The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.
There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:
Russia may ease restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood soon to improve relations with Egypt and rebuild influence lost during the Arab Spring revolutions, diplomatic sources say.
The election of President Mohammed Mursi, propelled to power by the Islamist group, offers President Vladimir Putin a chance to improve relations with Cairo that were strained during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.
It’s easy to forget just how seriously Russia takes its ongoing conflict in the Caucasus–in part because Russian officials pretend there is no problem and in part because Western newspapers rarely mention the name of Doku Umarov, though he is a household name in the intelligence and counterterrorism communities. But every so often the world gets a reminder that Umarov’s boys mean business.
Russian officials tend to brush off the threat from the Caucasus Emirate in public in order to deprive the rebels of publicity, but they take the conflict personally. This is especially true of Vladimir Putin, since his prosecution of the Second Chechen War was his dramatic election-year introduction to the Russian people as he prepared to take over for the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Putin’s identity thus was crafted through his response to the Chechen threat.
Leaders in the Muslim world have been sensitive to this. As Ray Takeyh writes in Hidden Iran, the Islamic Republic’s leaders may have proclaimed their loyalty to the Islamic revolution and to oppressed Muslims everywhere, but Russia’s friendship was strategically important to them, and they watched what they said and did in that regard:
The full scope of Iran’s pragmatism became evident during the Chechnya conflict. At a time when the Russian soldiers were indiscriminately massacring Muslim rebels and aggressively suppressing an Islamic insurgency, Iran’s response was a mere statement declaring the issue to be an internal Russian affair. At times, when Russia’s behavior was particularly egregious, Iran’s statements would be harsher. However, Tehran never undertook practical measures such as dispatching aid to the rebels or organizing the Islamic bloc against Moscow’s policy. Given that Iran had calculated that its national interests lay in not excessively antagonizing the Russian Federation, it largely ignored the plight of the Chechens despite the Islamic appeal of their cause.
There is some evidence that Chechen Islamists joined the anti-Assad forces in Syria as well.
Morsi is reportedly expected to make a trip to Moscow next year. Putin’s Russia has not exactly been a constructive partner for the West in the current Mideast strife, nor is it likely to be any more helpful in Egypt. A developing Egypt-Hamas partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin should continue to disabuse the West of the notion that Morsi intends to be an improvement upon his predecessor, or that fading American influence is anything but a recipe to empower illiberal forces in its place.