This report summarizes impressions of Soviet foreign policy gained during a study visit to the USSR in July 1982. During this visit, under the auspices of the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences, I was able to meet a wide range of experts working in the institute, as well as journalists and foreign policy analysts attached to other publications and institutes.

In the course of events since July, the Russians have amplified some of the policies indicated here. At that time, as far as the Middle East was concerned, they were preoccupied by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Iranian entry into Iraqi territory, but they were also concerned about the continuing deterioration in relations between the Soviet Union and the US. In general policy terms, the new secretary-general, Yuri Andropov, remains as skeptical as was Leonid Brezhnev about the possibility of negotiating seriously with the Reagan administration, and as determined to maintain the military parity with the US that Brezhnev stressed in his last days. Reagan’s announcement of the plan to go ahead with the MX missile only a few days after Andropov came into office was a clear signal to Moscow that the US was not going to adopt a more conciliatory tone. The abandonment of hope of all serious negotiation, announced earlier in the year, therefore still seems valid in Moscow.

Two of the advisers mentioned in this report, Georgi Arbatov and Alexander Bovin, are both believed to be as close to Andropov as they were to Brezhnev. The analysis they have been advancing is therefore likely to remain the dominant one.

In response to events in the Middle East, the Russians have continued to denounce US policy while trying to rally the Arab states to their side. They reject Reagan’s September plan for a Palestinian-Jordanian state on three main grounds—its refusal to recognize the PLO, its denial of Palestinian statehood, and its exclusion of the USSR from these negotiations. They regard the plan as an attempt to further divide the Arab world. By contrast, in early December Andropov told a visiting Arab League delegation headed by King Hussein of Jordan that the Fez plan of the Arab states coincided more or less with the Soviet view. There is however, skepticism on the Soviet side about the Arab ability to maintain a united front. The Russians are still irritated by Arab criticism of their inaction during the Lebanon War, as well as by the Arab tendency to blame the Soviet Union in times of crisis for all their woes.

They are also suspicious of the way in which many Arab states, and the PLO, have been willing to discuss the Reagan plan with American and pro-American representatives. A graphic illustration of this skepticism came during Brezhnev’s funeral, when the official Soviet list of the foreign mourners gave extremely low priority to the Arab delegations. The only Middle Eastern leaders to come high up in the group of favored “socialist-oriented” states—i.e., just after the core members of the Communist bloc—were Afghanistan and South Yemen. Other members of the core group were Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. The state delegations of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria were all placed rather low on the list, indeed often coming after the representatives of Middle Eastern Communist Parties—those of Israel, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Bahrain. The very last on the whole list, way below the Palestine Communist Party, and even after such dignitaries as the Cameroonian Minister of Agriculture, came Yasser Arafat. There were, of course, other Communist Parties from the Middle East present who were not even mentioned, for reasons of political discretion and their clandestine activities. These would include the Communist Parties of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. The Israeli government also sent official condolences to the Brezhnev funeral but they were not represented by a delegation; it is not known if the Soviet Union acknowledged these condolences.

One area of positive development, on the Soviet side, is Afghanistan, where some prospect of serious negotiations with Pakistan seems to have opened up. If Pakistan is willing to seal the border and cut off military and financial aid to the Afghan rebels located on Pakistani terrain, a successful withdrawal of Soviet combat troops over an 18-month period, leaving in place a Kabul government with a strong Communist presence, now appears a possibility. This would open up new diplomatic possibilities both with the Arab world and with China, and might represent one way of regaining some ground in the Third World against the US.

Since July, relations with Iran have not improved. Soviet criticism of Tehran’s continuation of the war with Iraq, as well as the Islamic Republic’s close relations with Turkey and Pakistan, has continued. The overall impression, therefore, seems to be that the Soviet Union expects to make little headway in the region in the immediate future, and is probably according it rather less priority than it did in the past.

The View from Moscow

The prevailing view in Moscow is that no serious negotiations are possible with the Reagan administration. Initial hopes that reality would sober the US government have been dashed: Reagan’s virulently anti-communist speeches to the British Parliament and the UN Disarmament Session in June have confirmed this view. The official sanction of this perspective was given in a Pravda article on July 16 by Georgi Arbatov, Central Committee member and head of the Institute of US and Canadian Studies. He doubted if the pressure of US allies and domestic constraints would alter US policy between now and 1984 and ended with the observation: “I personally would find solace in the thought that a time will come when it will be possible to say: it is not with this administration that history began, and it is not with it that it has ended.” Officials spoke nostalgically of the Carter administration, now seen as comparatively realistic and reliable, and expressed interest in the possibilities of a more accommodating Democratic administration coming to office in 1984.

At the same time, officials stress that the USSR is not going to give way. They point out that economic and strategic pressures on the USSR did not work in the 1920s and 1940s, when the US was relatively much stronger, and so they are even less likely to work now. The general impression seems to be that the USSR does not want to acquire any new Third World allies and has encouraged its existing ones, such as Cuba and South Yemen, to be careful in assisting other revolutionary forces. But the USSR is determined to hold on to what it has. Poland is a major source of worry, because the party there has not taken major initiatives since the advent of Gen. Jaruszelski to power in December, and the Western sanctions imposed after Poland are a nuisance. Afghanistan remains a problem, with no proximate possibility of the establishment there of a state, party and army capable of surviving without substantial Soviet military help. But in neither case is the USSR going to be forced to retreat, and the “internationalist consciousness” of the Soviet population is reckoned to be sufficiently strong to enable the authorities to continue these already established commitments. These are, it should be emphasized, to Communist governments, not just left-wing socialist ones.

There is limited optimism on the matter of improving relations with China, with all that this would entail for Asia and for US-Soviet relations. No one expects a major breakthrough in China, both because of the internal determination of anti-Soviet attitudes there, and because of the continuing problem of Indochina. But talks on trade matters have been going on, some sporting contacts have been made, polemics by both sides have declined somewhat. Brezhnev’s Tashkent speech in March marked a new Soviet attempt to develop these ties slowly. The Russians are prepared for serious talks with the Chinese, and they realize that the US is not going to provide Peking with either the economic or the military assistance that had originally been expected by the Chinese.

Foreign Policy Establishment

In the Lenin and Stalin periods, foreign policy was apparently determined by a triangle of institutions: the Foreign Ministry, the International Relations Department of the Central Committee, and the Communist International. In practice, the Central Committee had primacy. This holds true today, with the place of the Communist International, dissolved in 1943, taken by a new component of the triangle, the dozen or so advisory institutions concerned with international relations. Some of these have existed for a long time. The Oriental Studies Institute (IVAN) was founded in 1930. Others are of more recent origin: The USA and Canada Institute (ISKAN) was founded in the 1960s. These also include the Moscow Institute for the Study of International Affairs; the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO); the Foreign Languages Institute; and specialist institutes on Latin America, Africa and the Far East. All of these come under the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In all, a community of several thousand mezhdunarodniki—literally, internationalists—are concerned with studying international matters. They include researchers and post-graduate students. Undergraduate training in languages and country studies is done in the universities: thus students of Arabic and Persian are attached for five years to the Institute of the Peoples of Asia and Africa of Moscow University. There is also a separate Diplomatic Academy, whose activities are not published.

The function of these institutes is to advise the Central Committee and Foreign Ministry on the areas under discussion. They appear to be well funded, with hundreds of researchers in the larger centers, access to foreign materials, some latitude in off-the-record discussion, and permission for members to travel abroad. Some have direct access to the Central Committee by virtue of having their directors on it—Arbatov, head of ISKAN, is a case in point. The International Relations section of the Central Committee is headed by Boris Pononarev, and overall responsibility for the Third World under him lies with Karen Brutents, author of several works on the non-capitalist road.

Work on the Middle East is conducted in IVAN—the Institut Vostokovedeniye Akademia Nauk, or Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences. It has 28 departments, and over 300 researchers. It is housed in a pleasant rambling building that was the Hotel London of pre-revolutionary days. Many of the staff and students dress informally. The offices are comfortable, but appear more used for receiving guests than for work. The head of the Institute from 1956 to his death in 1977 was B. B. Gafurov, former secretary-general of the Tajik Party, a political appointee. His place was taken by Yevgeni Primakov, a Russian from Georgia, and a long-time Soviet correspondent in Cairo. Primakov knew Nasser, speaks Arabic, and is the author of Anatomy of the Middle East Conflict. He was previously vice director of IMEMO. His appointment is nonetheless a political one, as well as reflecting the relatively higher status of journalists as compared to academics, in the Soviet system.

IVAN has around 110 postgraduate students, 90 percent of whom are from central Asian republics. Its departments include languages, literature and oriental manuscripts as well as current affairs. It has centers in Leningrad where traditional orientalist concerns dominate and where the institute keeps its one million manuscripts. The Leningrad institute is housed in a former palace of the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, who was supposed to replace the czar when he abdicated in February 1917. The room in which Alexandrovich declined to become the czar is still shown to visitors. The reading room of the institute occupies a spectacular first-floor position overlooking the river Neva and the Peter and Paul fortress on the other side of the river. There are institutes in other cities as well, including Tashkent, Kazan and Khabarovsk. Despite the subsequent establishment of the Institute of the Far East, some East Asian concerns are still studied in the IVAN.

The work of the Institute is published in the journal Asia and Africa Today, which appears in an English edition, and in many books: over 120 were published last year, and only a very few are translated. The English-language Oriental Studies in the USSR gives excerpts from some of these works, but the four issues so far published focus on specific themes—issue three on Afghanistan, issue four on India. At a casual glance, it seems that scholarly content declines as the work approaches the present day. Work on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is balanced and open to different interpretations. Works on the contemporary Middle East tend to be popularized, often simplistic products, even when written by authors who are obviously capable of more sophisticated analysis.

Debate on Middle East issues at times surfaces into public view. Thus, in 1982, Alexander Bovin, with official sanction, was able to restate views he had earlier expressed about the Iranian revolution: that it was not a real revolution at all and condemning Khomeini’s fanaticism. Other views published in the press at the same time reflected the more favorable official view which was still dominant. Similarly, in the early 1970s there was a debate on Egypt, particularly among those who thought that Sadat would continue Nasser’s line as opposed to those who thought that he would in fact break with Nasser’s line. Those who correctly predicted Sadat’s course were subsequently promoted; those who considered him to be a second Nasser have suffered as a result.

Middle East Policy

The Soviet attitude to the Middle East is dominated by strategic concerns—i.e., by the degree of influence the US and China exert there. The reduction of US influence, and the removal of crisis situations in which the US may come to play a role, remain the prime Soviet concerns. The aim is defined as a “zone of peace” in the Middle East. This finds expression in a geographical division found in both academic and policy circles between the Sredni Vostok (Middle East), which encompasses Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, and the Blizhni Vostok (Near East), which covers the Arab world. These distinctions are on a north-south rather than an east-west axis. They indicate that the prime area of Soviet concern is the non-Arab countries running along the USSR’s southern frontier, not the Arab states. This partly explains the great concern about Iran and Afghanistan, and the comparative caution about the Arab world.

Middle East policy remains affected by a “Sadat complex”—i.e., a fear of expulsion and humiliation on the Egyptian model. This was a factor in dealings with Amin in Afghanistan, and affects official and popular attitudes today. Igor Belyaev, foreign editor of the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, insisted that the USSR does not now want revolutions or even friends in the Arab world, just reliable partners; perhaps India is a model here. He also indicated that popular feeling in the USSR is against taking on any new allies which might need economic aid: “People start asking if we are going to build more Aswan dams,” he said, arguing that Soviet citizens blame current food shortages on the USSR’s foreign aid program.

Egypt: Officials argue that the economic debt problem is being handled reasonably by Egypt, but that the USSR is not prepared to offer Cairo preferential terms for foreign advisers, as occurred in the Nasser period. “Egypt is just a normal Third World country” is how one academic put it. The problem of the military debt remains outstanding. There is little enthusiasm for President Husni Mubarak. First, this is because of his previous record as an aide to Sadat, as the person who criticized Soviet arms quality in the 1970s, as the vice president who made pro-Chinese statements during a visit to Peking. Second, his actions since coming to power have been little different from Sadat: He has not renounced Camp David, and has cooperated, with the US militarily and in the Lebanon crisis. “We want deeds, not words” was one comment.

Saudi Arabia: Fahd is seen in a rather sympathetic light. Given his objective situation, he is regarded as being hostile to the US—his rejection of Camp David, his pretense of refusing to allow US bases in the country. He is seen more favorably than Mubarak for the time being. No one expected a rapid establishment of diplomatic relations with Riyadh. “The problem is on their side and it will take years to overcome it,” was one academic’s comment. No one would confirm or deny that talks had taken place between the Saudis and Soviets in third countries.

Libya: Qaddafi is generally seen as unreliable, but an ally for the time being. He was alarmed by the Syrian failure to resist the Israelis with Soviet arms, but is now calmer. Washington’s hostility keeps him in line to some extent. Overall, Libya is not a major factor in Soviet thinking.

South Yemen: The PDRY is regarded as being the one state that is a reliable ally in the Arab world, the one government at least sympathetic to Marxism. It has surprised the Russians by its consistency. The Soviets obviously remain concerned about divisions inside the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party. They intervened in 1980 to prevent the possible execution of then-President ‘Abd al-Fattah Isma‘il. He now lives in Moscow, where he is accorded the status of a senior diplomat from a friendly country.

On two issues, the Russians and South Yemenis diverge. The first is Yemeni unity: Although they officially support it, in private the Russians are against it. The second is guerrilla struggle in the Gulf: “We are not interested in it,” one official said, referring to the Omani guerrilla movement.

Iraq: The Russians deny that any substantial quantities of arms were sent to Iraq after the outbreak of war in September 1980. They seem confident that Iraq will remain friendly to the USSR and they scorn Western speculation about a possible Iraqi switch of allegiance.

The USSR has been against the Iran-Iraq war. It sees the conflict as weakening the independence of both countries, and providing a pretext for US intervention in the region, such as the dispatch of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. Soviet policy was therefore implicitly critical of Iraq as long as Baghdad was on the offensive, and is now similarly critical of Iran. “We think this war is unnecessary and should be ended as quickly as possible” was the view of one diplomat. When Iran crossed the frontier into Iraq, Soviet press coverage of the July hostilities was factual, but gave priority to reports from Baghdad over reports from Tehran. The Soviet vote in the UN on a ceasefire was further confirmation of this shift to criticizing Iran. Basically, Moscow feels that Iran has attained what it wanted and is now asking for unreasonable concessions. But beyond words there is little that the Russians can do to influence events. Officials denied that any arms had been sold to Iran since the beginning of the war with Iraq.

Iran: This remains a major concern of Soviet policymakers, first of all because of the possibility of a direct US-Soviet confrontation there. “It is the one place in the world where Soviet and US troops could clash directly” was how one expert put it to me. The Russians insist that if the US does become directly involved in Iran, then the USSR will respond “quickly, directly and massively” by dispatching forces to the Iranian theater.

This is linked to the fear of a civil war developing after the death of Khomeini: “If he dies within the next two years, there will be civil war. If he lives more than four more years, then Iran will have a Khomeini-style Islamic Republic for a generation.” The fear is that if a civil war gets under way, then the US will play a direct role.

The Russians insist that the 1921 treaty between Iran and the USSR remains valid. Under this, the USSR retains the right to send forces into Iran, as it did in 1941. This applies where Moscow feels that its interests are threatened. In 1979, the Bazargan government announced that it was canceling the intervention clauses of the treaty, but the Russians do not accept this. First, they say that the treaty has to be canceled by the Majles, which ratified it in 1921. This never happened since there was no Majles in 1979. Second, Iran cannot cancel part of a treaty—all of it has to be canceled. Third, the 1921 treaty wiped out an Iranian debt to the USSR which would, at today’s values, equal over $16 billion. The Russians doubt if Iran would be willing to pay this now.

In general, the Russians are critical of the chaos and fanaticism of Khomeini’s Iran. One person commented, “We originally saw the Islamic movement as dialectical, having a progressive and a reactionary side. But they seem to have forgotten about the dialectic now.” The Soviet press has reported on the executions and Islamic prohibitions—that on chess having struck a particular chord in the USSR. The Soviets continue to stress the positive achievements: removal of US influence, the overthrow of the Shah, the attack on monopoly capital. One academic considered that the attack on big capital had now ended and that merchants and industrialists were gaining ground again within Iran.

The Iranian influence on Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus was stated surprisingly openly: There is a fear of the impact on Soviet Muslims. “The sun now rises in the south” was one comment on attitudes of Soviet Muslims toward Khomeini. The greatest impact is in Tajikistan, where the language is a form of Persian and where cultural ties to Iran are greatest. In 1980, Khomeini asked for permission to open a consulate in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The Politburo decided against permitting this. Pressure for more mosques and medreses, and for women to wear traditional clothing, is growing. Azerbaijanis follow events south of the border with great interest: Tabriz is seen as the capital of all Azerbaijan, and Soviet Azerbaijanis are the one group in the USSR who are mainly Shi‘is.

Lebanon: The USSR does not feel able to intervene directly. First of all, the dispatch of troops would be very risky for the troops and might provoke a major US intervention. Second, no one has formally asked the USSR to do anything. Sarkis and al-Wazzan, Lebanon’s president and prime minister, are seen as pro-Western and not likely to ask for Soviet aid in their country. Syria has not asked for Soviet intervention, nor has the PLO.

“This is not a Soviet-US problem, but an Arab-US problem,” insisted Belyaev. It is up to the Arabs to find a solution, to unite, put forward proposals. Until this happens there is little the USSR can do. At the same time, the Soviets feel that Israel’s victory is illusory. Like 1967, it is a triumph that will solve nothing. The Palestinians will not be destroyed as a political or military force, whatever happens in west Beirut. The Lebanese patriotic forces will not be eliminated. The Israelis have already embroiled themselves in the longest Arab-Israeli war. Far from having used this war to force acceptance of Camp David, they have made such an acceptance more remote.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Current Soviet Policy and the Middle East," Middle East Report 111 (January 1983).

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