Russia and the Arab Uprisings of 2011

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

The official Russian response to recent popular demonstrations against governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East has been remarkably circumspect.  Statements by President Medvedev, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Ministry spokesman Lukashevich on events in Egypt in particular have all emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution to the situation.  (Prime Minister Putin, by contrast, does not appear to be commenting on this matter.)

Before Mubarak’s resignation, their statements seemed to place greater emphasis on stability and resolving the crisis through legal means — thus suggesting Moscow’s support for Mubarak.  Since his resignation, though, Russian leadership statements have tended to emphasize the importance of a “strong, democratic” Egypt (as Medvedev put it), thus suggesting Moscow’s willingness to work with the new leadership.

Russian commentators, by contrast, have been far less restrained.  Like many of their American counterparts, some have discovered that making dramatic statements is what generates media attention for themselves.  And Russians do generally tend to look at the world pessimistically.  Still, there is a range of views of what the events in Egypt in particular portend for the Middle East, for the West and for Russia.

Many Russian observers assessed Mubarak’s long reign positively (even after it ended).  They note that he maintained peace with Israel, kept radical Islamists at bay domestically, and presided over a significant degree of economic growth.  Almost all of them fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually be the ones to take power in Egypt, even if this takes some years to occur.

Russian observers are highly skeptical about the prospects for democracy in Egypt.  If truly free elections are held, they fear that radical Islamists will win them.  They see American and European hopes that free elections will lead to a moderate government as idealistic, naïve and dangerous.  The Russians believe that their views on this are far more realistic.

Several Russian commentators see what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt (and what may occur elsewhere) as similar to the “color revolutions” that took place in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.  “Color revolution,” in their view, is the process by which Washington replaces an unpopular set of authoritarian leaders (often allied to the United States) with a new pro-American leadership that is not so discredited, but is also authoritarian.  Yet, while opposed to “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, Russian commentators do not regard a strong pro-American authoritarian ruler replacing a weak one as such a bad outcome in the Middle East.  Russia now has good relations with all the current pro-American authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and anticipates that it can also have good relations with the next lot.

Russian observers generally do not view Mohammad ElBaradei — the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who returned to Egypt to run against Mubarak for president — as able either to become president of Egypt or to remain in power for long if he does.  Some see the pro-Palestinian Amr Mousa as a more reliable alternative.  Russian observers also tend to regard the Egyptian Army as the most reliable opponent of the Islamic radicals.

As in the West, Russian observers fear the possibility of revolutionary contagion spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to other countries.  Aleksandr Ignatenko, president of the Institute of Religion and Politics, warned of “anti-gerontocratic” revolutions in Yemen, Libya, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia.  Long-time Russian Mideast hand Georgiy Mirsky, though, does not see Jordan, Libya or Syria as being in danger.  While Algeria has many of the same problems as Tunisia, he believes the memory of the civil war there will prevent people from pushing too hard for change.  While he regards Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as unlikely to fall to internal forces, he sees Yemen as having the potential to explode — and this will negatively affect its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula if it does.

What Russian commentators are especially concerned about is whether the uprisings in the Arab world will spread to the former Soviet Union.  Mirsky sees Russia as strong enough to prevent this in the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, etc.), but is worried about the possibility of radicalization in Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  Many concerned primarily with preserving the current order in Russia fear that what happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square could also happen in Moscow’s Red Square.  Russia’s democratic activists, by contrast, hope that just this will happen — but then do not expect it to.

Some Russian observers blame America for the uprisings in the Arab world.  For example, Yevgeniy Satanovskiy (director of the Near East Institute) described Washington’s pressing for Mubarak to resign immediately instead of waiting to leave office in September as being “the result of strategic stupidity” going back to the Carter administration.  But others — including Fedor Lukyanov (Editor-in-Chief of Russia in World Politics) — acknowledge that, while Washington called for Mubarak to step down, “It is notable that American officials are deliberately avoiding the use of the word ‘democracy,’ which in other circumstances constantly escapes their lips….So there can be only one plan — to give up Mubarak and make certain the military elite remain in power.”

Russian commentators are all united in decrying Russia’s inability to influence events in the Middle East and Russian leaders’ lack of any real policy except issuing bland statements.  Here, though, I disagree with them.  Moscow has, in my view, effectively applied the lessons that it learned from the earlier “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.  Moscow had strongly opposed the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, so, when they occurred anyway, Russia ended up having poor relations afterward with Georgia (permanently) and Ukraine (temporarily).  Putin, however, changed his “color revolution” policy in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and made clear that he could work with the new leadership.  As a result, Moscow ended up having good relations with the new regime there — indeed, much better relations with it than the United States did.  Moscow also moved quickly to establish good relations with the Kyrgyz regime that came to power in the 2010 follow-on “color revolution.”

Similarly, Russian leadership statements during the 2011 “color revolutions” in the Arab world make clear that Moscow will work with the old leadership if it can stay in power, but will work with the new (preferably secular authoritarian) leadership if it can’t.  Thus, while he may not have said anything about them yet, the hand of Putin can definitely be seen in Russia’s policy toward the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website: To read more articles by Dr. Katz on this website, visit the “War on Terror” in Perspective.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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