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
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.