Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. [LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES]
The Russian war in Ukraine has provoked a debate among Arab populations. Although many Arabs intuitively empathize with the Ukrainian people, social media reveals significant support for Russian president Vladimir Putin. This support comes despite the daily scenes of killing and displacement in Ukraine in addition to the detrimental impact of the war on the economies of the Arab region. In this context, the question that deserves our attention is: Why is there support for Putin in the Arab world?
Since 2011, polarization in the Middle East has shaped the Arab public’s reactions to politics. While secular-religious polarization influences responses to domestic and regional issues, polarization over the model of governance (namely democracy versus the authoritarian strongman model) shapes reactions to many global issues, including the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Part of this polarization is the ongoing struggle between two narratives on the causes of Arab conflicts and the deterioration of many Arab countries since 2011. Whereas the democracy-supporting narrative considers that deterioration as an inevitable outcome of tyrannies ruling the region for decades, the counternarrative places the blame on Arab revolutions, democracy advocates, and the West.
The latter narrative, which finds support in a populist mood, claims that the strongman model (exemplified by Putin) should inspire the Arab people as a path to development and influence over the global order. Supporters of this model contend that, through an iron fist, it has the potential to control contradictions, prioritize national security, and ensure the rapid modernization of societies from above without the disruption of democratic contestation. That rationale was behind public support for military officers, such as President Abdelfattah El-Sisi in Egypt and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Eastern Libya. It also animated President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend the democratic trajectory in Tunisia after sensing a domestic mood that might support—or at least not oppose—an authoritarian return.
The same narrative makes constant reference to two Eastern models—those of China and Russia— as examples of strongman rule, affording significant attention to the case of Vladimir Putin. According to this narrative, Putin is the man who extricated his country from the chaos of the perestroika orchestrated by Western leaders, who conspired to break up the Soviet Union just as they attempted to fragment the Arab region through the 2011 uprisings. Furthermore, he is the leader who challenged the Western conspiracy of democratization in Eastern Europe, created Western dependency on Russian energy, interfered in the U.S. presidential election, successfully stabilized the Syrian regime in the face of opposition from the West and Islamic groups, and approached Arab governments as their differences with the West intensified. According to this narrative, Putin is not only a "friend"—the enemy of an enemy—but his rule is also a proven model for turning a state’s weakness into strength. Thus, if Arabs seek a different future, they should follow Putin’s model, according to this narrative.
In parallel, official Western responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine represent another element in building support for Putin among Arab populations. For Putin’s supporters, Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis reveal double standards and contradict the prevailing Western discourse on the Arab crises. In the case of Ukraine, the leading Western countries have described the Russian war as an invasion that violated international law, considered Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory to be illegal, escalated, and quickly mobilized global potential against Russia. That included arming the Ukrainian resistance, supporting its right to use force against the occupation, holding Russia accountable in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for committing war crimes, and boycotting Russia by isolating it from the global financial and banking system.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend a welcome ceremony in the United Arab Emirates, on October 15, 2019. [Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters]
Conversely, in the case of the Arab region, the same Western countries either participated in or overlooked the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The invasion, which was considered to violate international law, was framed as an act of “liberation.” Moreover, over decades, Western countries overlooked the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, ignored the Israeli government’s de facto annexation of Palestinian land, considered the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance as terrorism, and sought to disrupt the prosecution of Israel at the ICC for alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, officials in the same countries described the campaigns to boycott Israeli as anti-Semitism. In a polarized Arab world, where dualities prevail, doubt surrounding the credibility of the Western pro-Ukraine narrative appears to serve the Russian narrative that often emphasizes these contradictions.
Another critical element shaping Arab attitudes toward the war is the posture of Arabic media. Largely directed by regional autocracies, many Arabic media platforms still focus on producing domestic propaganda to serve the stability of their respective ruling regimes. That task, of course, comes at the expense of conveying the truth and revealing different aspects of events and variations in actors’ positions. It also provokes dualities and the categorization of the world into an East versus the hegemonic West dichotomy. It ultimately led to—whether fully or partially—adopting an anti-Western/Ukrainian narrative, which converges with rhetoric that defames the very notion of democracy, linking it with a global conspiracy and Western double standards. In this narrative, the West is usually presented as a homogeneous group without differences between communities, governments, public opinion, and civil society, or between the right, the left, the progressive, and the conservative.
Today, many Arabic media platforms (including but not limited to Sky News Arabia, Alikhbaria Syria, Al Mayadeen, and the Tunisian Alchourouk) adopt a narrative that justifies the Russian invasion with reference to Russia’s right to defend its national security. It follows that Ukraine is a Western puppet that initiated hostilities and threatened Russia. Additionally, to increase the war’s relevance to Arab audiences, comparisons are often made between the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring, alleging a unified Western conspiracy behind the two events. Other prevalent comparisons focus on the invasion of Ukraine and the invasion of Iraq, the Western responses to Ukraine and the Palestinian issue, and the disparities in how the West treats Ukrainian refugees in contrast with those from the Middle East. And while the Ukrainian president is portrayed as a clown, the Russian president is depicted as the creator of a new Russia, the leader who challenges Western hegemony, and the commander who possesses a miraculous homemade military arsenal ready to be shared with Arab and Muslim countries. Above all, he is portrayed as a mysterious KGB man who personifies "masculinity,” appearing as a bare-chested knight on his horse, practicing martial arts, or sniping in the forests. This framing affirms the directed messages of the Russian Arabic-language media. Invariably, interventions of pro-Putin Russian analysts on Arabic media channels focus on the struggle between East and West, Russia’s friendship with the Arabs, the ties between Ukraine and Israel, and Russian support for Arab causes in international forums over recent decades.
Perhaps the dream of a multipolar world is another explanation for Putin’s support in the Arab region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped to promote narratives of a new world order that is taking shape, motivated by growing Chinese economic influence and Russian geopolitical expansion. In this narrative, analyses are intertwined with wishful thinking, nostalgia, and dissatisfaction among the Arabs toward the prevailing unipolar system. As mentioned earlier, the Western-made global institutions seem politically inconsistent regarding Arab crises, and it appears that the West benefited the most from an international order that it created and fostered. Except for the Arab oil monarchies, indicators of development and production in the Arab world today remain dismal. Indeed, in many Arab countries, citizens live in conditions of poverty and war, or are forced to emigrate, while other Arab countries are on the path to becoming failed states. Routes to recovery for these countries may take decades. In this context, future ambitions mingle with nostalgia and collective memories of the Cold War period in which the USSR was an ally of Arab regimes, a guarantor of the balance of power, a source of military and economic aid, and a supporter of the ambitious Arab quest for liberation.
(c) 2022 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace