Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin is seeking to restore part of its international role and influence, lost during the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia is seeking to benefit from the US disinclination to intervene directly in regional conflicts, although it is aware of the difficulty of crossing American redlines in a region the US considers part of its sphere of influence.
Therefore, Russia’s intervention in Syria and elsewhere accommodates these redlines, to avoid any direct clash with the Americans. It is in this context that Russia is cultivating close political, economic, and military ties with Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other nations.
It is possible for the Russian role to evolve within the limits of what can be achieved. Meanwhile, despite the stated willingness shown by the US President-elect Donald Trump to cooperate with Russia, his pragmatic character and the nature of his Republican base could pressure him to be more assertive of US power.
The Cold War, which lasted decades between the US and the Soviet Union, ended with the latter’s defeat and disintegration. The Russian Federation inherited the Soviet Union’s legacy, with all its assets and liabilities. Despite the agreement that existed between the Soviet leader Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush, which appeared as an agreement of equals, the Russians felt the West was treating them with extreme condescension and that the post-Cold War settlement was unfair.
Indeed, the West continued to pressure Russia to weaken its economy and home front, as well as proceeding to absorb its former sphere of influence especially in the wake of NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict, and then later on with Central Asian republics and Georgia.
This was seen as a direct challenge to Russian national security, creating a general impression among Russia’s elites that their country cannot allow itself to become a medium-sized European power with regional influence, but must either be a superpower and an equal counterpart to the West, despite limited abilities; or face collapse.
Putin’s rise to power in Russia was an important turning point in the country’s policies. He best expressed this in his annual address to the State Duma in 2005, when he proclaimed the collapse of the Soviet Union was a “geopolitical disaster.” Putin said that the West had made a mistake in the wake of the end of the Cold War when it thought that Russia would continue to decline.
This introduction is key to explaining the motives behind Russia’s policies and stances in the Middle East, and to forecasting the extent to which Russia’s role can evolve beyond military intervention in Syria, as important and pivotal as the latter is.
In terms of importance in the traditional pyramid of Russian foreign policy priorities, the Middle East comes after the Americas, Europe, China, and emerging Asian countries. However, since Moscow has resolved to restore its global great power status, and to challenge the unipolar world order, it cannot afford to ignore this region given its unique geostrategic position and huge natural resources.
Following the unrest and chaos that spread in the Middle East, Russia saw an opportunity to recover its spheres of influence there lost in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, the region has been turned into a ground for Russia to test its ability to return to the international arena as a major stakeholder.
Accordingly, the geo-political motive is the main albeit not only driving force behind Russia’s interest in the Arab region. This is the key foundation for Russia’s network of relations from Syria to Iran, Turkey, and Israel, as well as its demarches with Iraq, Egypt, and the Gulf nations, all linking back to Russian national security.
Naturally, this is not the only motive. In addition, there are economic considerations, which are a strong factor in relations with Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Trade between these countries and Russia is extensive, and Russia is seeking to expand cooperation especially in alternative energy, oil, gas, and defense.
A third key goal is the fight against so-called extremism and terrorism, and the threat they represent to the Russian interior. Reports suggest the presence of nearly five thousand “jihadists,” who are Russian nationals fighting with the Islamic State and other groups. According to the Russian understanding, terrorist groups do not just consist of the ISIS; all Islamic factions fighting the Syrian regime are classed under the same designation.
ISIS has a strong presence in Russian social media sites. There is a Russian conviction that the spread of Islamic extremism encourages separatist tendencies in the Russian homeland, opening up gaps the West can exploit to destabilize Russia where more than 17% of the population are Muslim.
Historically, Russia saw itself as a nation with a message. In Tsarist times, Russia was protector of the Orthodox Church. In Soviet times, Russia was the torch bearer of international communism. Today, Russia posits itself as a pragmatic power seeking to achieve the common interests of the region’s countries and maintain their stability, while being keen to forge balanced relations with all states.
With its experience with revolutions in Russia’s near-abroad, in Ukraine and Georgia for example in the past decade, Moscow believes the Arab revolutions were not spontaneous despite their spontaneous beginnings.
Moscow has judged that the West controls and manipulated the revolutions to further its interests, and that the US position has been one of appeasement to the point that it abandoned its closest allies such as Egyptian former President Hosni Mubarak. But the biggest insult for Russia was NATO’s intervention in Libya. In his speech before the UN General Assembly in September 2015, the Russian president lashed out at US policies in the Middle East, blaming them for the chaos in the region.
Putin said that this was the result of the US bypassing the Security Council, intervening directly in conflicts, precipitating the rise of the Islamic State and the refugee crisis in Europe. He asked them, “I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?”
1. Intervention in Syria
Naturally, Russian influence in Syria is the signpost signaling Russian influence in the region. From the outset, Russia was keen for its intervention to be legitimate in agreement with the ruling regime in Syria still internationally recognized. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Moscow has embarked on a direct pre-emptive intervention in an international crisis.
Thanks to its military intervention, Russia has been able to roll back the setbacks suffered by Syrian regime forces, restoring their initiative. Russia conducted military manoeuvers, reassessed the readiness of its armed forces, upgraded its longstanding naval base in Tartus, established an airbase in Hmeimim in Latakia Governorate, and deployed S-400 advanced anti-air defense system, all without getting involved with ground forces in the Syrian quagmire. We can therefore state that Russia has achieved the majority of its objectives in Syria, imposing itself as a key international player that cannot be sidestepped.
The Russian vision in Syria’s conflict can be summed up as follows:
• No state has the right to intervene to change the regime in another state or alter its boundaries. Russia therefore supports the territorial unity and integrity of Syria, while proclaiming that the fate of the Syrian people must be determined by the Syrians without foreign dictates.
• The priority is fighting radical Islamic groups as designated by Russia, beyond Islamic State and al-Nusra Front.
• Resolving the Syrian crisis requires a political solution. The conflict cannot be settled militarily, and the goal of the Russian campaign has been to impose a new reality and then call for political dialogue.
• The ultimate aim of Russian diplomacy is to sit as a partner with the United States to reach a peaceful solution, something that the United States has so far reacted to by rejecting to consider Russia an international player but only a regional player, as US President Obama said.
2. The Alliance with Iran
Russia enjoys close relations with Iran at all levels, despite the presence of some elements of some distrust. The Russian intervention in Syria could not have taken place were it not for ground cover from Iran and allied forces.
Despite having shared interests, there is an atmosphere of caution in their dealings: While Iran would desire deeper Russian involvement in the war in Syria, Russia, is keen to limit its involvement to air strikes and special operations. However, an acceptable level of harmony exists between the two sides in relation to the crisis in Syria and with regard to confronting US policy.
Russia has shown a great ability to find accord with Iran despite having voted in the Security Council in favor of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. The reason was that Russia is in favor of Iran’s civilian nuclear program but not military nuclear program.
3. Agreements with Turkey
The two countries were able to overcome the crisis triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet, and continue their economic collaboration despite fundamental political differences over Syria.
However, the two sides dealt pragmatically with the situation, which led to developments on the ground: For years, Ankara had sought to create safe zones along the border with Syria, a bid opposed by Washington. However, after agreeing with Russia, the Turks were able to intervene in Syrian territory and impose a new fait accompli against Kurdish forces.
But the economy remains the main crux of Russian–Turkish relations, in areas like energy, gas, agriculture, and construction.
4. Relations with Iraq
As a result of having good relations with Iran, Russia enjoys close relations with Iraq. Russia is seeking to conclude energy and arms deals with Baghdad, while at the same time maintaining historical ties with Kurdish parties.
5. Mistrust with Saudi Arabia
Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia were never special. The two countries have conflicting views with regard to regional issues, including the relationship with Iran, and the future of Syria and its regime.
Russia perceives the “Wahhabi ideology” espoused by Saudi Arabia as suspicious. Moscow believes the spread of Wahhabism among Russian Muslims could be a threat to its national security.
Nevertheless, there have been intense contacts between the two sides in recent times. Russia has sought accords with Saudi over oil prices. Meanwhile, it is in the Saudi interest to diversify its foreign relations, which means contacts between the two sides are expected to continue.
6. Improved Relations with Egypt
Historically, Egypt was the linchpin of Soviet geostrategic interests in the region, before it pivoted to the United States. Egyptian–Russian relations improved markedly after the rise of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who Putin believes can restore stability in the most populous Arab nation. Though Saudi funding, Egypt secured a large Russian arms deal, which was seen as an attempt to coax Moscow seeing as the Egyptian army mainly relies on US training and armaments.
7. Russia and Israel
Russian speakers constitute a fifth of the population of Israel. Jews have a significant presence in Russia. Relations between the two countries are good, although Russia is not in full agreement with Israel on all issues. Russia adopts the two-state solution, and has different views no Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. Russia therefore has a flexible approach that diverges from that of the US, the traditional ally of Israel.
1. The US as a limiting factor: The Middle East region in general was considered part of the US sphere of influence during the Cold War.
Despite constant attempts by the Russians to gain a foothold, carve out areas of influence, and forge alliances in the region, the Americans remained the region’s biggest player. Regardless of the approach led by Obama to US policy in the region, which appeared like a retreat, and attempts to reduce intervention and associated costs, there was no fundamental change in US policy in the Middle East.
It does not appear that the Russian actions have so far affected vital US interests and redlines, regardless of the objections voiced by a number of US allies in the region regarding its approach to conflicts.
It seems the Russian intervention in the region did not conflict with US policy that seems to be seeking the mutual exhaustion of the Syrian regime and opposition, and fueling the conflict to tear apart the Syrian social ethnic-religious fabric, destroy the economy, and weaken the central state in favor of internal divisions that could be made official in future arrangements, which the Americans can influence most internationally compared to the Russians.
The ruling regimes in the region also remain keener on relations with the US compared to Russia for various reasons.
Despite US President-elect Donald Trump’s stated willingness to cooperate with Russia, his pragmatic character and the nature of his Republican base could pressure him to be more assertive of US power.
2. Limited Russian financial resource: On account of Moscow’s financial dire straits following the collapse in oil prices and European sanctions.
3. The possibility of spreading and expanding the war in Syria: In such a scenario, Russia would be drawn into a quagmire it has sought to avoid, because the cost would be too high and would bring back memories of the failed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. So far, the Russian military operation in Syria is of limited cost.
4. Close cooperation with Iran: Just like it represents an opportunity for Moscow, it also represents an obstacle as it restricts Russia in the region. For example, Russia needs Iran in order to have strong economic ties with Iraq.
5. Russia’s interests overlap with two rival poles in the region: Israel and Iran. This will influence its interests in the event of conflict between the two sides.
6. Russia’s internal calculations: This is the most important limiting factor, but its effects are felt on the long term, linked to Russia’s failure to become a state of institutions post-Putin.
After overviewing Russia’s involvements in the region, it appears that Moscow is trying to be a realistic non-ideological player, with enough experience and strength cards to become a reliable partner, one that can influence outcomes through the combination of diplomacy and power. Russia posits itself as a global power willing to offer partnership with all countries that share its vision for a multipolar world. In this context, two main scenarios are worth considering.
First Scenario: The Russian Role Continues to Expand
This scenario is reinforced by Russia’s ability to forge diverse relations, alliances, and economic ties, benefiting from regional and international transformations, and a skillful approach to events such as: Russia’s pre-emptive intervention in Syria to prevent the fall of the regime, the containment of the Russian passenger plane crash in Sinai, and the use of a policy of calculated escalation to contain the crisis with Turkey following its downing of a Russian military plane.
Second Scenario: Russia’s Role Recedes
This is linked to the evolution of the battles in Syria, and the ability and desire of countries backing the Syrian rebels to effect a strategic shift on the ground, something that so far has not materialized. It is also linked to the collapse of the Russian–Iranian alliance, of which there are no signs or indications of fundamental differences.
Through the previous overview, it appears to us that there is a growing Russian role in the region’s developments. The Islamic and national popular forces in the region, however, appear at odds with the Russian position, requiring the following:
1. More efforts to understand Russia’s mindset and interests in the region, some of which are fundamental and key to Russian national security and go beyond the region’s popular aspirations.
2. In Palestine, Russian policy maintains good relations with Israel but does not adopt all its positions. Russia does not designate resistance groups as terror groups, providing some room for maneuvering.
3. Activating popular diplomacy to engage with the Russian public opinion, especially as 17% of Russians are Muslims, who have a central role in Russian life. The stance of the mufti of Russia had a positive role in improving Russian–Turkish relations, for instance, in the wake of the crisis following the downing of the Russian plane.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Ali al-Baghdadi for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.