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Situation Assessment 11 December, 2011

Russia and the Arabs – The Rise of Pragmatism and the Waning of Ideology

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Atef Moatamed Abdel-Hamid

Associate Professor of Political Geography, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Egypt. Academic Experiences (Geog. Dept, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University): - 1991-1996: Reader in Geography. - 1996-2001: Assistant Lecturer. (Ph.D, Saint Petersburg University, Russia) -2001-2007: Lecturer in Political geography. -2007-2011: Associate Professor in political Geography and Geopolitics. - Visitor Professor to the following Universities: - Postojna, Slovenia - Rene 2, France. - Berlin, Germany. - Bucharest, Romania. - Belo Horizonte, Brazil - Imam Islamic University, Saudi Arabia

Throughout the Arab Spring, Russia's official foreign policy stance was shocking to many across the Arab world; it stood firmly on the side of regimes and rejected revolutions and calls for freedom. However, as events have continued to unfold, Russia has been forced to shift its position tactically in favor of a more flexible policy that, to some degree, attempts to have it both ways. More recently, Russia has affirmed its commitment to the stability of Arab regimes while simultaneously professing to welcome cooperation with the revolutionary opposition forces.

 Russia abstained from voting on UN Security Council resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. Thereafter, the Libyan revolution's success in deposing the Qaddafi regime led to the deepening entrenchment of Russia's later diplomatic positions, and in October 2011, it joined China, India, Brazil and South Africa in a bloc that stood in opposition against a proposed UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime.

With this position, Russia drew criticism from both internal and external observers. Many were surprised at Russia's shifting, unpredictable attitude toward the events taking place in the Arab world. For possibly the first time in the history of Russian-Arab relations, Arab populations have demanded an economic, political, and military boycott of Russia, after a five-decade long period of Arab appreciation for Russia's championing of Arab causes, as well as for its military and political support.

These political developments raise several questions about the motives underpinning the Russian position, as well as the relation between the events in the Arab world and Russia's domestic situation. The context for this is Russia's fear that the contagion of Arab revolutions will spread across its borders, after a decades-long struggle to insulate its population against the revolutionary spirit which had been creeping in from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

In order to make sense of the the developing Russian stance vis-a-vis the Arab world, this article will examine a number of geopolitical factors that could explain the Russian position. Chief among these is Russia's struggle within the international circuit to rebuild a new world order that would put an end to American hegemony, dismantle the unipolar superpower scenario, and change the position of the Arab world within the layout of Russia's strategic security circles. Also to be examined are specific factors influencing Russia's position as it attempts to minimize economic losses during the transformations in the Arab world and overcome the military limitations that have precluded its attempts to become an effective geopolitical player in the Arab domain. It should be remembered that Russia is concerned about spreading waves of the Arab revolution ushering in a return of Islamic fundamentalism on Russian soil in the wake of the Chechen-Russian war; similarly concerning to it is the prospect of complications in Russo-Israeli relations.

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