The Russian Strategy in the Gulf and the regional Maritime Crisis Dimensions


Wed, 11-08-2021 09:29 AM, Aden Time

Badr Mohammed | South24

On July 2nd the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, met with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif Al Zayani. During the meeting, held in Moscow, Lavrov revealed the Russian intention to provide an updated version about the Russian perception of the collective security in the Gulf Region. (1) On the political level, the Russian announcement has not met with any Gulf reaction. However, on the security level, the situation in the Arabian Gulf waters became more tense. On July 29th, a drone bombed the Israeli oil tanker “MV Mercer Street” off the Omani Gulf, killing two people including a British security guard and a Romanian Captain of the ship. (2) On August 3rd, the oil tanker “Asphalt Princess”, which carries the flag of Panama, was hijacked off the UAE coast. In light of that, there is a security echo that suits the essence of the Russian initiative, pushing the region’s states towards accepting it.

The Russian Collective Gulf Security Initiative

IN July 2019, Russia launched a political initiative regarding its view of the Gulf collective security. However, it found deaf ears, except from Iran and China which welcomed it. Later, in October 2020, Lavrov suggested the establishment of the so-called “Organization for Security and Collective Cooperation” in the Gulf region, which would have been prepared by the Five Permanent Members in the UN Security Council, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the involving parties. On the other hand, the then US Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft said: “I don’t agree with the Russian suggested solution. There is no need for another mechanism for strengthening the Gulf security”. (3) However, Russia renewed its proposal during the Lavrov-Al Zayani meeting, declaring its intention to present an updated version of its concept about the Gulf collective security.

Russian diplomacy moves between international and regional files in a way that asserts its presence as an international actor in light of the decline in the American role, putting us in front of a new balance of power strategy. While Washington “mistreats” both its allies and rivals, due to its moderate policy, the Russian initiative should be regarded from two perspectives; the strategic one, relevant to the rising Russian role in the region and the whole world, while the second perspective is connected with the regional crisis with Iran.

The backgrounds of the rising Russian role

In the 1990s, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and the Eastern Camp collapsed while the Western one, led by the US and its allies extended its control. That is why the polar equation between the two camps collapsed, and the world became under the control of a single power. However, the US and its allies failed to fill this gap in a perfect way, or create a balanced state, especially in the Middle East which witnesses a long-term conflict. This is shown through the failure of the direct American involvement in Iraq contrary to the success of the indirect Russian intervention in Syria, and the failure of the Saudi direct engagement in Yemen versus a successful Iranian indirect involvement in the same country. On the other hand, there are political and economical repercussions which moved to the USA internally due to its leadership of the world unilaterally, as its military interventions backfired with counterproductive outcome. (4)

Even, when Washington tried to change its direct intervention policy, and replace it with a policy of backing Arab revolutions to establish democratic regimes, this has backfired in the shape of a bitter democratic conflict it has witnessed during the last presidential election between former President Donald Trump and current Joe Biden, risking the American democracy. Therefore, America did not hesitate to point the accusation finger at Russia for manipulating the presidential elections and threatening its national security.

Behind the American picture, there is an eastern pole on the other side, which is quietly formed, headed by Russia and China, and which should be confronted according to the latest G7 and NATO Summit. (5) Consequently, Washington should admit the existence of this pole to avoid unilateral steps that may lead to collapse. The American administration adopts a cautious retreating policy against a Russian cautious advancement policy to fill the void left by Washington.

The Russian role in the Arabian Gulf

Earlier, Russia has exploited the American policy mistakes in the Middle East, and presents itself as an alternative approaching all the victims of the American policy, allies and rivals alike. 

The negative American performance was reflected through: First: the reversal of the US decision to list the Houthis as a terrorist group accused of posing a security threat on the KSA as well as the regional and international security. Second: pressing the KSA, the biggest and the most important ally in the region, to reduce its effective role in the Yemeni crisis in favour of the Iranian one. Thirdly: on the military level, Washington intends to reduce its steady presence in the Gulf region, as it began to withdraw its defensive systems while pushing the offensive systems, such as the Air Forces and the Navy. Fourth: Washington does not stop criticizing allies and demanding that they undertake radical reforms. 

Thus, Moscow has found enough space to move and form its diplomatic ties with the Arab Gulf states. Recently, the relationship between Russia and the KSA has been promoted to a level that exceeds the mutual cooperation. While Washington turns its back to its Arab Gulf allies, amid the rising Iranian threats in the region, there is a good opportunity for Russia to play the mediation role, and to directly bring views closer to each other between Tehran and the Arabian Gulf states. Moscow has good relationships with Iran, making it closer to sponsor a direct peace operation between the two regional parties apart from the international parties.  This is likely behind Lavrov’s announcement about delivering an initiative about   a collective security of the Gulf states.

Nevertheless, the Russian motives behind this initiative are not clear yet, as they are accompanied by several political files such as Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and ballistic missiles, in addition to the Iranian political and security agenda in the region as well as the maritime security and the freedom of navigation issue.

The Russian agenda towards the collective Gulf region security

Going back to the security tensions in the waters of the Arabian Gulf that followed Moscow's announcement of its concept of collective security in the region early July, we will find that the Russian initiative seems more relevant to the security of international waters and freedom of navigation. As this file carries a strategic dimension related to the nature of the US-British dispute on the one hand, and the Russian-Chinese on the other hand, in the territorial waters of the South China Sea and the Black Sea waters off the Crimea peninsula recently annexed by Russia, where American and British warships sail to confirm the principle of international freedom of navigation while claiming that both Russia and China violate their territorial waters by the two western countries.

Therefore, Moscow's initiative in the Gulf may look like a Russian debate which stresses the principle of regional waters security against the freedom of navigation principle championed by the US and the UK in East Asia. On the other hand, if we add the Russian privileges from Creation of the Arctic Lane between Asia and Europe of which Russia’s territorial water represents about two thirds of it, we will reach another root of the international dispute that justifies the American insistence on the American insistence on freedom of navigation in the face of the Russian stress on the security of territorial waters. 

Earlier, both Iran and China welcomed the Russian initiative for the security of the Gulf region, while the Arab Gulf states and other international parties did not show any reaction towards it. The Russian initiative reflects the collective action of international navigation security rather than the unilateral American and British action.

Adding to this strategic dimension behind the Russian initiative, there is an attempt to test the seriousness of the American retreat in the Middle East and advancement towards China and East Asia, versus a serious Russian-Chinese progress towards the Arabian Gulf. Therefore, Moscow has portrayed its strategic dimension in the context of the Iranian dimension in the Gulf region. The essence of the Russian initiative for collective security in the Gulf somewhat resembles the content of an earlier Iranian political initiative under the so-called "Hormuz Peace Treaty". 

The Iranian agenda of the Russian initiative

In mid-April, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry told Sputnik that Russia's initiative for security and peace in the Gulf is close to the Iranian "Hormuz Peace Initiative. In September 2019, President Hassan Rouhani proposed a plan in front of the UN. under the so-called “the Hormuz Peace Initiative”. It is based upon collective cooperation between the countries of the region in securing energy supplies and freedom of international navigation away from foreign interference. The Iranian initiative does not carry a lot of differences compared with the Russian one, with regard to collective security in the Gulf region, as the two sides seek regional action independent of foreign interference. Both Iran and Russia exploit the nuclear file in favor of achieving the maritime security file. On the other hand, the Iranian narrative in dealing with its multiple crises relies on pushing for fulfilling the theoretical agreements first before the practical implementation, contrary to the Gulf states which demand the opposite, to guarantee the Iranian practical commitment before the theoretical agreement. This reflects a crisis of trust mixed with tension and anxiety.

On the other hand, Tehran left the same problem in Yemen. While the international community calls upon the Houthis to stop fighting and accept the political solution, the Yemeni group takes the humanitarian side as a pretext, calling for opening the Sanaa Airport and Al Hudaydah Port, and the departure of the Arab Coalition Forces. So, the Iranian Agendas are not only relevant to Arabian Gulf states, but they became adjacent in Yemen. The UK estimated that the attack on the oil tanker "MV Mercer Street" off the Gulf of Oman was launched from South Yemen (6), while forensic evidence proved that the weapon used in the operation is Iranian-made.

The security tension off the coasts of Oman and the UAE reinforces the narrative of the need for a collective security agreement in the Gulf region. Unlike previous maritime incidents, the threat to international navigation has moved to the Gulf region this time, threatening to make the security situation more tense, giving the political solutions greater importance against Iranian coordination and prior preparation for any potential military clash.

The duality of war and peace

On the Iranian level, there are several developments which came in conjunction with the renewal of the Russian collective security initiative in the Gulf region. The most important of which is the rise of the Iranian Conservative (Right) nominee Ibrahim Raisi to power, and the Iran’s securing of its oil exports. In late July, Tehran announced its completion of the Pipeline extension project to export oil from the south of the country through the Jask port, which directly overlooks the Gulf of Oman. This is an advance step to secure Iran's oil supplies in the face of the possibility of any confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, indicating the possibility of military escalation in the Gulf region.

On the other hand, the KSA has tried to make a direct path to the Arabian Sea through the southern Yemeni governorate of Al Mahrah, and the Omani Duqm port. However, the news that the Far South Yemen is the source of the attack on the “MV Mercer Street” reflects a lack of good Saudi and Gulf preparation to prevent potential security threats in the region. Perhaps this is what prompted British special forces to come to eastern south Yemen.

The escalation of the security incidents in the Arabian Gulf region and the southern coasts of Oman boost the possibility of the eruption of widespread regional war, which is being listed among the Russian strategic calculations, while Tehran wanted it under objective conditions.

Badr Mohammed
Fellow and researcher with South24 Center for News and Studie

- Image:


collective security of the GulfRussiaArabian GolfSaudi ArabiaUAEOmanYemenIranChinaUSAMercer Street