HomeOpEdRussia’s Tilt towards the Muslim World

Russia’s Tilt towards the Muslim World

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Warda Ghafoor

At the beginning of this year, Russia extended its support to strengthen Syria’s cultural and historical sites by providing its professionals, archeologists, geologists, and 3D modeling experts. The ancient sites of “Citadel of Aleppo” and “the Arc de Triomphe” are currently being reconstructed with the help of Russia on Syrian soil. Russia has expressed its utmost desire to foster diplomatic relations between the two countries in every possible sphere. Syria is not the first Middle Eastern or Muslim country enjoying Russian attention; contemporary dynamics are evident of Russian inclination towards the Muslim world.

Russia’s relations with the Muslim world have remained lukewarm especially in the post-Soviet period. Since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the Russian Federation, Russian leaders have paid special attention towards building better relations with the Muslim majority states in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. At present, Russia prioritizes expanding multilateral ties and inter-civilizational collaboration with the Muslim world. The recent fostering ties are also indicating towards sprouting the seeds of re-alignment. The relationship between Russia and the Islamic world seems to be centered on short-term geopolitical goals rather than common ideological beliefs. Here we are trying to find out the key determinants for Russia’s re-orientation towards the Islamic world.

Russia and Multipolarity 

The first reason can be Russia’s goal of multipolarity. Russia seeks to reinstate multipolarity in order to develop resistance against the dominance and hegemony of the United States in international relations. In the aftermath of 9/11, Russia is building on the growing hostility of the Muslim world toward the United States. In foreign policy, the balancing act is defined as the alignment against the potential threat whereas bandwagoning act as the alignment with the potential threat. Strong states often choose to balance to make sure that no government gains absolute hegemony over them. While weak states bandwagon with other states. In effect, it seems to adopt a balancing approach in its foreign policy to overcome major threat i.e., the United States. Russia considers China as the key instrument in the pursuit of multi-polarity. The current dynamics between Russia and China are facilitated by sanctions of the United States against Russia due to the 2014 Crimea annexation and its trade war with China.  With that, Russia has also long attempted to strike a balance between two consequential states, India and Pakistan. Russia apprehends that India can benefit from the strained relations between Pakistan and the United States to expand its ties with the US which is why it appears to be allying with Pakistan to counter the India-US alliance in the near future.

Russia and Central Asia

Convincingly, Central Asia is now more important to Russia than ever before, whether in terms of economic, military cooperation, or energy initiatives. At present, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are key Russian allies. The countries collaborate in the fields of energy, military, science, and technology. Tajikistan, in particular, holds a special position in Central Asian allies as it contains the largest amount of Russian military bases. With Uzbekistan, Russia has long-standing military cooperation as indicated by trainings and joint exercises between the armed forces of both countries now and then. Also, Russia is the main trading partner of Kyrgyzstan. Both countries collaborate in the gas sector too. The gas pipelines which projects in Kyrgyzstan are being negotiated by Gazprom, Russian Energy Corporation. In similar veins, energy is also at the heart of Russia-Turkmenistan bilateral cooperation. The fundamental reason for Russia’s growing influence in this region is the significant plummet of its main competitor’s dominance, the United States. Russia also wishes to prevent the United States from gaining control of Central Asia following its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russia’s Foreign Policy

Secondly, in Russia’s foreign policy, Islamic diplomacy is linked to the security factor. Russia is concerned about the growth of radical elements in the Caucasus region, therefore, seeking resilient support from Muslim countries. Russia wishes to eliminate the possibility of foreign insurgencies in Russian territory, thereby putting an end to the “Chechen crisis.” . In the Gulf region, Russia considers Iran as a key competitor, both militarily and diplomatically. The adversary between Iran and Saudi Arabia has created opportunities for Russia to restore ties with Saudi Arabia. In addition, the relations between Russia and Turkey have recently strengthened because of both parties being isolated from the West. Also, Russia is supporting Syria in the reconstruction of its cultural and historical landmarks to avoid further grievances of the local population as a result of its military engagement in Syria. In the same way, Russia actively participates in “Troika Plus” discussions on Afghanistan because it fears the spillover effect of terrorism and violence following the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Russia and OIC

Here, a question might be posed about the true intentions of Russia in forging and consolidating friendship with the Islamic World. Can Muslim countries truly rely on Russia for assistance in coping with regional and international crises? Is it that simple and seamless as it appears? Given Russia’s unconventional foreign policy model, we need to try to find the answer to this question. Russia is apparently engaging  the Muslim world through the instrument of public diplomacy to construct a narrative that challenges the western-dominated international system. Despite having an observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Russia has never fully participated in the organization’s non-political bodies. Furthermore, despite claiming to be a pro-Muslim country, the rights and status of the Muslim community in Russian federations are controversial.

In conclusion, it can be implied that Russia views relations with the Islamic World as the best method of combating religious extremism as well as gaining greater influence in geopolitics. Muslim countries should be aware that Russia is only using them for the advantages they provide. On the contrary, Russia should also recognize that maintaining amicable relations with everyone is a difficult balance to strike. There are other regional players, such as Iran, South Korea, and the European Union that are competing for influence with Russia. The United States, China, and other regional players can benefit from an imbalance with the Muslim world. Because of this regional dynamic, Russia does not have enough room in its foreign policy to pursue a fully pro-Muslim discourse. From my viewpoint, if Russia wants to win the full confidence of the Muslim world, it must demonstrate how it will balance its policies with its rivals.

The writer is associated with The Diplomatic Insight as Research Intern Fellow.

*The views expressed in this article is by the writer’s own and not necessarily reflect the position of the organisation 

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