By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: Many pundits, academics, and journalists who like to make sensationalist news keep talking about watershed events Russia-G.C.C. relations in recent times. But if we go back further we find that this ‘moment’ has happened repeatedly throughout modern history and as each cycle comes and goes Russian relations with Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf stays the same: mostly rhetoric and little substance.
Russia’s relationship to the Gulf state goes back to before the founding of independent Kuwait. When a Russian expedition came to the Arabian Gulf in 1900, Mubarak the Great had extensive discussions with Russian diplomats and scientists. Upon meeting one Russian scientist, the Emir was reported as telling the zoologist, “I believe the Russians are friends. I am happy to play host to them. I am always ready to do everything I can for them.” But little came of these meetings except for formal pleasantries. During the next forty-five years Russia had virtually no role in the Gulf. It was not until the post-World War Two era that Kuwait’s relationship with Moscow became anything more than a passing fancy for Muscovites.
Russia’s initial relations with Kuwait were not pleasant. The Soviet Union vetoed Kuwait’s admission to the United Nations twice when the country tried to join the U.N. after gaining independence from the United Kingdom. The Soviets based this opinion on the attitude that Kuwait was not fit to be an independent state. In reality, this was largely to appease their ally at the time, Iraq, which had territorial ambitions on Kuwait. After the Soviet split with Iraq in 1963, Kuwait and the U.S.S.R. established relations in 1963. Kuwait pushed for this relationship, as they wanted an insurance policy against Iraqi or Iranian aggression. For the Russians it acted as a conduit or back channel for relations with other Gulf States (Russia only opened relations with the other Gulf States in the mid to late 1980s) and was used as a model to demonstrate the benefits of a pro-Soviet stance.
But this model was only that. The prototype has never really got off the ground. Consecutive Russian governments have lacked interest and practiced uneven policies towards the region. Russia relations and policy towards the Gulf has always been fragmented, and was always contingent on short-term thinking. At various times Kuwaiti and Soviet leadership shared the same concerns about Iran and Iraq and the U.S.S.R. supported Kuwaiti neutrality on several occasions during the Iran-Iraq War, although almost all countries worldwide share this view. Soviet support for Kuwait during the occupation should also be seen in the same light, as the entire world rallied behind Kuwait and against Iraq’s unlawful invasion.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the Russian Federation became less active in the entire Middle East, withdrawing from traditional roles in Egypt, Syria, and the former Democratic Republic of South Yemen. During the 1990s Russia was virtually silent in concerning the Gulf and politics in the region as the loss of land borders in the Caucasus, and Central Asia made diplomatic relations even more unnecessary than previously. Furthermore, Russia’s leadership, under Boris Yeltsin, was not interested in competing with the United States and other European countries, who already had significant interests in the region and guaranteed its political stability. Russia’s main interest was to ensure that potential instability in the region did not overflow into Central Asia or the Caucasus, its traditional sphere of influence and a source of continuing instability, especially in Chechnya. In the late 1990s Russia’s main point of relation with the Gulf was the increased activity of Russian organized crime, which used the region as a transit point for the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and prostitutes.
The rise of Vladimir Putin marked the beginning of the new set of relations between Kuwait and Russia. Russia’s new foreign policy focused on pragmatism and economic interest. The new policy enacted June 28, 2000 was articulated as follows:
Russia will act to stabilize the situation in the Middle East, including the Gulf region and North Africa, taking into consideration the influence of the regional situation on the development of the world as a whole. In this context the primary task of Russia will be a return of its strong positions, especially economic, in this rich and important time for our interests in the region.
Has anything changed? Not significantly. Economic relationships between Kuwait, other G.C.C. nations, and Russia have remained minimal comparative to other allies.
Before 1990 bilateral trade between Kuwait and Russia was worth only $400,000 USD. Beginning in 2000, economic links between the two countries intensified, but at present Kuwait’s bilateral trade with Russia is $400 million USD. Kuwait’s top ten importer partners in 2013 were China (14%), U.S.A. (10%), U.A.E. (9%), Japan (8%), Germany (7%), Saudi Arabia (5%), Italy (4%), India (4%), South Korea (4%), France (3%), Others (34%). Russia as a net producer of oil and natural gas, therefore is not an export market for Kuwaiti crude either, as it does not require excess energy supplies.
The only significant imports from Russia are in the defence sector. While pundits laud the purchase of arms by the Russia in the last 15 years, including the S-400 missile system for Saudi Arabia, the Pantsyr-1 air defence system for the Emirates, or Kuwait’s recent purchase of $15 million USD worth of T-90M main battle tanks this is negligible compared to the arms purchases from the U.S.A., U.K., or other European countries. Military ties between Kuwait and Russia have remained limited, only becoming relevant when there was a gap or political issue with their main supplier, the United States. G.C.C. countries have invested tens of billions in Russia recently, in an attempt to change the political climate in Russia, according to a recent editorial in the blog Cipher Brief. This may illustrate a shift in the status quo, but it is too early to tell.
Russia’s political role in the recent Qatar crisis raise the specter another ‘Russian moment’ in the Gulf. But if a close reading of history tells us anything, Russian influence in the Gulf will stay what it is, a mere ghost compared to other countries who have long-standing and substantive ties in the region. The relationship between Russia and Kuwait, it has never been at a high level because Russia has never fully invested in a high level of cooperation over a sustained period
*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.