Ruslan Kurbanov, senior fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was a guest speaker at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies on Monday, 5 February, 2018. Kurbanov addressed the question of Russian Muslim communities and their attitudes towards Russian foreign policy in the Arab region.

He began by providing a brief history and overview of the diverse Muslim communities in Russia, stressing their heterogeneity.  He described two distinct groups: Caucasian Muslims (including those from Chechnya and Dagestan) and the Tatar and Bashkir Muslims concentrated further north.  He also asserted the differences between the younger and older generations, claiming that the younger generation was more inclined to criticize authority and exercise their democratic rights while the older generation of Muslims are more likely to accept the government policies in general, and foreign policy in the Middle East in particular. 

Kurbanov stressed the religious and cultural ties between the younger Muslim Caucasians and Arabs, pointing out that during his time in Damascus, there were an estimated 1,000 Dagestani students studying in the Syrian capital alone.  Given this high level of cultural exchange, and the deep history of coexistence in Russia, he posited that Muslim Arabs could benefit from the experiences of Russian Muslim communities and their models of interaction with non-Muslims.

Kurbanov then moved to a discussion of Russian foreign policy in the Arab region, stressing his belief that “the biggest mistake of Russian diplomacy is not to find new friends in the Arab world”.  The speaker suggested that Arab and Russian diplomats need to make greater efforts to exploit opportunities to develop economic, political and cultural relations.  Kurbanov also regretted that, during the Arab Spring, Russia did not support the struggle of the Arab peoples against tyranny.  He rationalized Moscow’s approach by alluding to the Kremlin’s fear of the unknown. In essence, Kurbanov argued that the Russian elites were reticent about the Arab Spring because they were unaware of the proper rules of engagement for the Arab Spring and did not know who the leaders of this new wave were.

Kurbanov also stressed his view that the Russian government began its military intervention in Syria to save the official regime, regardless of its sectarian character. In his opinion, the intervention was successful in achieving its military aims in Syria but has yet to achieve its political goals.  He claimed that the biggest challenge for Russian policy in Syria now is to implement a lasting peace agreement.

Throughout the lecture, Kurbanov alluded to the Russian military experience in Chechnya, highlighting that Russian foreign policy on Syria was simply a continuation of its military logic in the Caucasus.  Both conflicts revealed a fundamental flaw in Russian military policy, leading to large-scale destruction and civilian casualties. In the question and answer session which followed the presentation, one commentator pointed out the counter-productive results of Russia’s aims: with the massive civilian casualties in Syria, Moscow’s actions in Syria were in fact inflaming the problem of Islamist radicalism it had set out to destroy. Other members of the audience took issue with Kurbanov’s reduction of the Syrian-Russian alliance—the driving force of Moscow’s military intervention in the country—as being the product of a close personal bond between Assad and Putin.