Two seemingly unrelated developments that commenced in early 2021 – the US-Saudi brawl escalating to a qualitatively new level, and another attack by the Houthi militants against Saudi Arabia – have markedly demonstrated that tectonic changes in the Middle East might well be well underway. Specifically, it appears that the seventy-five-year strategic partnership between Washington and Riyadh is entering a rough patch, and there are no guarantees that the relationship will survive the storm. In light of this, Russia is likely to seize the chance to embark on a potentially historical opportunity to boost its regional posture. This idea seems to explain a recent trip – the first trip of a non-Arab senior official to Saudi Arabia amidst worsening ties with the U.S. – by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Coupled with the Russian-Saudi agreement on military cooperation (February 19, 2021), recent dynamics in bilateral ties points to the fact that Russian-Saudi military cooperation – traditionally used by Moscow as a means to achieve its geopolitical and geo-economic objectives in strategically vital regions – might enter a much more advanced stage, which could manifest further regional geopolitical and economic changes.
The Russia-Saudi Relationship
From a historical perspective, the issue of strengthening military-technical cooperation has remained a recurring theme in the Russia-Saudi ties. According to official information, between 2007 and 2009, Russia prepared a large export proposal ($4 billion) that aimed to provide the Kingdom with a large quantity of up-to-date weapons, including the last modification of the T-90 main battle tank, helicopters (the Mi-35, Mi-17, and Mi-28NE) and the much-sought-for S-300, the S-400, Buk-M2E and Pantsir-S1 defense missile complexes. Yet, that deal – as well as many other similar deals, with some of them reportedly discussing potential acquisition of Russia-produced nuclear capable mobile short-range ballistic missile system Iskander – ultimately did not go through, even though Adel Al-Jubeir (the former Saudi Foreign Minister) buoyantly stated that “nothing is standing on the way of the Kingdom that could hinder purchase of Russia’s weaponry.” Words never converted in actions primarily due to the unwillingness of the Saudis to cause ire from the side of its main strategic partner and the key weaponry supplier, the US.
Later, however, the situation started to change owing to two key reasons. First, profound transformations in the global energy market have weakened the strategic bargain – oil for protection – at the foundation of the US-Saudi strategic partnership. Secondly, a series of successful Houthi attacks – most significantly the September 2019 attack against Saudi Aramco facilities – raised multiple questions about the effectiveness of US-supplied anti-missile/air-defense complexes. Relishing the moment, Vladimir Putin urged Saudi political leadership to “make a wise political decision […] such as Iran […] and Turkey” and purchase modern Russian anti-missile/aircraft systems. Now, the story has seemingly received yet another impetus.
A Realignment is Possible
Leaving aside a potential weaponry deal for now, the key question is whether both the KSA and Russia have enough resolve to bring military ties to a qualitatively new level. Saudi Arabia – which previously abstained from such steps – may indeed be heading towards a realignment, due to two interdependent factors. First, President Joe Biden’s decision to introduce sanctions against 76 prominent Saudis (including Saudi Intelligence Deputy Chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri) accused by the U.S. intelligence services in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is seen in the country as a direct provocation. Secondly, a “temporary freeze” on U.S. arms sales, including precision-guided munitions, suggests that the United States is prepared to change the nature of its relations with the Kingdom. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s plans to upscale its energy ties with China seemingly serve as a hedge to decrease the Kingdom’s reliance on America, helping the two countries to further drift apart.
For Russia, a successful bid to increase its role in the Saudi defense realm is important for three reasons. First, such an agreement would have a huge boosting impact on Russia’s role in Middle Eastern affairs – a trend that Moscow has been pursuing since the late 1990s as part of former Russian official Yevgeny Primakov’s legacy. Secondly, this would be seen – and undoubtedly cited in Russian propaganda – as an American defeat in a strategically vital region. Thirdly, and critically, it would give Russia an inside track to the markets of one of the world’s top military spenders. Given Russia’s shrinking share in global arms exports (due to its decreasing exports to India), a hypothetical chance to supply to the Saudis would become a much-needed booster for Russia in pursuit of economic diversification. This said, however, there are pitfalls and undercurrents that cannot be ignored.
Saudi Arabia’s Shopping List
Before providing a brief analysis of stakes and potential implications, it would make sense to provide an overview – given the multiplying number of rumors – of what could realistically become a subject of arms deal. According to an article published in The National Interest, Russia could sell to the Kingdom the S-400 missile defense system, the Sukhoi Su-35 supermaneuverable aircraft, the Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifle, the TOS-1A heavy flamethrower system, and the 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). Russian military experts, however, have suggested that Russia might have different priorities. For instance, deputy director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Konstantin Makienko, noted that Saudi Arabia’s armed forces were already “crammed” with expensive arms and might therefore be primarily interested in acquisition of “inexpensive, yet effective systems that are being actively used in local conflicts”. By this analysis, the likelihood that the Kingdom will purchase large defense systems such as Sukhoi fighter jets and the S-400 system is minimal. Despite this, export of such anti-missile/aircraft complexes as the Pantsir-S, TOR, and Buk-M3 – given the attacks by the Houthis – is possible. Moreover, given the still-visible role of armored vehicles and tanks in Yemen, these could become yet another element of exports.
Finally, given the lessons of the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s participation therein, the Saudi clients might be interested in updated versions of the Mi-8 (and Mi-17) helicopters. Another prominent Russian military expert, Konstantin Sivkov, agreed with Makienko’s analysis, adding that the Saudis might be also interested in Russia-produced pieces of radio-electronic warfare (EW), given “their world class reputation” and strategic importance in warding off drone and missile attacks – the exact perils faced by Saudi Arabia.
The Stakes and Implications of a Saudi-Russian Partnership
Finally, reflecting about a potential deal and the prospect of a qualitative upgrading of the Russian-Saudi cooperation in the realm of military-technical cooperation, two important corollaries must be drawn.
First, deepening Saudi-Russian ties are contingent on an American realignment. Given the importance of the relationship, it is doubtful that the Saudi political leadership – despite periodic confrontational rhetoric – is ready to break up ties with its major strategic partner altogether. A decisive drift away from the U.S. and its military support would have a dramatic impact on regional affairs in general and the Saudi-Iranian ties in particular. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia still needs America; despite huge investment in its defense, it is doubtful that the Kingdom would be able to face Iran adequately, and Russia would not provide support in this situation either. On the other hand, by purchasing Russia-produced weaponry (especially, some types), the Saudis risk jeopardizing their entire security architecture, as it would thereafter rely on Moscow for software updates and electronic coders, which could have far-reaching security-related implications for Saudi defense.
Secondly, despite the genuinely alluring prospect of entering the Saudi market, Russia would not want to (at least for now) pick sides in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Over the years, following some of the precepts laid down by Primakov, Moscow has learned how to avoid Soviet blunders and maintain a strategic balance of interests in the region. The most recent evidence of this strategy was Lavrov’s recent trip to the region, where he skillfully dodged Saudi questions, refused to put all blame on the Houthis for the Yemeni catastrophe, and urged all parties to follow key principles of international law.
For now, it appears that neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia are fully ready to make such drastic and potentially fateful steps. Whether such steps are taken in the future will depend on the actions of the United States and successive American presidential administrations. By redoubling its relationship with Riyadh, even at the cost of human rights rhetoric, the United States could do much to curtail Russia’s regional influence. On the other hand, if American downgraded ties with Riyadh to conform with its principles, Russia would gleefully pick up the slack. In either case, it is Washington’s decision to make – and Moscow is watching.
Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics (Washington, D.C.). He received his PhD from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.