Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Mohammed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first post-Arab Spring president, even as Russia continued to back Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus against an assorted opposition that includes the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood. This apparent contradiction illustrates the challenges Russia is facing in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Like virtually everyone else, Moscow was surprised by the groundswell of change that began in the Arab world in early 2011. Experts advising the Russian government call this a tectonic shift and compare its impact to that of the two defining periods in the region’s 20th-century history: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the secular revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s. The present “Arab Awakening,” they opine, may take years, even decades, to unfold and is likely to transform the entire shape and fabric of the region. Its future course and dynamics are hard to predict, but in the end it will give a boost to the processes of social and political modernization that so far have largely bypassed the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
Characteristically, some simpler minds in the Russian leadership initially ascribed the developments in the Arab world to the use by the United States of new political technologies, in the manner of the color revolutions in former Soviet countries. A number of pro-Kremlin public figures and commentators then went on to cast Arab developments in strictly negative terms. They pointed to the chaos that followed the fall of authoritarian secular regimes and to the rise of Islamist radicals and even extremists. This reaction reveals two main worries of the Russian leadership: U.S. political and military involvement in nominally sovereign countries, and the potential of spillover from the Arab Spring into the Russian neighborhood in Central Asia and even into Russia’s own Muslim-populated regions.