Vitaly Naumkin on The U.S., Russia and the Crisis in the Middle East


On November 7, Vitaly Naumkin, Director of Russia’s Institute for Oriental Studies, led a discussion on the U.S., Russia and the Middle East. Mr. Naumkin spoke at length about the Russian perspective on ISIL, as well as the prospects of a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal.

Event Summary

“The Russian-U.S. relationship cannot get any worse than it already is,” said Vitaly Naumkin, the Director of Russia’s Institute for Oriental Studies, at a November 7 panel on U.S., Russia and the Middle East. Naumkin, one of Russia’s top academic and policy experts on the Arab World, noted that virtually all contact and exchange had been frozen between the two countries, despite the lack of any conflicting interests in the Middle East. The panel was moderated by Center Executive Director, Paul J. Saunders.


Naumkin spoke at length on the Russian perspective concerning the nature, threat and origin of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Stopping short of explicitly placing blame on the U.S., he stressed that American intervention played a role in exacerbating the region’s underlying tensions. “We’re still witnessing the headaches of the postcolonial era,” he suggested, citing American intervention as a potent reminder of the interference experienced during the Middle East’s colonial history. Some of ISIL’s, Naumkin argued, was its clear state-building objectives in an area comparable in size to Great Britain. Naumkin suggested that ISIL’s relative success contributed to its growth.

Naumkin went on to contrast the roles of the United States and Russia in the Middle East. Russia has no obligations to combat ISIL, he said. Moscow also lacks the relationships that the U.S. has with Israel and the Gulf States, nor does it have a substantial Russian population to protect in the region. But even if Russia did have a legal obligation to the affected Arab states, it does not perceive ISIL as an existential threat to its own security, Naumkin asserted. Moreover, he continued, Russia is already overwhelmed by other issues it finds more pressing in Central Asia and in Ukraine.

While Moscow tacitly accepted American airstrikes following the seizure of Mosul, the Kremlin sees no need to join the attack itself. Furthermore, it questions the efficacy of airstrikes and warns that they can be counterproductive by fueling backlash. Naumkin also cautioned that victory against ISIL would be impossible through airpower alone and without help from other states. The available partners for this campaign seem few, by Naumkin’s estimation: Turkey is unwilling; relations with Iran and Russia are sour; and the U.S. will not likely form a coalition with Assad any time soon.

On Iran

More briefly, Naumkin also offered his perspective on the current nuclear talks with Iran. A year ago, Iran and the P5+1 signed an agreement to reduce imposed sanctions in exchange for limiting nuclear work. The next stage of talks is due to take place this month, and could result in the lifting of international sanctions and the continued monitoring of a limited Iranian nuclear program.

While Secretary Kerry has warned that much work remains to be done, Naumkin was decidedly optimistic and said that he expects a deal just before the November 24 deadline. While avoiding any details, he assured the panel that the main obstacles to achieving a deal no longer exist, and that many of the key components of the deal had already been agreed upon. “I expect the completion of the deal on the 24th,” he said confidently. The deal would be followed by a short extension, then step-by-step lifting of sanctions.

Naumkin underlined what he saw as the importance of achieving the deal for both the United States and Iran. Iran is suffering deeply from the burden of international sanctions, the U.S. of course opposes nuclear proliferation, and both countries want each other’s help in battling ISIL. “[ISIL] is a real issue,” Naumkin said, “and Iran is needed.” Giving the deal a 60-70% chance of success, he ended on a positive note: “I think the issue of Iran brings some hope.”