Russia’s Long Road to the Middle East
Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria caught many by surprise, but it is a return to Russian geopolitical aspirations that stretch back to the czarsBy Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ
May 27, 2016 10:57 a.m. ET
Every Russian schoolchild is taught about the violent death of Aleksandr Griboyedov in 1829. A poet and playwright whose work is enshrined in the country’s literary canon, Griboyedov had the misfortune to be Czar Nicholas I’s ambassador to Tehran in the wake of Persia’s humiliating loss of territory to Moscow’s spreading empire. A Tehran mob, furious at the czar and his infidel representatives, stormed the embassy, slaughtering the unlucky ambassador and 36 other Russian diplomatic staff.
A century and a half later, in 1979, those events were almost replayed in Iran (as Persia is now known). When five leaders of the Iranian revolutionary students gathered in Tehran to decide which foreign embassy to target, two of them advocated seizing the Soviet legation. They were persuaded instead to overrun the U.S. embassy, creating a no less historic trauma for another world power entangled in the politics of the Middle East.
Russia’s long history of involvement—and warfare—in the region is largely unknown to Westerners, but it helps to explain President Vladimir Putin’s decision last fall to intervene in Syria’s civil war. Mr. Putin’s gambit on behalf of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad caught many in the West by surprise. Critics have assailed it as a miscalculated bid to replace the U.S. as the dominant outside power in the region.
But when viewed from Moscow, Mr. Putin’s Middle Eastern adventure looks like something very different: an overdue return to geopolitical aspirations that stretch back not only to the Soviet era but to centuries of czarist rule. “The Middle East is a way to showcase that the period of Russia’s absence from the international scene as a first-rate state has ended,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, which advises the Kremlin and other government institutions.