In less than a decade, Russia has made significant advances in the Middle East and Gulf region. It has intricately developed a complex web of political, energy and security relations beyond its structural report for the so-called “resistance front” of anti-Western actors to include almost all of the U.S. allies in the region. Putin’s Russia is ever closer to achieving its historical dream of a permanent Russian presence in the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. Its tactical moves and the strong will to defend its cumbersome ally in Damascus have elevated Russia’s status as a security provider and turned it into a strategic competitor against a declining U.S. commitment and long-term vision.
The Russian calculus has been built on two underlying goals. First, to defy an ideological alternative to Islam that might entice its 25 million plus Muslim population and destabilize its control in the Caucasus. Second, to defy an alternative energy rival that might balance its hegemonic role as the ultimate energy supplier in Europe. Russia has signed prospective pipeline contracts for oil and gas exploration and exploitation schemes ranging from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, there may too be a third personal motive, that being the imperialistic pretensions of President Putin to display Russian grandeur and military power to again defy the post-Soviet perception of unstoppable “decline of Russia.”
In action, these goals led Russia to a risky move to salvage the Assad regime in Syria. Putin’s Russia was confident enough to confront the U.S., EU, and Turkey with varying degrees of commitment to transition in Syria. Even riskier Russia co-opted Iran and its regional offshoots as allies, which also pit its interests against Israeli and Arab concerns of Iranian expansionism. The catch is Russia has never failed pragmatism, given that it has approached Saudi Arabia to share the spoils of a declining Iranian role in the oil market following the U.S. sanctions.
The risk seems to have paid off. Russia’s credibility as a protector and military power has improved and at a certain point attracted the interests of the region’s capitals to see what was on offer. Paradoxically, the main U.S. allies in the region, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Turkey were among the first to ask.
The Russian comeback to this geography has domestic, regional and international dimensions with a supposedly low-cost operation in comparison to other previous adventures in Eastern Europe or Caucasia. Putin’s military realism and economic pragmatism pushed the gates wide open to Russia despite the traditional perception that Russia is no one’s friend in the Islamic world. Russia offers a piecemeal approach, something the countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region need in this critical period of regime failures, enduring rivalries, shifting alliances and relative super power-absenteeism in the region.
Russia plays four different roles with exclusive and interconnected dimensions in this regional landscape. First is the role of regime protector, which is on display in Syria. At first sight, Russia is in Syria to defend the Assad regime and, according to its rhetoric, is cooperating with Iran against foreign intervention and extremist elements. Putin even appealed to the humanitarian duty of the international community to restore infrastructure and help refugees and internally displaced people. This call to minimize the risks of a prolonged conflict is actually an attempt to seal Russian gains and secure a long-term presence in Syria. Yet, given Russian hubris and a tendency to attempt to be ‘everything to everyone’, Putin does not hesitate to engage with Israel to maximize its returns, this time as the sole balancer against Iran. It is a high-risk, low-cost and high-return policy that requires a limited military presence and therefore the least number of casualties. In the event that casualties do occur, Russia evades responsibility by putting the blame on mercenaries or paramilitary groups like the Russian Wagner group.
Second, Russia has proven an ally for all-seasons. Russia has no preconditions for cooperation beyond its core national interests. Ready to sell military technology, offer political support and counterbalance U.S. unilateralism, this role is mainly casted by Putin having the Russian state’s infamous propaganda machine in the background. His friendship is available and his enmity comes with a cost. It is not surprising to see Putin together with Netanyahu or Rouhani, Muhammed bin Salman or Erdogan, Muhammed bin Zayed or Sheikh Tamim based on totally divergent agendas. In confrontation, they find Russia, as Turkey bitterly experienced, forcing to exclude the challenger’s national interests on all fronts.
Third, Russia is also useful for alleviating the international community’s pressures. This role builds on its UN Security Council (UNSC) membership, yet has a broader ability to pursue close relations with the so-called failed or rogue states. A country in conflict is a country of possibility for Russia. Syria, Iran, and Venezuela are epitomes. In addition, remember Russia’s role from Ossetia and Abkhazia to Transnistria, Donetsk, and Crimea. The ability to monopolize international law entitles Russia to give international cover to regimes under duress. Two obvious examples are numerous Russian vetoes of the UNSC’s resolutions against Syria and Iran, and Russian mediation for a Syrian chemical weapons deal in 2013. This role without strings attached is what survivalist regimes are merely asking of an alliance in the international arena.
Fourth, Russia has expanded its role as an arms and nuclear technology provider in the region. Russia sells fighter jets, combat helicopters, coastal defense units, tanks, and missile defense systems to states in the Middle East. Among the buyers are actual and potential U.S. allies, and, and they like to proceed despite the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which necessitates sanctions against countries trading with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. The recent debate of Turkey’s S-400 purchase is exemplary since Russia proved that Kremlin is capable of pursuing a defense deal with a NATO member country. Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also reportedly interested. Russia is also a main provider of nuclear technology to Turkey and Iran, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia soon to follow.
Growing economic and investment ties notwithstanding, the downside of Russian engagement with the Gulf countries is the lack of a necessary capacity to offer comprehensive security and leadership in the region. First, Russian alignment with the Iranian agenda in Syria and Iraq is both a structural and psychological barrier to broadly deepening relations with Arab countries. Second, Russia has had its own conundrums in its helter-skelter entry to Middle Eastern equations. While its agenda rests on the Iranian quest to roll back Western presence and influence, it still has to coordinate regional policies with other actors. To be more precise, it has to acknowledge Israeli interests, which more and more have aligned with the Saudi-UAE line in regional geopolitics. Third, Russia’s normalization with Turkey has enabled tactical cooperation in Syria. Still, Turkey and Iran have been historical rivals in the region and Russia’s ability to balance their interests would be provisional at best. Therefore, the Russian capacity to rally regional powers around anti-Westernism is more accurately a temporary setting and lacks long-term viability. Fourth, Russia has a historical stigma as “the enemy of Islam,” which dates back to the Romanov-era, only to become more accentuated during the Cold War and now in the Syrian civil war.
Therefore, the Russian ability to manage regional balances is ephemeral and essentially lacks a long-term strategy. Last but not least, Russian attempts to prevail in the Gulf region risk not only thwarting American leadership but also crowding out regional actors. As a result, in the long haul, Russia is more likely to be seen as a threat to regional powers, above all Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s quest to extend their influence in the region. Russia currently stands in a pragmatic position and tries to maximize its economic gains and increase its geopolitical clout. However, the idea of benefiting from managed chaos could only be a short-term strategy if it is not paired with the sustainable pillars of a broader embrace of regional balances.
For U.S. allies, doing business with Russia is a function of the absent or misguided U.S. role in the Middle East and Gulf region. The U.S. policy should open new venues of cooperation with allies in the region, ideally in a macro policy scheme. A good start would be official and backchannel diplomacy between the U.S. and its allies in the region over their growing ties with Russia. Second, the Russian role in Syria should be better exposed, not as a savior but as an instigator of conflict and the main impediment to political transition due to its insistence on the perpetuation of the Assad regime. Third, the U.S. should specify its goals and vision in the region with broader attention paid to security structure. The reality check will come when it is recognized that Russia, as well as Iran, are deeply integrated in this structure.
Russia is not an irrational actor. Its diplomacy is based on testing the limits and integrating its gains in the bigger game. Russia invented a role in the Middle East and the Gulf but needs fine tuning to situate its long-term presence. Without US engagement with both the regional allies and Russia, Moscow keeps saving up for the latter day. Today, it is not to the benefit of the U.S. and its allies to escalate tensions with Russia. Better is to be aware of the Russian roles, secure support of allies and co-opt or contain Russian influence in the Middle East and the Gulf.
Dr. Bulent Aras, Visiting Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY and Senior Fellow, Istanbul Policy Center, Istanbul, Turkey.
Dr. Emirhan Yorulmazlar, Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) Fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.