Russia has a long history of being involved in Middle Eastern affairs, dating back farther than the Soviet Union. Today, they are one of the major global powers seeking to exert influence in the region. To fully understand why they are involved and what they plan to do we have to have an understanding of the history of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East. Part One of this series will discuss the history of their involvement up to the modern day.
The Russians power grab in the Middle East goes back as far as when Russia was establishing itself in the 1400-1500s. This was done through a series of alliances with local Muslim people until Ivan the Terrible began to conquer the locals the Russians had once called allies. Under Ivan there also began the intense struggle for regional power between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. This was furthered by Peter I and his aggressive attacks on Crimea. In the early 1700s, campaigns against the Ottomans by Russia began in earnest with a national fervor to expand the Russian border to the south and to liberate Constantinople. These attacks would continue on for decades as Russia continually gained power in the region and expanded, fomenting an intense hatred of Russians in the Ottoman Empire.
It was during this time that Russian began using unconventional methods to advance their influence in the Middle East. After one such conflict between the Russians and Ottomans, the treaty allowed for Russia to build an Orthodox church inside of Istanbul and to maintain sovereignty over it. This allowed for Russia to expand influence through religion and through political agents sent into the capital as church members. Russia also began to establish relationships with local Orthodox rulers all around the region to expand their sphere of influence. The Ottoman/Russian rivalry took a brief pause during the 1830s with the rise of Muhammed Ali, who threatened to overthrow the Ottoman rulers. This caused to Russians to send troops to support their rivals against Ali’s Egyptian forces and formed a military alliance between the two nations that acted as more of a ceasefire agreement than military alliance. Though, Russia continued to expand its influence in the region through religion and opening trade routes with Muslim nations, in particular Iran.
The 1800s would see a series of conflicts in the region as Russia returned to her violent struggle for power. The most notable of these struggles were the Crimean War and the Russo-Turkish War that pitted the Russians against their old rivals, the Ottomans, once again. the period also saw Russia go into Afghanistan for the first time, involving itself in proxy conflicts as they gained influence with local tribal leaders. Perhaps the most important event to come out of this period was Russian control over Azerbaijan, which continues to spark unrest in the region today and has in recent years become a training ground for anti-Russian Islamic terrorist forces.
The 1900s would see both the World Wars and a vast expansion of Russian control in the region with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The power that Russia gained after the Great War and the victory in the Second World War would spark the intense conflict between the United States and Russia known as the Cold War. The Cold War would become one of the most significant forces in the creation of today’s geopolitical landscape, especially in the Middle East. The Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan, only to be repelled by indigenous forces trained and supplied by the United States. These Afghan mujihadeen would grow to become modern-day radical Islamic terrorists such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In recent years, Russia has once again brought military forces into the Middle East to combat these forces, mostly in Syria. Russia now has a firm grasp of power in the region with firm alliances with Iran and Syria, both regional powers.