Russia Strikes Back

As Russia becomes ever richer and more powerful on the world stage, it is slipping back into its old role of antagonist to the US, much as it did during the Cold War. Those who thought the Cold War were over with the collapse of Communism were wrong – or, at least, partially wrong. The Great Game of Asia began in the 19th century, long before the Cold War, which was, in effect, only the new, post-World War II name given to the struggle for mastery of Middle East between Russia and England that began with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. When Washington took London's place in this battle, it renamed the balance of power jousting: "the Cold War." Following the collapse of communism, many hoped that a new age had dawned in which the US would remain the single super power for many decades. But just as Russian upheaval at the time of the Communist Revolution in 1917 led to a temporary retreat from European and Middle Eastern affairs, so did the Russian upheaval following the collapse of Communism. Enduring, however, were the larger issues of balance of power. As the Russian form of state reconsolidates as an authoritarian regime, it is also adding a new ideological hue to the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, by siding with the enemies of the US and defending fellow authoritarian regimes in the region which refuse to adopt Washington's language of "democratic reform." Here are a few recent stories on how Russia is positioning itself.

Washington is taking revenge on Russia for its energetic efforts to fill in the vacuum created by the U.S. sanctions, notably in Venezuela. Rosoboronexport is supplying Kalashnikov guns, Su-30MK Flanker-C fighters and other arms and military equipment worth $3 billion to Venezuela. It has military contracts worth $9.7 billion with Syria stipulating the supplies of antitank and anti-air systems, and is supplying Tor-M1 and mobile army air defense missile systems to Iran.

The State Department's sanctions cannot force the Kremlin to terminate these lucrative deals. Ivanov is right in that the Kremlin, Rosoboronexport and its partners have not violated any international laws or rules. They are not supplying arms to conflict zones or selling arms to warring sides. Moreover, they are trading only with U.N.-recognized states and their legitimate governments, rather than with individual firms and organizations.

Russia is now ready to approve the export of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone in NATO nomenclature) medium-range rocket to Syria. It has a range of 280 kilometers and multiple warheads. This is a not-so-friendly warning to both EU and the United States that Russia is back in the Middle Eastern game of nations — opposed to Western interests.

Russia Backs Syria in Probe Request: By: Nicholas Kralev | The Washington Times

A rift has developed between Russia and the Western members of the U.N. Security Council over the probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri nearly two years after he died in a car blast.

Iranian and Syrian Government Papers on Renewed Superpower Role for Russia to Counter U.S. in Middle East: January 12, 2007, MEMRI

In a December 20, 2006 op-ed in the Syrian government daily Teshreen, columnist Issam Dari wrote that the uni-polar world order that the U.S. has sought to impose upon the world is a thing of the past, and that today Russia is playing a role no less important than that of the U.S. in promoting world peace and security.

Comments (12)

MSK said:

Dear Josh,

for someone with a B.A. in History … you are painting that of Russian involvement in the Middle East with a rather broad stroke … AND you got the simplest facts wrong.

The Great Game was the Russian-British question for (1) access to a warm water port (Russia) and (2) protection of the approaches to India (GB). Its area was Central Asia/Afghanistan. It ended with the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention.

What you referred to – involvement in the Ottoman Empire – was the “Near Eastern Question” that was finally ‘answered’ by the post-WW1 re-organization of the Middle East.

From that time until the 1956 Suez War, GB was the most powerful foreign power in the Middle East. Until about that time the Soviet Union did not have the capabilities to seriously engage in the region: They withdrew from northern Iran right after WW2 and did not even make any attempts to support the (Soviet) republics of Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan (Mahabad).

The extension of the Soviet-Western Cold War to the Middle East came in the wake of Western attempts to establish bases on the Soviet’s southern flank and the Soviet’s endeavors to gain Middle East allies in order to attain a power equilibrium.

It had nothing to do with the earlier Great Game or Near Eastern Question.

These days, over a decade after the end of the Cold War, it is true that Russia is attempting to attain a bigger role in the Middle East but again, this isn’t some “old wine in new bottles”.

Russia has concerns about Islamist groups within its own territory (an issue that simply hadn’t existed until recently), and is obviously also doing what it can to fulfil all obligations of a “great power”.

I still can’t believe how crude of a picture you painted. Isn’t one of the main charges the authors of this blog level against governments, pundits, and the media to be inaccurate & simplistic?

Josh, you fell into the classic “since time immemorial” trap.


January 12th, 2007, 8:27 pm


Ford Prefect said:

MSK is correct. “The Great Game” is a phrase coined by a young British officer named Arther Conolly. The “Game” was mainly concerned, as MSK indicated, with the Central Asian regions of Turkestan, Afghanistan, Persia, and Transcapsia, etc. This Game was played by British intelligence officers to undermine Russians interests in Central Asia – leading to priceless India. The Middle East was not part of that Game.

However, MSK, I am not aware of the “Near Eastern Question.” Are you referring to the “Eastern Question” that emerged from the Ottoman-Russian wars?

In general, I do see and agree with the point Josh is making, but MSK makes it more accurate.

January 12th, 2007, 10:41 pm


MSK said:

Dear FP,

thanks for the correction – indeed, “Eastern Question” it was.

My issue with Josh’s tale is that he makes it look like what happens today is just a new phase of a continuous story that started in the 19th century: Russia vs. GB-then-replaced-by-the-US in the Middle East.

And that’s simply wrong and, for Josh, surprisingly ahistorical. And it triggered my “mu’ammarah kabiira” alarm. There was no “struggle for mastery of Middle East between Russia and England”. The Middle East was simply uninteresting in its own right, but had the (mis)fortune to lay smack between GB and India and held the warm-water ports (Black Sea & Turkish Straights) closest to Russia.

No outside power cared about the Middle East (ya’nii Egypt to Turkey/Iran) itself until oil was produced in sizeable quantities:

– Iraq/Turkey/Iran after WW1
– Persian Gulf after WW2

So, again, the big problem with Josh’s tale is not about the labels but Josh’s miscomprehension of today’s Russian and British/US politics as quite fundamentally different from that of the 19th or even mid-20th centuries.


January 12th, 2007, 11:03 pm


Ford Prefect said:

Thanks MSK for the clarification. I agree with your comment that the hapless Middle East was of little or no interest during the Anglo-Russian Great Game. I also agree with paranoia about “mu’ammarah kabiira” that is usually more of a fantasy than a fact. I do, however, think that the interest of the Europeans in reclaiming and controlling the Holy Land region date back to the year Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim forces and the resulting spread of Islam in the region. I am reminded by the famous statement of the French general Henri Gouraud in July of 1920 when he charged ahead and took over Damascus. Walking over to Saladin tomb he proclaimed, “Saladin, we have returned. My presence here sanctifies the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.” Apparently, these sentiments are still raging. Your point, however, is well taken and understood.

January 12th, 2007, 11:36 pm


Enlightened said:

Ford and MSK: excellent analysis and correct, glossing over my historical memory, Soviet involvement in the mid east culminated in the moves to counter in The Baghdad Pact ( if my memories are correct )

“I am reminded by the famous statement of the French general Henri Gouraud in July of 1920 when he charged ahead and took over Damascus. Walking over to Saladin tomb he proclaimed, “Saladin, we have returned. My presence here sanctifies the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.” Apparently, these sentiments are still raging. Your point, however, is well taken and understood.”

Ford here in lies i think the crux of the argument about whether peace can be achieved and the competing claims in the middle east about the holy land, when sentiment runs this deep, there will be no peace.

January 13th, 2007, 12:24 am


Habib said:

Assembled Manayek,

This is a blog, not an academic publication. If thats what you seek, find it in a polisci quarterly. Chill on the sardonic. Its good for people to air views without too much fear of the scholastic rounders.

January 13th, 2007, 3:01 am


MSK said:

Ya Manyak,

Josh would be the first to disagree with you. The point of this blog and its comments section isn’t that everybody can write whatever they want – it’s there to inform people and to debate. And if a poster makes an argument then it is absolutely clear that others may disagree and provide a counter-argument.

Now, if somebody had said “since Alawites are actually Shi’a, and since all Shi’a are under the religious rule of the Iranian clergy, thus the Assads have always done Iranian policy” … you wouldn’t’ve been surprised about a critical reply.

You seem to think that every view and every idea has the same value, regardless whether it’s grounded in reality.

If you don’t have anything useful to contribute to the conversation, please don’t be a killjoy.


January 13th, 2007, 10:58 am


Ford Prefect said:

I dont get it, Habib. What is it with the name calling? I appreciate your opinion and valid point, but why comprimise it with your intentional insults?

January 13th, 2007, 12:08 pm


Habib said:

I am a manyouk too, its actually a term of affection. Don’t worry I still electronically love all of you.

January 13th, 2007, 2:25 pm


Dameem said:

The last link “Iranian and Syrian Government Papers on Renewed…” Par.3
“The [failure] of the efforts of the American hawks, who wish to monopolize the decisions and policies on a global level, has left the Americans stunned.”

Just wanted to emphasize on the exaggeration of that sentence. Including the author making It sound to Syrians that “90% of Amrricans are actually stunned about thr failure of The American Hawks”
(A Boys Perspective)
P.S. I like Habib (won’t be extreme and say love just yet) His cool funny Syrian bone must show every now and then:)
(A Boys Perspective)

January 13th, 2007, 2:49 pm


Ford Prefect said:

Habib, k fine. For a while I thought I was playing Tarnib with my buddies – we use the same “affectionate” language! But for this blog, it is more like playing “trix”: civilized at first, then an all out, but friendly, war at the end! Electronic affections accepted and offered in return.

January 13th, 2007, 4:51 pm


HK said:


January 16th, 2007, 5:19 pm


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