Putin’s New Order in the Middle East
by Talal Nizameddin
(London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2013) pp. 358

Reviewed By Moritz Pieper, PhD Researcher, University of Kent at Brussels

At a time when Western observers and practitioners of international and Middle Eastern politics struggle to find solutions to the raging Syrian civil war, it is once again of paramount importance to understand the rationale of Russian policies towards the Middle East. No other state has caused more perplexity and bewilderment in Western policy circles. Western governments have tried to come to terms with changes in political parameters in the Middle East that have made the inclusion of Russian policy planning into geopolitical deliberations unavoidable. The current malaise in relations between Russia and the West makes this book a timely endeavor to analyze Putin’s worldview which, as Nizameddin shows, has been shaped considerably by Russian domestic events and Western policies towards Russia following 1991.

The first five chapters outline the historical evolution of Middle Eastern policies from Stalin’s Soviet Union until Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, while the second half of the book presents a more detailed overview of Russian policies towards key states in the region as well as non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The approach here is chronological: Each chapter presents case studies of Russian Middle Eastern policies, with an analytical focus on shifts in policy planning as well as examples of continuity from the administrations of the late Gorbachev, to Yeltzin through to Putin’s three presidential terms (including the Medvedev intermezzo). The book is therefore to be embedded in the existing scholarly literature on Russian foreign policy phases since the break-up of the Soviet Union, as it retraces distinct conceptual phases of a post-Soviet foreign policy evolution from an assimilationist foreign policy line under Yeltzin and Kozyrev to an accommodating and pragmatic one under foreign minister Primakov through to a more assertive approach under president Putin.

Throughout the book, the author provides historical background information on Russia’s foreign policy decision-making and on political developments in the Middle East, blending insights into Russia’s institutional and strategic foreign policy calculations with a telescopic angle to their impact on the wider Middle Eastern region. Next to the discussion of Russia’s relations with selected key actors in the region, Nizameddin also analyzes the impact of wider transnational phenomena such as Islamism, sectarianism, or energy politics.

While sometimes (and unnecessarily) delving deeper into domestic debates about Russian foreign policy and party politics at the expense of a more detailed discussion of Middle Eastern regional dynamics, some chapters have more analytical merits than others. Among the most compelling is the chapter on the ‘Syria-Lebanon Dilemma’, which explains rather well how Lebanon’s internal complexities and regional proxy arrangements affect Russia’s foreign policy calculations.

Russia’s policies towards different actors in the Middle East are seen both in the context of respective bilateral relations and through the prism of US-Russian relations in their effect on the region. With a stronger focus on the latter, the reading that Moscow’s prime motivation for its Middle Eastern policies is to undermine the US presence in the Middle East is a running theme of this book. This interpretation, however, is sometimes backed up by anecdotal evidence only, offering a rather reductionist reading of Russia’s worldview.

Moreover, Nizameddin’s judgments of Russia’s foreign policy motivations often appear harsh and uncompromising (‘cynical’, ‘ruthless’, ‘stubborn and militaristic’, ‘selfish’), even bordering on a political bias that becomes most evident during the discussion of Russia’s Syria policies.

The impression prevails that the author portrays a one-dimensional and instrumentalist extension of Russian domestic preference formation onto the foreign policy arena without taking into account important external interaction effects. That way, the author fails to acknowledge Iranian alienation from Moscow as a consequence of Russia’s eventual approval of international sanctions on Iran over the latter’s nuclear program – a factor which undermines his repeated recurrence to an alleged Russia-Syria-Iran alliance.

Likewise, the repeated focus on Putin’s politicization of economic factors appears too simplistic and the implied causal link between an oppressive Russian domestic climate and a more assertive foreign policy (especially towards the end of the book) too fuzzy.

As a whole, however, the weaving of Russian internal dynamics into the context of world political events gives the reader a good overview of wider foreign policy debates and their impact on Russian Middle Eastern policies. The book therefore constitutes a good read as an introduction into Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and the evolution of post-Soviet foreign policy.