Interview with Professor Vladimir M. Kapitsyn on Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Russia has been following an assertive foreign policy toward different regions around the globe for more than a decade. Russian Middle Eastern policy, among all, is of great interest for political scientist from all over the world consistently. However, notably, after the Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and active Russian policy in the military, diplomatic and economic spheres have raised new questions about Russian strategy and policy-goals in and beyond the region.

Ebru Birinci

Political Reflection Magazine – Issue 22

Ebru Birinci: We are almost at the end of 2019. The Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation has been in force for four years. How do you evaluate the security concept of Russia in the last years? Furthermore, if I put simply, to what extent are the requirements of the new concept being fulfilled?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation (from now on referred to as the “Strategy”) is an essential document of strategic planning that defines national interests and strategic national priorities of the state, goals, objectives and measures in the field of domestic and foreign policy. The strategy describes the old and new threats that come in detail, for example, from US hegemony policies and large-scale structural imbalances that lead to economic and financial crises. Such threats are caused by the activities of terrorist organisations, uncontrolled migration, epidemics, global climate change, “colour revolutions”, etc.

Considering that the Strategy is aimed at strengthening national security and ensuring the country’s sustainable development for the long term, constant political monitoring is carried out to evaluate its implementation, both by state authorities and by various civil society institutions, including the scientific community. In particular, the Security Council of Russia regularly holds meetings at which the state of security is assessed, its compliance with the indicators defined in the Strategy. Besides, a variety of public councils, expert and analytical centres operate under the state authorities in our country [Russia].

Publicly available specific data about individual indicators of the state of national security in military, economic and demographic and other spheres established in the Strategy (section VI, paragraph 115) speak of the progressive strengthening of security in various sectors of public life, and the improvement of the equipment of the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and security agencies. All this is reflected, for example, in the constant reduction of the terrorism threat, although, of course, problems in this area, as in other areas, remain. So, in 2019, 54 acts of terrorism were prevented. However, this is already a completely different situation than, for example, as early as 10-15 years ago. Of course, the negative influence continues over the course of all four years of permanent anti-Russian sanctions.


Vladimir Mikhailovich Kapitsyn is a professor in the Department of comparative politics in the Faculty of Political Science, Lomonosov Moscow State University. Member of dissertation councils and editorial boards of scientific journals (“European Ombudsman”, “PolitBook” (Cheboksary), “Research Result.  Social Studies and Humanities” (Belgorod State University), “Social and Humanitarian Knowledge”, “Social Area” (ISEDT RAS – Vologda); “Law and Modern States” (Moscow). Author of more than 357 publications, including more than 65 monographs, textbooks and teaching aids (including those co-authored), 234 scientific articles.


Ebru Birinci: Russia supports the multipolar world system and claims to be one of the poles of this new order, emerged after the Cold War. Let alone the problems of this concept, Russia is a global military power however falls back of the US, China, the EU in the economic level and the studies are not showing a significant change in the next decades. Do you think that Russia can afford such a key role in world politics without solving economic problems?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: I will begin the answer to this question by stating processes when economic factors, for all their importance, can temporarily fade into the background. I draw your attention to the status of modern Turkey and its leader – President R.T. Erdogan. The authority of the leader of the state and independent position are significant. In addition, a recently published rating of the power of states, in which Russia took second place. This, of course, is only one of the ratings, but together with the first example, it shows that the role of the state in the modern world can be determined by a combination of various factors, among which leadership, the leader of the state, military power, and geopolitics are not the least. As the processes in Syria show, Turkey has become an active actor in the formation and implementation of not only regional but also world politics. Moreover, indicators of the economic development of your republic [Turkey] are not determining factors in this case.

Returning to a specific situation, we acknowledge that there are objective preconditions for Russia to become one of the centres (poles) of power in the world order that has emerged over the past decade. First of all, this is the geopolitical weight of Russia, a Eurasian power, which has a significant territory through which important transport routes pass, the number of which is increasing while ensuring a safe and high-quality infrastructure. Among them are the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the North-South transport corridor connecting (via Russia and Azerbaijan) Europe, Iran, and India. The routes included in the megaproject “One belt, one way” have great potential. In conditions of depletion of natural resources, including one that is so commonplace, but also extremely necessary, like pure drinking water, significant reserves of Russian oil and gas including in the Arctic, are becoming the objective conditions, which are determining the role of the state in the world arena.

However, the peculiarities of the geographical location and natural resources can be productively used only while ensuring national security. The most crucial component of security is the development of the economy. Our National Security Strategy of 2015 draws attention to this, as we already spoke about. Here we quote paragraph 5 of the Document: “This Strategy is based on the inextricable interconnection and interdependence of national security and the socio-economic development of the country.” It is important to note that we have developed and approved by Decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated May 13, 2017 No. 208 the Strategy for the Economic Security of the Russian Federation for the period until 2030. It provides for economic growth, raising the level and improving the quality of life of the population, supporting scientific and the technical potential of economic development at the world level and increase its competitiveness by creating economic conditions for the development and implementation of modern technologies, stimulating innovative development, and also improving legal base in this area, developing human potential.

Strong economic policies should convert geopolitical and natural preconditions into real benefits. Moreover, natural resources can be depleted, but economic production should create a wide range of non-primary products and services necessary for the life of Russians and exports (machines, machines, devices, medicines, food). Concrete facts and figures again indicate the understanding of this. According to published data, in 2017 and 2018, Russia is at the sixth spot for rankings of GDP based on PPP. And although in terms of the US dollar the volume of GDP in Russia has not yet reached the level of the end of 2013, if you count it in the national currency, there has been steady growth. If we calculate GDP per capita, the results are more modest: 50th place according to the IMF and 57th according to the World Bank. Russia is actively increasing import substitution, increasing the share of non-oil exports, developing high-tech industries in nuclear energy, providing reliable and efficient methods of extraction and ways of delivering energy to Europe and Asia.

Starting from 2020, an increase in revenues from new industries is expected: at the end of 2019, the Power of Siberia pipeline was launched; in 2020, despite the sanctions, the Turkish Stream and Nord Stream-2 pipelines should begin to operate. Benefits of more than 2,000 plants, including large ones, built over the past 5 years are expected. 22 extended bridges began to be operated. Russia’s export positions in grain and other agricultural products strengthened (Russia took the 1st place in grain export), as well as in the sale of weapons, non-military equipment, and nuclear engineering technologies. An important reserve also has opened up since the Russian government, despite the IMF’s opposition, began to withdraw funds from the national welfare fund and invest them in projects in Russia. We stress, once again, that Russia is facing severe challenges from the United States, NATO and the EU, which do not miss the opportunity to undermine economic sovereignty using discriminatory measures – sanctions, unfair competition, the formation of coalitions and partnerships that are unfavourable for Russia, restrictions on access to foreign exchange reserves, etc. All this only confirms that both in the West and in Russia, it is clearly understood that without solving our economic problems, it is difficult to count on the role of a critical subject in world politics.

Ebru Birinci: At the moment, Russia pursues an active policy in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and it is the only power that has stable contacts with all legal actors in the region. This confirms the status of Russia as a global power. Do you think Russia can replace the United States as the dominant world power in the region? Is pragmatic Russian policy in the Middle East sustainable enough to maintain such a position?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: The foreign policy of Russia seeks not to dominate the Middle East, but to establish a balance of power in this region. With this in mind, our state strives to counteract the US and NATO policies aimed at the overthrow of sovereign states, as well as to ensure economic cooperation between Russia and traditional partners (Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan). Moreover, given the number of US military bases and allies in the Middle East (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan), I believe that the United States continues to act as a dominant force, albeit gradually weakens.

At the same time, Russia, in cooperation with Turkey and Iran, has come closer to the establishment of a balance of power in this region. Above all, this is thanks to the defeat of ISIS (an organisation banned in our country) and a number of other terrorist organisations, once again, despite the noticeable opposition of the United States and its factions, as well as the inconsistent behaviour of Israel (and a number of other states). All this also influenced the establishment of the new balance of power. Thus, since the launch of the Russian military operation in Syria, the attitude towards Russia from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, the Libyan leadership has become more positive. Close military and diplomatic cooperation have been developed with Turkey and Iran. A significant strengthening of Russia in the Black Sea as a result of the return of Crimea to Russia indirectly affects the balance of power in the Middle East. At the same time, the United States lost a lot of workforce and resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, without solving there the main tasks in the fight against terrorism.

In my opinion, the progressive strengthening of Russia’s position in the Middle East, the preservation and development of constructive interaction with Turkey and Iran, as well as with Iraq, Syria, Egypt – all this will help establish a balance of powers in the region that will provide the necessary conditions for states to successfully engage in peacebuilding and sustainable development, to counter extremism and international terrorism. Russia is highly interested in this, as the state leadership has repeatedly stated. Thus, this policy is very pragmatic, which bodes well for its stability and consistency.

Ebru Birinci: As you know, the centre of a rivalry between the great powers seems to be East Asia. It is said the Middle East will lose its central role in world politics and the United States is gradually changing its foreign policy orientation towards East Asia. Do you agree with this? How do you explain the growing role of Russia in the Middle East in this state of the world order?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: From my point of view, while the East Asian direction of American foreign policy is important, the military and trade confrontation with China is vital for the United States, the Middle East will not lose its central role in the next decade, both in US foreign policy and in the establishment of a new, more equitable world order. The premises of this are very diverse. We will name only a few.

In the Middle East, for example, there are important transport routes such as the Suez Canal, which has been reconstructed in recent years, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, as well as the richest energy resources of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Iran. The proximity of developing industrial giants (India, Iran, Egypt), the Japanese, the EU, Chinese, Turkish and the booming Indonesia’s interests in this region and the established cooperation of them – all this indicates that the Middle East states and their resources will remain on the agenda of many states, including the United States.

At the same time, in the current context another question arises reasonably: will the USA have enough resources (economic, diplomatic, etc.) to put pressure on some states to ensure the realisation of its foreign policy goals contrary to the interests of other countries? It is also important to take into account that the states of the Middle East, as well as Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, want to see the United States more cooperating in the fight against international terrorism in the context of a balance of powers. I will say more – starting from the Middle East, a regional model of the balance of powers is being developed, which can be adopted in other regions and will affect the formation of the new world order.

Ebru Birinci: In your article “Forms of Regulation of Violence in International Relations” in 2016, you argue that the World is faced with a deficit of normative world politics focused on long-term goals and this has resulted in the Syrian conflict. Russian foreign policy is sometimes criticised about its focus on the short-term benefit. Does Russia have a long-term plan for the region?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: In theoretical terms, the concept of “normative world politics” means that a balance of power is developing in the world and (or) in the region, which helps to build a hierarchy, when the agreements of great powers reduce the confrontation, contribute to the development of regulators of international law. Then, the regulators of world politics, with all their diversity and multi-directionality, will work in the normative space more predictably and more legitimately. Accordingly, world politics is becoming “normative”, closely related to the regulators of international law, more flexible, at the same time, more predictable and less dangerous, reducing the potential for conflict of certain countries.

The fight against terrorism, the maintenance of a balance of power and the sovereignty of states such as Syria and Egypt are important in military-political and geopolitical relations for Russia in the Middle East – all this cannot be of the nature of a short-term policy. As you know, Russia is creating military bases on the territory of Syria for aviation and the navy in order to secure a peaceful life, ensure mutually beneficial economic partnership with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and close cooperation with Turkey on many issues. This list is easy to continue, but the above fully reflects the long-term nature of Russia’s foreign policy.

In many ways, this can be defined as a specification of the concept of “normative world politics.”

Ebru Birinci: Considering energy is vital for the Russian economy, Russia seeks to develop relations with Saudi Arabia to control oil prices. On the other hand, it is hard to say that the situation in the Gulf stable. How can any tension in the Persian Gulf affect the future of bilateral relations?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: The position of Saudi Arabia in recent years has been weakened by the war with Yemen, conflicts with Qatar. At the same time, despite mutual rejection policies of the Saudis and Israel, specific areas of cooperation between them are outlined.

Saudi Arabia, in general, tends to expand the vectors of cooperation, in particular, is steadily expanding relations with Russia: trade, humanitarian and military cooperation, tourism, and mutual understanding in OPEC are growing. Negotiations are ongoing for the purchase of the S-400 system from Russia. It seems that Russia would be able to contribute to mitigation the bilateral relations of Iran and Syria with Saudi Arabia, which would have a positive effect on the situation in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, as well as on bilateral relations. Russia and Saudi Arabia are interested in cooperation in the framework of OPEC. Russia attaches great importance to this in order to disavow possible attempts by the United States to use oil prices as an instrument of pressure on Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and the Arab countries. Cooperation is also developing in the Organization of the Islamic Conference and G – 20. Saudi Arabia is investing in the construction of Russian enterprises.

It seems that close economic cooperation is one of the incentives for stability and the further development of relations. It is symptomatic that Russia and the Saudis were able to survive the aggravation of contradictions almost painlessly when in 2015 Russia took an active part in supporting B. Assad in Syria (the Saudis supported the opposition). All this is a guarantee that in the future, these countries will be able to overcome the inevitable contradictions in the interests of their peoples.

Ebru Birinci: There has been another energy-oriented conflict zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is Russia’s policy regarding the situation in there?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: Alongside Syria and Iraq, Libya, which has rich oil fields, including on the sea shelf, has become one of the conflict zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is a gas pipeline from Libya to Italy (deliveries amounted to 8 billion cubic meters of gas).

After the bombing of NATO, under the current chaos, a kind of territorial diarchy emerged. In the West, Tripoli is a force under the patronage of the United States, and NATO recognised as the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj (including the recognised UN). In the East, in Tobruk and Benghazi, a parliament (House of Representatives) is based, which in 2015 approved Khalifa Haftar the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the country. This force does not recognise the authority of the GNA, believing that the government is associated with Islamists, especially Muslim brothers. Other fronts have risen, too: in Sirte, there was a conflict against terrorists, in the south Tuareg and Toubou tribes, fought, who are sometimes also fighting with Sudanese militants. In March 2016, according to media reports, even the intervention of NATO forces was supposed to force deputies of the House of Representatives to recognise the GNA.

According to the statements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the President of Russia, our state seeks to maintain relations with both parties. So, General Haftar was received in Moscow and on a Russian military ship. According to specific events in this country, NATO and the EU, as well as the USA, do not enjoy support in Tripoli because of their participation in the bombing of 2011. Turkey and Russia turned out to be the most authoritative in Libya, although they have serious disagreements regarding further development plans. Libya. For example, Turkey was negotiating with the GNA on the delimitation of sea spaces. She sought to use the situation to assert her rights to specific sections of the sea (which contradicted the interests of Cyprus and Greece). The media even wrote about the possible introduction of Turkish troops in Libya.

Russia, and its state-owned corporation Russian Railways, in particular, suffered heavy losses due to the bombing of Libya in 2011, as the construction of the railway coordinated by Libya and Russia was disrupted. Russia also lost the opportunity to participate in the production of Libyan oil. One can agree with the well-known and well-founded opinion that the war in Libya in 2011 was beneficial to the United States, which sought to remove Chinese and Russian companies from Libya.

In 2019, the dual power in Libya severely has been shaken, because General Haftar again attacked Tripoli and brought his troops into the city. Russia and Turkey held several talks on this issue. Apparently, much will be decided from the agreement of these two states, which will protect their proteges and, at the same time, seek the creation of a single government. Moreover, if Haftar takes Tripoli, and with its domination of the gas pipeline, then his position in the negotiations with the support of Russia will be very strong. Let me remind you that Turkey and Russia have experience in resolving complex conflicts. There is hope that it will be possible to avoid drawing these countries into a military confrontation. Negotiations can be affected by severe resistance from Greece, which NATO will support. It may be necessary to create a settlement institution similar to the Astana or Geneva processes in Syria. It is possible that Chinese companies will return to Libya and China will also become a significant player in this country.

Ebru Birinci: Russian-Israeli relations developed under the Putin administration. What are Putin’s motives for developing these relationships? Can Israel become a bridge between the West and Russia?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: Israel tried to play such a role. And for some part, it succeeded, although the Palestinian question seriously aggravated Israeli relations with Turkey and the Arab countries.

If we talk about Russian-Israeli relations in current conditions, then, as you know, V.V. Putin sought to neutralise a possible military clash between the Israeli Air Force and B. Assad’s troops. At the same time, B. Netanyahu tried to defend the right of Israel to act decisively against the strengthening of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. The actions of Israeli military aircraft dealt a significant blow to the relationship of trust between B. Netanyahu and V.V. Putin, as a result of which the Russian aircraft laboratory fell under the fire of Syrian air defense and pilots and engineers died. Russia and Syria responded to Israel, both by military and diplomatic means. Although after some time the contacts of the leadership of Russia and Israel resumed, they did not reach the previous level of trust. It is obvious that Israel remains one of the main players in the Middle East and Russia’s policy will proceed from this, pursuing its national interests of Russia and its partners.

Ebru Birinci: The Palestinian-Israeli peace process has come to a standstill, especially after Trump’s decisions, while Russia criticises Trump’s policies and continues to maintain contacts with the Palestinian side. Can we wait for a more active Russian policy on this issue?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: It seems that the peace process you named can be ensured only by collective efforts, by the efforts of all interested parties, the world community as a whole. If we talk about the latest processes, I would like to draw attention to the fact that, for example, the similar positions of Turkey and Russia at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in November 2019 became indicative of the Palestinian issue. Both states (Russia as a guest of the summit) actively substantiated during the meetings and official meetings, Palestine’s right to statehood.

Obviously, the position of D. Trump worsened the situation with the resolution of the Palestine problem. As you know, in the past, Israel, sometimes formally, and sometimes at the diplomatic level, taking into account the position of the US, EU, Russia and Turkey, admitted the possibility of negotiations with Palestine (on the status of Jerusalem) and Syria (on the Golan Heights). However, after Trump initiated the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (2017) and the rights of Israel to the Golan Heights, Israel tightened its stance. With this in mind, it is unlikely that the policies of individual states can significantly change the situation. We have to admit that this requires consistent long-term work, including one related to changing the position of individual key states.

Ebru Birinci: As concluding, could you please evaluate Russia’s position in world politics?

Vladimir M. Kapitsyn: If Russia manages to consolidate the emerging positive trends in the economy and international relations, successfully complete the reform of the armed forces, will be able to restore its status as a great power (along with China, the United States, and possibly also other states). This is evidenced by her successes in Syria, the successful rearmament of her army, navy and space forces, which by some indicators is unattainable, for example, for the United States and China in the coming years. This is also confirmed by the stable interaction of Russia with China. Their military-technical and economic cooperation can be a decisive factor in overcoming the hegemony of one superpower (USA). At the same time, the independent position of both Turkey and many other states is very important. An important factor is also the negotiations between Russia and the United States on the need to maintain at least part of the agreements on disarmament and limitation of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. States, only by joint efforts, primarily the efforts of the United States, China, and Russia, will establish a balance of power and hierarchy that will ensure a transition to the world order with strong international law and normative world politics.

Ebru Birinci: Thank you very much for your insightful and sincere answers.

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