate its influence over these states, becoming trapped in a series of deals with them to halt massive inflows of refugees.
Many Russian policymakers believe that European influence in the Middle East is now declining further. This is due to Europe’s perceived abandonment of its leadership on issues of global importance, such as Middle Eastern security. The Russian policymaking community has complained throughout the past year that the EU has been merely waiting for a major violation of the JCPOA by Iran or an escalation in conflict, so that it could bow to US pressure and abandon the deal without remorse.
Nevertheless, policymaking circles in Russia have varying perceptions of Europe’s influence in the Middle East. For many Russian military and intelligence officers, the Middle East has seen a return to a cold war dynamic in which the regional balance of power is determined by rivalry between Moscow and Washington. They believe that Europe either plays a marginal role or acts as a spoiler by fuelling conflict through massive arms exports. The military establishment sees European arms sales in the Gulf, as well as in north Africa, as a factor in the security dilemma in the region, lamenting this “excessive foreign involvement”. Although Russia is engaged in competition with Europe for arms sales to states across the region – including both Iran and Saudi Arabia – it argues that it does so as part of a balancing role.
In contrast, many Russian diplomats tend to recognise that Europe could serve as a mediator in the region, seeing value in its capacity as a humanitarian and a development actor. They view EU member states collectively as a force for good in the Middle East. While these diplomats still see Europe as a weak actor in the region, they seek dialogue with Brussels and European national capitals on Syria, hoping to provide the Assad regime with political legitimacy and reconstruction funds. However, following the largely failed EU-Russia dialogue on Syrian reconstruction launched in September 2018, there is growing frustration in Russia that Europe remains paralysed on issues in the Middle East.
Russia has used the negotiating process that followed the US withdrawal from the JCPOA to measure the EU’s commitment to security cooperation in the Middle East. Moscow has repeatedly hinted that Europe is dragging its feet on the issue. Nevertheless, Russian officials have expressed an interest in becoming involved in Europe’s proposed Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, which focuses on Iran.
While the Kremlin believes that there can be no grand deal on the Middle East between Russia and the US in the current circumstances, it hopes that it can capitalise on disagreements between the Trump administration and its European partners to increase Eurasian cooperation in the region. However, on both on Iran and Syria, Europeans have less and less space to work around tightening US sanctions – once again signalling to Moscow that there is no independent European foreign policy on the Middle East. The Kremlin does not perceive the EU as a US vassal in the region. Yet the EU’s inability to factor the American position into its own strategy significantly undermines Russian perceptions of the bloc as a third force in the Middle East.