When anti-government demonstrations began in the Arab world, the United States became actively involved. The U.S. government cheered, making public statements supporting Arab nations’ rights to freedom. But given how much closer Russia is to the Arab world than the U.S. – geographically speaking, at least – it’s worth asking where Russia has been during the Middle East’s great upheaval.
More Russians than Americans travel to Egypt. According to RusTourism News, in March 2009 alone some 300,000 Russian tourists visited Egypt. In March 2010, that number grew by 90.4 percent. Oil prices affect Russia more than they do America – after all, not only private businesses, but Russia’s federal budget is tied to the price per barrel of oil. Stability in the Arab world would seem to matter at least as much – if not more – to Russia as it does to the U.S. But action, or in this case, inaction, may speak louder than words.
The dearth of official Russian involvement in the Arab Spring demonstrates the country’s fading influence in the world, at least the type of influence needed to carry out international intelligence operations and foresee long-term geopolitical effects. While some have said that the U.S. intelligence community may have helped facilitate the Arab Spring (or desired it), no one is even giving Russian intelligence the honor of such speculation and rumor. Instead, Russia’s most notable intelligence activity in recent international memory came last year, when Russian intelligence officers were kicked out of the U.S. after being caught spying for Russia.
Perhaps Russia didn’t show up at the Arab Spring because the upheaval doesn’t seem to carry any political threat to the Kremlin’s current residents. Middle East instability has increased the price of oil. As a result, the Dmitry Medvedev-Vladimir Putin team has benefited, gaining the ability to balance Russia’s troubled budget and boosting the country’s social programs – great outcomes for them in light of Russia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and Russians’ rising dissatisfaction with the nation’s leaders.
Speaking about Russians’ discontent with Medvedev and Putin, some Washington think-tank scholars have suggested the possibility of a similar Russian uprising against the Kremlin. Such claims are the improbable desires of the anti-Putin Washington establishment. After centuries of authoritarianism and a decade of poverty during the 1990s, Putin gave Russians all they wanted: relative stability, freedoms and rising incomes. Unfortunately, the means became goals, and Putin’s team became too caught up with balancing the status quo for the sake of stability. No technological, scientific or entrepreneurial advancements took place, and small- and medium-sized private business barely saw the results of Russia’s newfound wealth. Russia’s financial health has become heavily dependent on oil revenues, which have blurred the leader’s vision for the nation.
Events in Libya serve as a fine case study. Libyan instability means two contradicting things for Russia: rising oil prices (good) and the loss of an economic and strategic partner (bad). The positive trend in the oil market is a very shortsighted gain that doesn’t really help Russia’s long-term national policy. It may have put Russia’s federal budget into the black, but the Russian military will lose significant defense markets in the Middle East in the long term. The end of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime – a good thing for all of us who oppose iron-fisted despots – could eventually mean an end to at least $4 billion worth of Russian weapons sales over the next five years.
“There is a chance we might lose something,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in a news conference. His job depends on a Medvedev-Putin re-election. With Russia sitting on the sidelines, it has been in no position to shape a post-Gadhafi Libya and is probably missing its chance for influence going forward.
The Arab Spring has short-term positive and long-term negative effects for Russia. Most importantly, during the biggest upheaval in the Middle East in recent history, Russia involuntarily positioned itself as a silent bystander. Eventually, Medvedev, Putin and the Russian intelligence community will be the ones to blame for foregoing Russia’s national interests in pursue of higher oil revenues in the short term. “Each country,” as Aldous Huxley once observed, “gets the leader it deserves.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians have sought internal stability and personal financial gain. In the meantime, the world around Russia has continued to evolve. One day, Russians may wake and find themselves in a world that does not favor Russia and its interests. Such macroeconomic and geopolitical conditions will outweigh small personal gains. Maybe then, Russia will be ready for its own Eurasian spring.
Yuri Mamchur directs the Real Russia Project at Discovery Institute in Seattle and he manages the Russia Blog. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.