Egypt forces Mideast rethink in cautious Russia

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Russia has taken a wait-and-see approach to the events in Egypt but the dramatic uprising presents it with a stark choice over how to revive its waning influence in the Middle East, analysts said.

Moscow saw itself as a major player in the Middle East in Soviet times when secular nationalist Arab regimes saw the Kremlin as their main patron, but its role has now been dwarfed by the influence of the United States.

If the events in Egypt bring an anti-American regime to power, in Egypt or elsewhere, Moscow will have to choose whether its best interests lie with supporting Islamist-inclined forces or backing Washington, analysts said.

"Although Russia's interests in the region are far smaller than those of the US, it will be forced to confront extremely serious issues if a regime hostile to the US comes to power," said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

"Whether Russia decides to support the United States more or less after all this happens is an open question," Lipman said. "But this is a reason for Russia to pause and think."

Russia waited well over a week before issuing a foreign ministry notice for outside powers -- presumably the United States -- not to issue "ultimatums" for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev himself appeared to be gently urging Mubarak out the door Thursday by suggesting that he wanted to see the crisis resolved "soon".

Mubarak's ties with Moscow stretch back decades. He spent two years training to become a fighter pilot in a Soviet military academy. Later, he worked to improve ties with the Kremlin as president despite his strong reliance on US aid.

One alternative could thus see Russia decide that the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa was placing its own regional security under threat.

Last month's bomb attack on a Moscow airport has underscored Russia's continued inability to curb Islamic militancy in its own country. The rise of more radical elements in Egypt would be an unwelcome shock for the Kremlin.

"This can unquestionably improve Russia's ties with the United States," said Viktor Kremenyuk of the USA and Canada Institute, of the situation in Egypt.

"After all, this is a threat to the entire region's security that can resonate in the Caucasus and even (Russia's Muslim region of) Tatarstan," he said.

Lipman added that the crisis could also "change Russia's position on Iran" -- an old ally whose nuclear programme has recently prompted Moscow to insist on more openness from Tehran.

Yet analysts also point out that Moscow has also broken ranks with the West and retained formal ties with groups that are listed as terrorist organisation by Washington.

"One must remember that Russia also has a history of contacts with some of the Islamic radicals -- Hezbollah, for example," said Kremenyuk.

Medvedev also met last year in Syria with one of the exiled leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Analysts say that these contacts leave Russia with options.

Russia may ultimately decide to "rearrange its priorities" and start openly supporting more militant elements with which the United States has no official links, said Lipman.

"We may be witnessing a serious shift in the balance of power in the Middle East," he argued.

But most observers now agree that Russia's main problem is it has almost no say in developments in the region and will be forced to adapt its policy to whoever comes to power next.

"Russia has little influence over the situation. It is unable to influence what happens in the Middle East -- particularly in Egypt," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

But this also allows Russia to sit back and let the West come up with its response to the crisis before making its own move.

"This is not a Russian crisis -- this is an American one," Lukyanov said.

© 2011 AFP

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