If the Middle East did not exist, Moscow would definitely have to invent it. Chaos in the Arab world has offered the Kremlin a convenient opportunity to shape public opinion at home on such issues as the legitimacy of the regime, its confrontation with the West and the situation in Ukraine. As a result, for the past two years, Middle East unrest has become one of the most popular topics discussed by Russian journalists and politicians.
Many middle and working-class Russians are nostalgic for the ‘imperial’ glory of the USSR, and the Kremlin gives them what they want. Russian support for Damascus, close relations with Tehran and rapprochement with Egypt are presented as the restoration of the Kremlin’s influence that was lost after 1991.
With a receptive audience, all the Russian authorities have to do is to present the Middle East through a Soviet-era prism even though this often has nothing to do with today’s reality. Thus, Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rapprochement with Cairo are portrayed as symbols of Russian-Arab unity in the struggle against instability caused by America and terrorism supported by its regional partners, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The Russian media do not mention that the Assad regime does not represent the Arabs, or even the Syrians. They remain silent on Moscow’s responsibility, as the key diplomatic supporter of the Assad regime, for the continuing bloodshed. Propagandists also prefer not to mention that ‘evil’ Saudi Arabia – together with the United Arab Emirates – assisted at the birth of the new Russian-Egyptian friendship by allowing Cairo, at a time when it is dependent on Gulf financial support, to invite the Russians back.
While accusing the West of reviving the language of the Cold War, Moscow appeals to similar sentiments by resurrecting the image of the United States as the ‘great evil’. The situation in the Middle East, as well as the Obama administration’s mistakes in regional policy, makes this task easy. In 2011, Putin labelled the United States and European Union ‘new crusaders’ for their military operation in Libya. In an interview with Russian media in April, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, accused Washington of being responsible for the creation of Al-Qaeda and the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State by supporting anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then invading Iraq in the 2000s. Some pro-government analysts and journalists go further. They spread conspiracy theories along the lines that America deliberately destabilized the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks and has no real interest in stopping the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.
The street protests that greeted Putin’s re-election for a third presidential term in 2012 compelled the Kremlin to promote the idea of a special model of governance that allegedly suits Russia better than western democracy. Thus, Moscow’s propagandists accuse the West of trying to impose ‘improper’ democratic values on Middle Eastern nations that had their own non-democratic but nevertheless authentic forms of governance, leading to political chaos and bloodshed. In Libya, for example, the population was tempted by ‘western fairy tales’ about democracy to overthrow their authoritarian government but got a failed state instead. Although the Russian media acknowledge that Muammar Gaddafi was a dictator they argue that in exchange for political freedoms he gave his people social security and stability. The latter argument creates parallels with ideas that were promoted in Russia prior to the 2012 presidential election: that Putin’s return to the Kremlin would mean stability, while a change in the leadership would spread havoc.
Finally, through its Middle Eastern narratives Moscow legitimizes its policy towards Ukraine. Shortly after the beginning of the Saudi-led operation in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, the frontman of Russian propaganda, Dmitry Kiselyov, argued on state-owned Rossiya TV that there was no difference between Yemen and Ukraine. According to him, in both countries radical rebels had ousted legitimate presidents. He posed a question: if the Saudis can support the overthrown Yemeni president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and even bomb Yemen, then why blame Russia for supporting Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who was forced from power by street protests?
In similar vein, Russian propaganda compares Ukrainian nationalists fighting in the Donbas region to the jihadists of Islamic State. The presence of Muslims, including Crimean Tatars and Chechens, among Ukrainian volunteers fighting against the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk republics is served up as proof of this connection. In this narrative, pro-Russian insurgents are waging war against global forces that represent the same challenge to international security and human values as the jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Russian rhetoric has thus elevated the civil conflict in eastern Ukraine to sacred status.
The Kremlin has come close to declaring victory in the confrontation with the West. The visit of John Kerry, the US secretary of state, to Sochi in May 2015, was portrayed by the Russian media as American political surrender. The dominant theme was that the West needs Russian assistance on a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s civil conflict. Lavrov declared that Kerry’s visit marked Washington’s failure to isolate Russia.
Over the past two years there have been cases where Russian media have falsified the facts. On several occasions, Russian tabloids used photos from Syria to prove the ‘atrocities’ of the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. Mostly these were the result of over-zealous journalists trying to show they were onside with the Kremlin.
In general, however, the output of Moscow’s official propagandists is cunningly contrived. They offer a selection of facts and put them in a framework that naturally leads the audience to the desired conclusions. Thus, it is hard to disagree that Islamic State represents a serious challenge to the international community and the US invasion of Iraq was one of the factors that changed the geometry of regional power. It only remains for the Kremlin to emphasize the importance of American involvement and to ignore the role of other factors in the development of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Russian opposition has failed to challenge Moscow’s narratives of the Middle Eastern events. In 2014, Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and prominent critic of the regime, made a clumsy attempt to blame Putin for political turmoil in the Middle East. He found no support, even in the West.
When covering the Middle East for the domestic public, Russian politicians and the media make bold, emotional statements designed to focus the audience’s attention on a simple message. Yet, so far, the Kremlin is aware of the difference between propaganda and diplomacy. Thus, while presenting Kerry’s visit to Sochi as its diplomatic victory, the Russian government understands that it needs Washington’s involvement in Syria no less than the US authorities need Moscow’s.
To understand Russia’s real intentions, it is necessary to watch Moscow’s moves rather than listen to its words. But the barrier between propaganda and reality is porous. Russian experts have, for example, started to accept some propaganda statements as truth and label Saudi Arabia and Qatar as terrorist sponsors. Yet in June, a high-level Saudi delegation, led by the son of King Salman, the deputy crown prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman, was received by Putin in St Petersburg and signed a series of agreements, including on peaceful nuclear cooperation.
There is still a risk that officials will come to accept the oft-repeated lie and start to believe in a real victory over the West, not just a propaganda advantage. It is worth recalling that in a TV interview in February 2013, Lavrov stated that the Russian government was eager to teach the Americans a ‘lesson’ in Syria that they should deal with Moscow only ‘on the basis of equality, balance of interests and mutual respect’. Teaching that lesson is a goal which stretches beyond the realm of propaganda.