A former Israeli national security advisor recently insisted that Russia shares Israel’s position that Iran is a “destabilizing force in the Middle East.” If this assertion was meant to pressure Moscow (or Tehran), it probably did not achieve its purpose. Russian President Vladimir Putin probably sees Iran’s problematic behavior as either irrelevant or, more likely, strategically useful. Russia’s primary goal is to defend its security interests, and for that purpose it has diplomatic relationships with the region’s key players, all of which are adept at causing geostrategic trouble.
If maintaining these relations has been a challenge, recent events in Russia’s immediate neighborhood have complicated its Middle East diplomacy. In the hierarchy of its security interests, Moscow’s top priority is ensuring that the internal politics of the 14 countries with which it shares a border do not pose a threat to Russia and, perhaps most of all, to Putin’s rule. Thus, it is the percolating conflict with the United States over Ukraine, and the early January protests in Kazakhstan, that are now commanding Moscow’s attention.
The tremors set off by these events have reached the Middle East and all the key states are taking note. Iran, Syria, Israel, and Turkey, as well as the Gulf Arab states, have one thing in common: they want to sustain relations with Moscow in ways that will enhance their diplomatic or military leverage. If intensifying regional conflicts (especially between Israel and Iran) have shaken this balancing act, the big geostrategic time bomb ticking in Ukraine, and the smaller one that has already exploded in Kazakhstan, are surely testing that capacity of Russia and its friends to work together. While this situation poses an equal test for Putin, his ability to juggle several burning candles should never be underestimated.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
In November 2021, Moscow refloated a proposal for a “Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region” that it had already proposed three times, the last of which was in 2019. At that point, the region’s escalating conflicts—stoked by President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran—ensured that Russia’s proposal would fall like a lead balloon. But the election of President Joe Biden provided an impetus for Moscow not only to relaunch its security proposals but also to offer its services as a mediator between the United States and Iran (and by implication, between Israel and Iran). Vitaly Naumkin, a senior scholar who apparently helped to mold Moscow’s collective Gulf security concept, insisted that the region was “fed up with what’s going on” and had reached a “sort of stalemate” that might open the door to diplomacy. His well-timed praise for the “leadership of President Biden” was designed to signal the White House that, as Naumkin put it to Newsweek, “We have one common threat, the threat of war.”
Moscow’s capacity to exercise influence partly rests on its ability to flex its military muscles while using its relations with multiple states to play the part of aspiring peacemaker.
Whether Russia was ever serious about its Gulf security proposal is less important than the geostrategic logic animating it. Moscow’s capacity to exercise influence partly rests on its ability to flex its military muscles while using its relations with multiple states to play the part of aspiring peacemaker. Because this role gives Russia leverage that Washington cannot match, Moscow has much to gain from ensuring that none of its friends limits its field of maneuver on the diplomatic stage.
Thus, during the JCPOA talks in Vienna, Russia has supported Iran while telegraphing its desire for Tehran to show some flexibility. This effort has provoked criticism from hard-liner pundits in Iran, one of whom has argued that a photo of Robert Malley, the US chief negotiator, talking with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Ulyanov, is evidence of a US-Russian “conspiracy” to undermine Iranian interests.
Similarly, in the Middle East itself, Russia has been keen to ensure that Iran retains its fire power—and thus its ability to strike directly or through proxies at the United States and Israel—even as it has maintained an understanding with Israel that gives the Israelis diplomatic space, as well as air space, to strike their enemies in Syria when they identify an emerging threat and opportunity. Thus on December 28, when Israeli bombers struck a container complex in the port of Latakia (where Russia has a naval base), Moscow did not openly criticize Israel despite the potential threat that the attack posed to Russian troops. It was probably no coincidence that Putin and Israeli President Isaac Herzog reportedly talked on the phone only a few days before the incident. Their conversation surely touched on the deconfliction mechanism that Russia and Israel had forged under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, an arrangement that was renewed when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin in Sochi on October 22, 2021. Iranian leaders, whose efforts to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile system (which Moscow has repeatedly ignored), must have been dismayed and yet not completely surprised by Moscow’s silence following the December 28 Israeli attack.
All the region’s key actors are well aware that Putin wants to display ruthlessness while showing that he is an influential leader who just wants Middle East rivals to get along.
In fact, all the region’s key actors are well aware that Putin wants to display ruthlessness while showing that he is an influential leader who just wants Middle East rivals to get along (with a little help from their friend in Moscow). The strategic challenge is now to factor into account Putin’s twin aims in ways that will not blow up in the faces of Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
US-Russian Tensions on Ukraine Muddy Middle East Waters
It would seem that the success of Moscow and its Middle East associates to balance their potentially conflicting interests partly hinges on Russia’s ability to sustain something of a fire wall between geostrategic threats erupting in its many backyards and intersecting conflicts in a region where it has vital security interests. Yet in reality, this fire wall is highly porous because Russia views its own presence in the Middle East—and in Syria especially—as vital to its wider geostrategic interests.
Indeed, apart from enabling Moscow to send its bombers into Libya, and thus manifest its clout in the Mediterranean theater, it seems that one purpose of the air bases that Russia maintains at Humaymim and Tartous in Syria is to point a strategic dagger toward NATO’s southern flank. Thus, Russia has not only deployed Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and MiG-31K fighter-interceptors with hypersonic missiles to its Humaymim Air Base, but on December 25, Moscow moved more than 20 aircraft and helicopters from that base to the airfields in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor in the east.
This move serves the twin purpose of supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while telegraphing Russia’s capacity to make life difficult for NATO, particularly given Moscow’s public concerns about the potential expansion of NATO into other states—first and foremost of which is Ukraine. As the US-Russian conflict intensifies, the efforts of Russia’s rival Middle East friends to contain a possible fire in the Ukraine from reaching them is becoming more difficult. Indeed, Turkey and Israel provide telling examples of just how tricky this situation has become.
The Israeli/Russian/Syrian/Iranian Equation
Israel maintains close diplomatic relations with Ukraine. This 30-year official relationship was celebrated during the third annual meeting of the “Kyiv Jewish Forum,” which was held online on December 15-16, 2021. Headlining the meeting, which in 2021 was attended by some 83,000 online viewers, was none other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Their praise of Ukrainian-Israeli relations was no mere public relations stunt. The two countries signed a major trade agreement in January 2019. It is also reported that their military relationships have evolved and that Zelensky has signaled interest in purchasing Israel’s Iron Dome missile system. Israeli officials have been reticent to talk about specific details to avoid antagonizing Moscow.
Still, the importance of Ukrainian-Israeli relations was underscored by the visit of Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to Israel in early December 2021. While the specifics of their discussions were not reported, Moscow surely took note of the meeting and is probably watching the Israel-Ukraine relationship closely. Indeed, Israeli officials report that Israel and Russia have an understanding that Israel will not upgrade its defense links with Ukraine; and in return, Russia will limit its arms sales to Iran. In late 2019, an advisor to Netanyahu asserted that Russia had cancelled a proposed missile sale to Iran and that Israel had reciprocated by twice promising not to sell weapons to Ukraine.
Israeli officials report that Israel and Russia have an understanding that Israel will not upgrade its defense links with Ukraine; and in return, Russia will limit its arms sales to Iran.
The above-mentioned December 28 Israeli attack in Syria, and the subsequent silence from Moscow, likely indicate that both countries still want to respect these red lines. Thus, the current Israeli government is expected to avoid any public steps that might suggest a major upgrading of its military relations with Kiev. Still, in 2019, Netanyahu’s government reportedly offered to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. The escalating US-Russian conflict over Ukraine—not to mention Prime Minister Bennett’s efforts to improve US-Israeli relations—make it unlikely that Bennett’s government would try to renew Netanyahu’s grandiose proposal. But if Russia and the Biden Administration fail to agree on Ukraine, Moscow may suddenly find itself less inclined to restrain Iran in Syria, or to push Tehran to make concessions in the Vienna talks. One way or the other, the Ukraine crisis is complicating the three-way dance between Russia, Israel, and Iran.
While equally complex, the dance between Turkey, Russia, Syria, and Iran is also a function of Turkey’s specific strategic interests in Syria and beyond, all of which have already generated friction between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran—even as all three have sustained the Russian-led Astana Process to work on a constitution for Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan envisions a future in which Syria’s citizens have some kind of voice, and that means creating space for Islamist leaders in the ongoing—and thus far unproductive—UN talks over a political settlement on Syria. This is not a goal that Moscow and Tehran share, particularly if—as Iranian leaders fear—it will open the door for Sunni jihadist forces. The very tenuous cease-fire in Idlib province pivots precariously around the effort to contain these conflicting goals and is now under pressure as the Islamic State (IS) tries to reassert its influence. Russia’s bombing on January 2 of IS targets near Idlib, in northwestern Syria, underscores the possibility of rekindling conflict between Moscow and Ankara, one that could occur if the organization gathers new strength.
These tensions will be amplified by Ankara’s open differences with Moscow on several fronts. It has backed Ukraine’s claim to Crimea and thus opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of that territory and its people. Even more troubling for Moscow, Turkey—a member of NATO—backs Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. The fact that Turkey has sold TB2 drones to Ukraine has miffed Moscow, which surely knows that the drones helped Azerbaijan prevail over Armenian troops in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Given these concerns, the December request by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu that Russia take a more moderate approach to the Ukraine conflict must have ruffled Moscow’s feathers. His admonition probably stung: “For any proposal to be accepted, it should be acceptable by both sides. Russia made some proposals. But maybe NATO seeks the same kind of guarantees from Russia.” He added that, “If Russia has any certain specific expectation or issue from Turkey regarding reducing tensions between Russia and NATO, Turkey will evaluate” the situation.
This exchange of views came some two weeks after Putin and Erdoğan had a phone conversation which, according to TASS Russian News Agency, was preceded by promises from a Kremlin spokesman that Turkish mediation might even be helpful, but only under certain conditions. He stated that “if Mr. Erdoğan will be able to use his influence to encourage Kiev to begin to comply with its commitments under the Minsk Package of Measures, Paris agreements and so on, it would be only welcomed.” In short, Moscow’s message is that unless Ankara backs its position, any offer by Turkey to mediate will be roundly, if diplomatically, rejected.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Erdoğan—who is under tremendous pressure at home in the wake of an escalating economic downturn—is unlikely to take steps that will further antagonize Moscow.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Erdoğan—who is under tremendous pressure at home in the wake of an escalating economic downturn—is unlikely to take steps that will further antagonize Moscow. But as with Israel, events in the Ukraine have made Turkey’s dance with Russia (and by implication, with Iran) much harder. Erdoğan’s challenge is to avoid stepping on his own toes.
US-Russian Talks Set the Tone
The efforts of Turkey, Israel, and Iran to manage relations with Moscow (and vice versa) could ultimately depend on the ongoing talks on Ukraine between the White House and the Kremlin. Russia’s demand that the Biden Administration renounce any plan for Ukrainian membership in NATO will complicate any bid to reach a compromise, a point underscored by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent statement that Moscow’s demand is unacceptable to the United States and its NATO partners. Blinken is correct when he notes that Moscow must know that no such demand can possibly provide a path forward. But the exit ramp off the road to a more dangerous US-Russian collision is elusive at present.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian conflict will have ripple effects in the Middle East and in Vienna. Moscow could conclude that the dangers of failure in Vienna are too great and thus will still try to get Tehran to back down from some of its demands. But if the Ukraine situation gets any hotter, Russia might be disinclined to push Iran toward compromise. Moscow, which not so long ago envisioned itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East, now has far less space to leverage its relationships with the region’s rivals. The lesson seems to be that even if the United States no longer has the clout it once enjoyed in the region, the course of US-Russian relations remains vital to the prospects for peacemaking in the Middle East and other volatile regions of the globe.