Russia is back in the Middle East, creating a broad and systemic geopolitical challenge to the United States. Moscow’s actions are driven by a confluence of prestige seeking, influence mongering, and a search for new markets for Russian arms and other goods.
With oil prices barely climbing above $57 per barrel and Saudi Arabia, the oil market maker, facing its most serious political crisis since the Kingdom’s inception in the 1920’s, Moscow’s cooperation with Tehran and Riyadh to limit oil production puts Russia in the center of the most important economic activity of the Arab Gulf. However, the Kremlin’s renewed presence and activity in the Middle East goes beyond oil – and beyond purely economic interests. As in the Soviet era, Moscow seeks to influence and control governments, re-establish military bases, open maritime routes to the Indian and Atlantic oceans, and expand exports. These are traditional great power ambitions, which suggest a broader shift in the great power balance, revealing a return to the strategic competition in the region that has characterized the Middle East since the 19th century, raising serious questions about the future of American influence from Marrakesh to Manama.
Russia’s Strategic Vision
For centuries, Russia defined itself as an ever-expanding empire. The only three periods when it shrunk were the systemic state crises of the “Time of Troubles” in the early 17th century (when Moscow was invaded and captured by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth); in 1917-1920 after the Bolshevik coup; and in 1991, when the USSR expired after the August 1991 putsch.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia abandoned most of its military deployments and involvement in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Syria was the only country Moscow clung to.
While some weapons sales continued, the costs of empire were too high for the reforming Russian economy to sustain. Nevertheless, the phantom pains of empire – the longing for prestige, the desire to be respected and taken seriously by other powers – were articulated by Vladimir Putin even before his watershed Munich Security Conference speech in 2007.
With the rise in oil prices after the Georgia War of 2008, and especially after the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 (the oil prices dropped in summer of 2014), Russia has embarked on a methodical rebalancing of power in the Middle East. The aim is to diminish the United States’ freedom to maneuver and to challenge Washington’s key relationships as well as its de jure and de facto alliances. In addition, some analysts believe that Syria may be a bargaining chip for the Ukraine and U.S.- imposed economic sanctions. However, the diminishing American presence in the region, and the Russian willingness to fill the void, suggest broader ambitions.
Russian expectations for the Middle East include several aspects important to its national security and desired global role:
- A forward bulwark against jihadist versions of Islam, which have proven to be attractive enough for 2,500 citizens of Russia and for hundreds more from the Commonwealth of Independent States, to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The return of these fighters to their home turf is a real threat, as it is in Western Europe. As Moscow is the second largest city in Europe in terms of Muslim population – approaching 2.5 million – the Kremlin takes the threat of extremism seriously.
- A theater of strategic competition with the United States. The Russian ruling elite is defined by the Soviet defeat in the Cold War and expresses itself and Russia’s global role in relation to the United States. Putin and his entourage, the Duma, the leadership of the military forces and security services, and Russian TV are all obsessed with America’s alleged plots to topple the regime, hurt Mother Russia, capture its natural resources, even dismember it.
- An area where global oil prices, vital to the Russian economy, can be influenced. This can be done through cartel-like agreements with the principal OPEC producers – or by fanning existing conflicts, especially the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nothing drives oil prices up more than the specter of a hot war between Tehran and Riyadh, or the possibility of a blockade in the Strait of Hormuz.
- A market for clients and weapons. The Syrian war demonstrated that Russia is capable of producing, deploying and supporting modern weapons systems, from the Kaliber medium-range cruise missiles, to SU-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defense systems, available for sale to the highest bidder. And, as the Moscow saying goes, “weapons sales make good allies.”
- A means of boosting its reputation as an ally. The Syrian civil war demonstrated that Moscow sticks with its allies through thick and thin – more so than Washington. President Bashar al-Assad is Exhibit One of the Kremlin’s patronage, whereas, according to the Russian narrative, the removal of former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is proof positive of America’s unreliability, duplicity, and abandonment of its allies. Russia further demonstrated that it can do business with butchers, including al-Assad (and Saddam Hussein before him), whereas Washington will remain picky as to the credentials of its partners in the Middle East.
While America Slept
The Obama Administration believed that it was acting in the interests of the United States by withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, which were considered “Bush’s wars.” Its cautious reaction to the Syrian crisis suggests that it was more important for Obama not to become bogged down in any foreign conflicts than to prevent the largest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. Instead, the Obama Administration put its focus on the Iran nuclear deal. And the Trump Administration, now in power for almost a year, has been slow to come up with coherent policies in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.
The tepid American response to Russian challenges in the Middle East suggests that in the post-Iraq era, the U.S. has created a regional power vacuum, one that the European powers cannot and will not fill. China is at least a decade or more away from developing the necessary power projection capabilities to begin playing an intensive geopolitical game in the Middle East. Therefore, Russia is filling the void and rebuilding, strengthening, and expanding its strategic relationships from Tripoli to Tehran.
Iraq, the Arab Spring, and Beyond
Russia has woven a narrative extremely critical of U.S. involvement in the region, from Iraq under George W. Bush to the Obama Administration’s initial support for the Arab Spring and its coddling of the Muslim Brotherhood. This narrative goes back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, depicted by some Russian analysts as anti-jihadist, whereas the U.S. has supported the Muslim mujahedeen, including the radicals. Like conservative Arab leaders and Israelis, the Russians saw the United States’ abandoning its traditional allies and opening the door to the Brotherhood as a major destabilizing factor, breeding chaos. Moreover, the Russians ignored the systemic failure of the autocratic socialist in Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus, obsessing about their real or imagined influence there.
Therefore, while Moscow vociferously criticized U.S. actions in Iraq, the Kremlin decided to take a stand in Syria. From Moscow’s perspective, this succeeded: the Assad regime, which both the Obama and the Trump administrations denounced as illegitimate, remains in place for the foreseeable future. The Astana peace process is directed from Moscow and Tehran, and the Russian military is patting itself on the back for the first successful power projection operation outside the Soviet borders since the debacle in Afghanistan.
Russia has rebuilt its strategic relationship with Turkey, badly damaged by the downing of the Russian Sukhoi fighter-bomber in November 2015. In the last few months, Putin and Erdogan met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, and the leaders have exchanged numerous phone calls. The relationship has succeeded to the point where Turkey, miffed at Washington and on the opposite side of the geopolitical ring in Syria, is buying Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Ankara is also going ahead with the Turkish Stream $30 billion dollar gas pipeline project despite the expanding Western sanctions. One may argue that in the long run, Turkish and Russian interests collide in Syria and the Black Sea area, but Ankara’s anti-Americanism may carry the day in the short and medium term.
Even staunch U.S. ally Israel, under pressure from the Obama Administration, warmed up to Putin after Washington went ahead with the Iran nuclear deal over Israeli (and Saudi) opposition. Netanyahu visited Putin more often than Obama, and the relationship between the two leaders appeared to warm. This relationship remains strong despite the massive Russian military deployment in Syria, a threat to Israeli control of the skies over the Levant. That deployment is an avenue for bringing Iranian influence closer to the borders of the Jewish state and strengthens Israel’s relentless enemy, Hezbollah.
Putin also courted Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, whom the Obama Administration criticized for using force in ousting the Mohammad Morsi regime and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Russia declared a terrorist organization. Egypt and Russia jointly supported Gen. Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, a U.S. citizen and the strongman of Libya, in his aspirations to rule that country; whereas the State Department still supports the powerless government in Tripoli, which also was supported by Qatar.
Finally, Russia’s longstanding, albeit complicated, relationship with Iran boasts the first Iranian temporary air base landing and refueling rights at Hamadan, and an agreement for Russia to fire its missiles from the Caspian Sea into Syria via Iranian air space. The decades-old Russian-Iranian cooperation against the U.S., its Sunni Arab allies, and Israel is going from strength to strength.
Conclusions: The Moment of Truth in the Middle East
The expansion of shale oil and gas production in the U.S. coincides with the decrease of American involvement in the Middle East. Moreover, there is clear war fatigue in the U.S. post-Iraq and Afghanistan, as costly experiments with nation building and democracy promotion around the world appear to have failed.
The Trump Administration walked away from the neocon-style ideological crusade for freedom, and the Commander-in-Chief appears to be seeking Putin’s friendship and cooperation. However, the Washington foreign policy and national security establishment, including the Republican leadership in Congress, disagree with Trump and view Russia as an implacable adversary worldwide, including in the Middle East.
Where the process of America’s disengagement will end, we do not know. But if Washington will not articulate a coherent set of policy goals, backed up by action and funds, and does not improve its relations with key Middle Eastern capitals, it may lose the predominance it has enjoyed in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War. Support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, cooperation with Iraq to defeat ISIS, and a new “peace plan” for Israel and the Palestinians do not amount yet to a coherent strategic effort in the region. The critical mass is not there.
This will complicate the security support of U.S. allies – members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, such as Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It may further undermine the U.S. position in Egypt, a key Arab power that switched sides from the USSR to the U.S. in 1972 under President Anwar al-Sadat. Most important, a seismic shift of this kind will weaken U.S. standing not just in the Middle East, but around the world. It may suggest that Russia, a power with only 1/14th the GDP of the United States, can defeat the U.S. superpower in a key global geographic theater, with all the consequences that may arise from such a historic development.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
About the Author(s)
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. He is the author of six books and monographs, including Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis, and over 1,000 articles. He regularly contributes to leading TV channels, including CNN, BBC, FOX, and Bloomberg, and contributes to The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, Huffington Post and other publications.
Máté Mátyás contributed research to this article. He is a Junior Fellow of the Hungarian American Coalition. He is a student of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University from Hungary pursuing a Master in Public Administration and currently at the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, D.C.