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Is Russia the Middle East's new hegemon?

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By Shlomo Ben-Ami

TEL AVIV ― The collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago meant that its once-formidable presence in the Middle East collapsed as well. Today, however, as the United States has withdrawn from the region, Russia has rushed to recapture the Soviet Union's position there, through a combination of military force, arms deals, strategic partnerships, and the deployment of soft power. But its success is being significantly overestimated.

To be sure, Russia's soft-power push has been impressive. As early as 2012, President Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to expand Russia's "educational and cultural presence in the world, especially in those countries where a substantial part of the population speaks or understands Russian." At a recent conference in Moscow, Putin made clear that Israel, for one, is on that list.

As part of this effort, Russia established a federal diaspora agency known as Rossotrudnichestvo, which has opened centers for science and culture in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. Moreover, it has expanded the Arabic service of RT, the state-funded international television news network. With 6.3 million monthly viewers in six Arabic-speaking countries ― Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ― RT Arabic is now among the Middle East's leading networks.

In attempting to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region, Russia has sought to distinguish itself from the Middle East's longtime hegemon by establishing itself not as an imperial power, but as an arbiter of cultural........

© The Korea Times