While the United States has been busy with impeachment, election-year politics, and, lately, the coronavirus, Russia has been working to transform itself into the new indispensable player in the Middle East, often at Washington’s expense. This is nothing new: Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, in concert with Iran and Hezbollah, decisively turned the tide of war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. Moscow capitalized on this success to expand its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, solidify its military posture in Syria, and parlay its success into a stronger diplomatic and economic position in the region.
President Trump’s conflicted attitude toward Russia has helped to clear the path for Moscow’s inroads into issues and relationships that used to be the purview of the United States. But this is not the only factor; scattered attention from Congress, in addition to the American public’s weary attitude to all of the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conflicts, have also helped to distract Washington from Russian meddling. All this has called into question the meaning of the “Pax Americana” that has largely governed the region since the end of World War II and cast a shadow on US relations with some of its closest allies.
Stealthy Gains and a Charming Smile
How does Russian influence in the Middle East stand today?
To an important extent, Russia’s Middle East strategy is similar to its approach to US politics: to interfere when it can and sow a bit of chaos to assert its interests. It opportunistically exploits weaknesses and gaps in the opponent, settling for disruption when all else fails. Under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has made relatively broad—though shallow—gains in the region over the last two years. This partly is a result of Russia’s own limited game plan: as Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently noted, Russia “has been careful not to get overextended.” It has minimized the number of personnel put at risk in Syria and has judiciously limited its military exposure elsewhere.
In its dealings with countries of the region, Russia refrains from criticizing human rights abuses and focuses on political transactionalism.
In its dealings with countries of the region, Russia refrains from criticizing human rights abuses and focuses on political transactionalism—business and arms deals are conducted with a free hand to which the Trump Administration can only aspire. This approach—and the opportunity for regional players to diversify sources of regime support beyond the United States—makes Russia an increasingly desirable partner, or at least a beguiling fair-weather friend.
Syria—a Pyrrhic Victory?
Russia has made considerable gains in the war against Assad’s foes in Syria. It has used victory to strengthen its position within the eastern Mediterranean, including a boost of naval forces and a reputed $500 million investment in expanding its naval facility in Tartous. Russia has also reinforced its air base in Latakia, which it has used to prosecute the ruthless air war against the Syrian opposition. All this has helped Russia create a significant military presence in the Levant, one that was merely aspirational just a few years ago. Moscow can leverage such gains in future conflicts, including against American allies.
It is possible, however, that Russia has bit off more than it can chew. With the survival of Assad’s government—in one form or another—no longer in question, Russia is faced with the vexing question of what to do with its troublesome ally. Syria faces enormous reconstruction needs and the United States has essentially told Moscow (and Iran): “You break it, you buy it.” It is not at all clear what will be the source of the reconstruction assistance and international investment needed to keep the regime afloat. Russia, already subject to sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, is in no position to assemble the international support necessary to bring Syria back from the brink of becoming a failed state.
In addition, the deteriorating military situation on the ground in Idlib province presents some difficult problems for Russia; in recent days, this has prompted a serious crisis with Turkey, its partner in the Astana process that represents the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alternative to UN-led negotiations to settle Syria’s future. A Syrian airstrike on a Turkish base in Idlib that killed 33 Turkish soldiers on February 27 prompted a harsh Turkish reprisal, threats of additional action, and lightly veiled warnings to both Assad and Putin concerning Ankara’s resolve. For its part, Russia retorted that Turkey had consistently violated the terms of a 2018 force deconfliction agreement and dispatched two guided missile frigates to the Syrian coast. The US permanent representative to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, pledged US support to the Turks in the crisis. While the State Department ruled out an American military response, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said that “everything is on the table,” prompting speculation about the possible invocation by Turkey of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which obliges members of the organization to come to the aid of others when attacked.
In early March, a ceasefire negotiated between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan temporarily defused the situation, but it may not last. In that case, Russia would be hard pressed to keep a lid on the mess.
Russian military personnel are also increasing pressure on the 500 US troops who remain in northeastern Syria, presenting continual risks of an unplanned conflict.
As if this were not risky enough, Russian military personnel are also increasing pressure on the 500 US troops who remain in northeastern Syria, presenting continual risks of an unplanned conflict. An attack on an American position in the area in 2018, spearheaded by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, resulted in a massive counterattack by US forces that inflicted 200-300 casualties. A similar incident could touch off a more lethal and geopolitically calamitous confrontation.
In short, if it is not already overextended in Syria, Russia faces the immediate prospect of becoming so. To Putin, preserving the rule of a regime in Damascus that had been a longstanding Russian ally was politically and optically important. But it may prove to be a bridge too far. As a senior Russia expert told this author, Moscow’s “prize for going into Syria is … Syria.” And the prize is starting to show signs of becoming a Pyrrhic victory.
Egypt and Libya: Old Friends, New Allies, Murky Goals
Moscow and Cairo enjoyed a close political-military relationship during the Nasser years, until President Anwar Sadat threw out Soviet military advisors in 1972 as part of his quest to seek better relations with the United States. Nowadays, the romance of an Egyptian-Russian relationship is making something of a comeback. Military ties have been developing since 2014, including joint exercises and a draft agreement that would permit the two countries to use each other’s air space and bases—a possible prelude to the establishment of a new basing arrangement for Russian forces in Egypt. In addition, Moscow has been pursuing arms deals with Cairo to strengthen the political-military relationship further, including a $2 billion deal to purchase Russian SU-35 fighters. The possible expansion of the Russian presence in Egypt has drawn opposition from the Pentagon; in addition, the proposed arms deal has brought a threat of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, designed to inhibit deals with the Russian military and defense establishment.
Disapproval from Washington may have slowed, but not ended, Russian efforts to build ties with the Egyptian government and military.
Disapproval from Washington may have slowed, but not ended, Russian efforts to build ties with the Egyptian government and military. In Libya, Russia has maintained active cooperation with Cairo to bolster the bid of General Khalifa Haftar to install himself as leader in opposition to the government in Tripoli that is recognized by both the United Nations and United States. Indeed, Russia allegedly deployed aircraft to an Egyptian military base in 2017 to help prosecute the Libyan civil war on Haftar’s behalf, and Russia remains allied with Egypt (and others) in these efforts. In late 2019, Russia reportedly upped the stakes by inserting Wagner Group mercenaries, who significantly bolstered the lethality of Haftar’s forces. Russia’s angle is apparently to bolster its image as a global player and advance its economic interests, especially its influence in international energy markets.
Russia recently attempted to broker a diplomatic end to the conflict, doubtless to settle it on terms favorable to its own interests. This effort failed in large part because Haftar himself walked out of talks in Moscow, much to the consternation of the Russian government. But for the moment, the Russians are proving persistent on a battlefield the United States has all but abandoned.
Israel and the Gulf
Elsewhere, Moscow has parlayed its assertiveness into an image as a force to be reckoned with and an essential stop on the diplomatic circuit.
Russia’s relations with Israel are the strongest they have been in a long time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s numerous visits to Russia over the last several years have yielded some important diplomatic gains. One significant example is the development of Russian-Israeli security coordination in Syria, which has resulted in deconflicting military operations by both sides so that Israel could continue to attack certain Syrian and Iranian targets while Russia is able to prosecute its pro-Assad operations without hindrance. The mutually beneficial arrangement reinforces Netanyahu’s image as a statesman while granting legitimacy to Russia’s role in Syria.
Russia’s Gulf relations, too, have made progress in the last few years. With Tehran, Moscow has cooperated on a variety of political and military issues while also expanding economic relations. Saudi Arabia and Russia have advanced various economic and arms deals, though cautiously—presumably to avoid Washington’s ire while quietly building ties. Putin’s regional tour in October 2019 included stops in the UAE and Riyadh, where he inked 30 economic deals. The value of those agreements amounted to $2 billion, a pittance compared to the 10-year, $350 billion US-Saudi “strategic vision” (essentially an arms package) approved in 2017. But it nevertheless served a major purpose: to demonstrate Russia’s viability as an economic and security partner. And Moscow has patiently capitalized on such gains. Russia’s engagement and gamesmanship, combined with unsettled political conditions in the Gulf, provided Moscow with an opening in January to call for new collective security arrangements in the Gulf, presumably with a substantial Russian component.
Saudi Arabia and Russia have advanced various economic and arms deals, though cautiously—presumably to avoid Washington’s ire while quietly building ties.
However, the latest dispute between Russia and OPEC––of which Saudi Arabia is the largest producing member––over the supply of oil to the world market may yet prove to be a deal breaker in relations between Moscow and Riyadh. It is hard to credibly predict what the long-term effects of the current spat might be, but the price of crude has already seen a nose dive that will affect all producers in a global market reeling from the effects of the coronavirus.
The Limits of Disruption
Try as it might, though, Russia cannot supplant the military, diplomatic, and economic value of these countries’ relations with the United States—at least not for now—and it is not clear that it wants to. It appears to be more than enough for Putin and the Kremlin to throw shade at the United States while inserting Moscow into certain longstanding relationships the United States has enjoyed with regional powers. Such a scheme furthers an image of power and influence that may not necessarily comport with Russia’s actual geopolitical influence. But even unleashing uncertainty is useful to Moscow, if it helps to skew energy markets and boost prices to the advantage of Russia’s petrochemical economy.
Thus far Moscow’s risky approach in the Middle East has inflicted few costs on the Kremlin. Russia has avoided harsh backlash from a distracted United States and reaped some diplomatic benefits that may prove useful over time. However, there are significant costs to Putin’s strategy: his personal popularity has dropped dramatically at home, due in part to the ongoing wars in Syria and Ukraine. Broader adventurism could dent his numbers further. It is by no means certain that Putin’s exposure on the Middle East will add up to significant domestic costs, but that is becoming an increasingly realistic possibility.
The fact is that Russia’s Middle East strategy is flawed in a number of ways. In its efforts to balance partners who remain in conflict with one another, Moscow may find itself mired in contradictions that cannot easily be rectified. It stands to become rivals with powers it has successfully courted over the last few years. Recently, this has included closing the shared border with Iran, due to the coronavirus, and dealing with Turkey, where flashpoints include Syria as well as Libya. The current spat over oil prices and output with Saudi Arabia and OPEC threatens Moscow’s core relationships in the Middle East and poses risks to the entire world economy.
In its efforts to balance partners who remain in conflict with one another, Moscow may find itself mired in contradictions that cannot easily be rectified.
Russia will also have a hard time sustaining long-term military operations with its limited forces, power projection capabilities, and financial constraints. Arms sales constitute a splashy tactic to promote diplomatic ties, but Moscow usually insists on payment up front or costly loans, which a number of regional countries find unappealing. And despite Russia’s efforts to portray itself as a useful counterweight to Washington, Middle Eastern countries are more likely to think of Moscow as a bargaining chip, accepting or rejecting Russian overtures primarily to influence Washington’s behavior, not as an end in themselves.
How Should Washington Respond?
There is little doubt that the United States’ position in the region has been diminished by the perception of instability and unreliability in Washington. While these are largely American self-inflicted wounds, Moscow has certainly benefited by playing up its relative advantage as a hard-nosed ally unburdened by human rights concerns.
This does not mean that Washington lacks tools or strategies to force a change of course, should it determine to do so. The United States remains the predominant external power in the Middle East, for good reason, and can leverage that to limit Moscow’s inroads.
For one thing, Washington should not let Russia off the hook for its actions in Syria; policymakers must make sure Moscow knows that it will be up to the Kremlin to do the hard and expensive work of rebuilding the country. (The United States should, however, continue to contribute to humanitarian relief.) It would behoove Washington to work to retake the diplomatic initiative from Russia on key issues such as Syria and Libya; after years of playing spoiler vis-à-vis US initiatives in the region, Russia might undergo a trajectory change in its policies with a bit of payback from the United States, whether bilaterally or in international fora such as the United Nations.
The Trump Administration should also start drawing redlines with allies. Just as Washington threatened sanctions against Egypt for purchasing Russian arms, some steely-eyed, behind-the-scenes discussions with friends such as Saudi Arabia and Israel could help set firm boundaries on Russian diplomatic forays in the Middle East.
At present, it is not clear if the administration has either the bandwidth or the desire to pursue any of these ideas. Pockets of congressional opposition to the president’s seeming indifference to Moscow’s advances in the Middle East and elsewhere may provide some impetus for broader pressure on Russia in the Middle East. Indeed, Moscow should not be given free rein in that challenging regional landscape that still looks for a more engaged American policy.