By Thomas Baron
The events of 2011 sought to bring in a culture of revolution across the Middle East and North Africa. Twinned with the Occupy Movement that exploded across the international community, the Arab Spring raised hopes that the politics of inclusiveness and freedom would take hold across the region.
Four years later, the Egyptian revolution has reverted to a state of military dictatorship, Libya has fallen into stateless chaos, and Syria’s descent into civil war has dragged Iraq along with it. The international community has failed to make sense out of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and the United States, in particular, is seeing its credibility diminished and its role as the guarantor of regional stability (if one can argue it ever truly played this role) compromised.
Into this void has stepped Russia. In the last few months Russia has agreed the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defence system to Iran. This has not yet been delivered, and is a useful card for Russia to play. If it is delivered, and deployed, the system would compromise the ability of Israel or the USA to conduct airstrikes should they wish to destroy nuclear sites of concern.
There is a clear economic advantage for Russia to expand its arms sale market and to take advantage of the desire of regional powers to diversify their suppliers. Whilst the Russian economy has been destabilised due to the ongoing involvement in the Ukraine conflict, and income from their oil supply has been affected by the drop in world-wide prices, the military industry represents a major source of strength in the Russian economy.
Russia is the second largest supplier of military equipment in the world, exports in 2013 were worth $13.2 billion in 2013 and made up 1 out of every 5 manufacturing jobs in the country. By expanding into traditionally US dominated markets, as well as newly opening markets, (Iran) Russia has an opportunity to protect itself against shocks caused by Western sanctions and the notoriously unstable energy market.
As well as being good for their domestic economy, the expansion of markets also provides the opportunity to enact another long-held Russian goal: diversifying the power structure of the region.
“There is a growing trend towards the establishment of a unipolar structure of the world with the economic and power domination of the United States,” the 2000 Concepts of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, signed by President Putin read. Moscow’s fear was that this structure would limit the voice of, not only Russia but, all states who opposed the United States and their vision for the international community. This fear was realised in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The 2013 Concept showed a change of view in this regard, noting a world moving towards a “polycentric system” represent by a decline in the power of the West to “dominate world economy and politics.”
To say that Russia is looking to take over the role of the United States, or even pose a direct challenge, are overstated. With an economy roughly a tenth the size of the United States, and having no diplomatic allies who both share their worldview and have the economic and military clout to play a significant role, the Russians are incapable of living up to that role. It is also doubtful that Russia would wish to take on such an enterprise when there are still concerns surrounding the stability of their neighbouring states and their ability to uphold a strong buffer between themselves and their NATO antagonists.
Through a polycentric system, however, Russia can at least afford themselves a seat at the table. America’s vision of right and wrong is shared by neither Russia nor multiple other players and fears surrounding US imperialism are still rampant and not necessarily without cause (see the invasion of Iraq).
The polycentric system also creates instability, particularly during the process of moving away from unilateralism, and before the powers in the system find a resting place in which they adequately balance each other. Arguably this could be good for Russia’s energy exports, as instability may lead to insecurity of the market, although this theory is proving to be untrue at the current time.
Mostly Russia will use the current opening in the power structure of the Middle East to expand their arms sales, which is good for the domestic situation, and lessen the grip the United States holds on the region. In strengthening this polycentric system, the United States will find it more difficult to shape the future of the region without cooperation with the international community, including Russia.
Thomas Baron is a researcher on Middle East politics. https://tomcbaron.wordpress.com/