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Russian Approaches to Middle Eastern Security Cooperation

  • Nikolay Kozhanov

    Research Associate Professor, Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University

    أستاذ مشارك باحث ، مركز دراسات الخليج ، جامعة قطر

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may serve to sharpen Moscow’s interest in the creation of a regional security system in the Middle East. This stems less from a desire to see the fruits of joint efforts for the region, and more from the potential to use the discussion process to project Russian power at little cost to itself. On this, Moscow has form. In the late 1990s Russia proposed its own regional initiative, the Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf,1 which it recently updated. It also participated in previous international talks on issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  

With the outcome of the war in Ukraine looking increasingly uncertain, participation in a new Middle East security discourse has appeal for Moscow. It offers a way to maintain Russian influence in that region with minimal risk and effort, while countering any moves that may lead to the creation of an anti-Russian bloc. That said, Moscow’s interests in the Middle East are not shaped solely by anti-West sentiment: a number of shared concerns could open up possibilities for restoring dialogue with the European Union and the US in the long term – although this is unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine persists. 

The Russian collective security concept for the Persian Gulf: pros and cons

The vehicle for Russia’s Middle East intentions is a revised version of the Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf, proposed by the Kremlin in 2021.2 The proposal is built around the central principle of a multi-format negotiation process between regional players to discuss the main problems of the region. Moscow insists on recognizing the interests of non-regional players and international organizations, and on involving them in the creation of the new security system.  However, given Iran’s unwillingness to see non-regional players deeply involved in any security discourse, Moscow’s proposal avoids directly naming major non-regional participants, such as the EU, US, China, India and itself. Instead, Moscow leaves room for future manoeuvre by suggesting international organizations such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United Nations Security Council as legitimate participants of the process. 

Issues for discussion under Moscow’s proposal fall into three groups: 

• those directly affecting the interests of Russia (counterterrorism, stability of state institutions, the non-proliferation regime, recognition of the UN role and regional institutions in conflict settlement, non-interference by extra-regional forces in the affairs of the region); 

• issues whose discussion is designed to attract the attention of regional players (Strait of Hormuz maritime security, comprehensive inclusiveness of regional players in Gulf security discussions, mutual security guarantees and transparency of military activities, non-involvement in domestic issues, limited use of force);

• subjects whose inclusion is a nod to external players (cooperation over health, environmental and humanitarian issues; respect of non-regional players’ interests in the Gulf; development of interregional cooperation, among others).3

A first priority for Moscow would be the gradual development and implementation of collective confidence-building measures by regional players on military matters to ensure transparency and long-term predictability of activities in this area. This would include arms control agreements, the creation of demilitarized zones, limiting the accumulation of conventional weapons, and a balanced reduction of armed forces by all parties. Russia also supports a less ambitious set of objectives that include humanitarian challenges, such as cooperation in the field of education, healthcare and countering socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.4

Yet with its generic features, its attempts to satisfy all participants at once, and its lack of a detailed plan of action, Russia’s revised Collective Security Concept cannot provide a basis for any real security system in the Gulf or the Middle East. The main drawback of the document remains an extremely amorphous final goal: a stable and conflict-free Middle East, open to broad international cooperation. In this regard, the previous (2019) version of the Concept was much clearer in that it declared the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf Zone as a final goal.5

Given that some of Moscow’s ideas echo the principles of the Helsinki process, Russian participation in discussions on the future of Gulf security could be productive. Russian support for broader international initiatives such as the future of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime in the Middle East, security of oil supplies, counterterrorism and environmental issues would open up opportunities for dialogue with the US and EU. While Russia will clearly be against initiatives that are solely led by the West or that might imply the creation of anti-Russian blocs, broader international initiatives inspired by more neutral players would be something that Russia could support. 

How regional players view Putin’s war in Ukraine 

For an initiative like the Collective Security Concept to succeed, the country initiating it must have resources and levers of influence in the region. Moscow has none of these. Moreover, Moscow is not perceived as a neutral player capable of taking into account the interests of all parties impartially. It is also clear that Russia sees its participation in the creation of a new regional security system as first and foremost a tool for promoting its own interests and strengthening its status as a key player, both in the region and internationally. These calculations could prompt Moscow to cooperate occasionally with other actors. But that should not be interpreted as Russia being interested in the final outcomes of any joint efforts – rather, Moscow’s interest lies in the process itself as a means for the Kremlin to project its power. The notion that Russia could use the regional agenda to strengthen its image as an ‘influential player’ only adds to the distrust of its proposals among many GCC member states.

Yet countries in the region did not necessarily find President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine off-putting – in some cases it even strengthened Moscow’s position. With the exception of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the countries of the region duly condemned the invasion, but their subsequent behaviour can be characterized as neutrally pro-Russian. Some parts of the region perceive the Ukraine invasion as a natural continuation of Putin’s policy of turning Russia into an influential international player by behaving similarly to the US. (The phrase ‘if the Americans invaded Iraq, then why shouldn’t Russia do the same with Ukraine’ can often be heard in informal discussions with Middle Eastern politicians.) Given such viewpoints, some in the region may be more open to Moscow’s initiatives, judging that they come from a country that is following through on its intentions. 

The West’s active support for Ukraine also causes irritation in the region. Local elites compare the situation with how EU and US countries reacted to past and present Middle East crises. For instance, the region is clearly disappointed with the lack of media coverage and political focus from the West regarding the escalation of tensions in Gaza in August, which contrasts to the attention given by the US and its partners to the Russian atrocities in Ukraine.6 This, in turn, adds impetus to the regional trend to diversify the Middle East and North Africa’s international relations by creating niches for dialogue with Russia and China, within which Moscow’s security initiative could have traction. 

Putin’s war in Ukraine is also bringing Iran and Russia closer together. While traditionally critical of attempts by non-regional powers to introduce their security models into the Gulf, Iran is now less suspicious about Russia. Even before Putin’s war on Ukraine, Iran evinced some interest in Moscow’s proposal. In response, Russia tried to accommodate some of Tehran’s critical comments in its latest iteration of the Concept. Thus, unlike the 2019 edition,7 the 2021 Concept does not mention the US directly as a participant of the new security system. It also insists on comprehensive inclusivity, thus endorsing Iran’s right to be part of the new security arrangements and indicating the unacceptability of any initiatives that would create a rift between regional players or isolate Tehran. 

Charming the West or the (Middle) East?

Russian diplomacy to promote the Collective Security Concept remains a key component of its engagement in the region, whereby they revise the Concept to make it more appealing to regional players. The latest iteration of the document is, in general, more focused than before on the Gulf region. Previous versions tried to include the whole complex range of Middle Eastern problems. That generalist approach was not supported in the Gulf. Consequently, the 2021 Concept is more audience-targeted. It addresses exclusively intra-Gulf issues and argues that the principles of the Concept can be extended to the entire Middle East only after being tested there.

Whether through the Concept or other pathways, Russia’s involvement in the construction of a new security framework in the Gulf could be in the interests of both regional and non-regional players. First, Russian participation would be useful when addressing military and security concerns of regional players. While mindful of the economic, humanitarian and environmental issues facing the Gulf, Moscow clearly understands that for key regional players the priority is settling hard security issues before tackling other problems. Russia is genuinely interested in discussing maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz and the security of oil and gas infrastructure in the region as these affect the stability of the global oil and gas markets. Looking to non-regional players, Russia also has a clear and detailed list of measures that can be implemented to increase mutual trust that partially recalls its previous co-existence with the West in the late Soviet era and initial post-Cold War years. In this regard, the Russian Concept may also correspond to European interests and solutions as offered by EU states: Moscow obviously keeps in mind the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a potential role model for the Gulf region, although current political realities do not allow the Kremlin to mention it openly.

Second, the Concept still insists on the involvement of non-regional forces in managing the new regional security framework, although it gives more space to intra-regional dialogue. In other words, Russia is not trying to limit the participation of the other players, where there is no direct threat to its own interests. Some analysts in Russia even argue that the US is not ready to completely abandon dialogue with Moscow on the Middle East (primarily over Iran and Syria).8 The Kremlin, in turn, sees this presumed US interest in discussing regional affairs as a rare opportunity to weaken the American mood for confrontation, by gradually involving Washington in discussing a range of issues. If the Kremlin analysts’ estimates are right, then the problems of Middle Eastern security may provide an area of convergence between the US and Russia.9

Finally, Russia shares an interest in issues pursued through broader international initiatives such as counterterrorism and NPT security. It is also notable that the 2021 edition of the Concept for the Persian Gulf implies discussion of humanitarian and ecology issues that usually attract more attention in the West than in Moscow.10 By including these issues on its agenda, Russia wanted to charm the West and involve it in the dialogue. That was before the war in Ukraine began. Russia’s current views may differ, but now that those topics are on the agenda for discussion, Moscow will unlikely be able to avoid them.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.


[1] The late 1990s version of the Concept aimed to strengthen Russia’s role internationally and open another area of discussion in Russia’s dialogue with both the West and the region. Since then, the document has been updated several times, most recently in 2021. 

[2] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2021), Rossiyskaya Kontceptciya Kollektivnoy Bezopasnosti v Zone Persidskogo Zaliva [Russian Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf], 24 August 2021, Moscow: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://mid.ru/ru/detail-material-page/1466420/ 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom (2019), Rossiyskaya Kontceptciya Kollektivnoy Bezopasnosti v Zone Persidskogo Zaliva [Russian Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf], 23 July 2019, Moscow: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://rus.rusemb.org.uk/fnapr/5786 

[6]  Hawari, Y. (2022), ‘World Continues to Ignore Gaza’s Never Ending State of Trauma’, Opinion, Al Jazeera, 9 August 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/8/9/we-are-not-ukraine-so-they-wont-support-our-resistance 

[7] Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom (2019), Rossiyskaya Kontceptciya.

[8] Research interviews with Russian experts on Middle East and Russian foreign policy on conditions of anonymity, Istanbul, May 2022; Moscow, June 2022.

[9] After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is hard to see how the US or the EU would be ready to discuss these issues with Moscow any time soon. However, Russia believes that in the long run, Western support of the Ukrainian cause will fragment allowing for dialogue with Moscow to prevail. See: Sinelnikov, I. (2022), ‘Mozhet Rvanut v Lubuyu Minutu: Kogda Zapad Ustanet ot Situatcii na Ukraine’ [It can explode at any moment: when does the West get tired of the situation in Ukraine], Vechernyaya Moskva, 2 July 2022, https://vm.ru/world/978459-mozhet-rvanut-v-lyubuyu-minutu-kogda-zapad-ustanet-ot-situacii-na-ukraine 

[10] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2021), Rossiyskaya Kontceptciya.