Is Russia trying to replace the United States as the Middle East’s main power broker?

Despite the chaos unleashed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt pullout from northern Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that Russia wants to displace the U.S. role in the Middle East completely. Russian leaders likely want Moscow to be seen as on equal footing with the United States and as a regional power broker.

The Kremlin has been careful not to get overextended. It has deployed a relatively small number of military personnel to Syria and has conducted military operations in a way designed to minimize the risk of Russian casualties. Of course, the Russian military has been anything but restrained while conducting a brutal air campaign that has killed countless Syrian civilians.  But they have been careful not to put large numbers of their personnel at risk.

How is Russia capitalizing on changes in U.S. policy toward the Middle East under Trump?

Setting aside the spectacle of Trump’s extremely impulsive approach to managing U.S. foreign policy, the sad reality is that the United States has overextended itself in the Middle East over the past two decades, and Russia has not. The Kremlin has shied away from large-scale military commitments to the Middle East. We have not seen Putin sending 100,000 troops anywhere in the Middle East.

Eugene Rumer
Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
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The Kremlin has been pursuing very different objectives than what the United States tried to achieve under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Russia was content with the status quo. It was not interested in democracy promotion; it was interested in stability. Russian leaders continue to see U.S. policy as very destabilizing for the entire region, including the recent spike in U.S. tensions with Iran.

What has Russia been doing in the Middle East over the past few years?

Russia has emerged as a key power broker and military actor in the Middle East. In 2015, it sent its air force and a limited number of ground troops to Syria. That intervention changed the course of the Syrian civil war and saved President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from what looked like certain defeat.

Using its success in Syria as a springboard, Russia has transformed old relationships throughout the region and forged new ones. The Kremlin has raised its profile among Persian Gulf Arab states. Moscow is showing the region’s rulers that it can be a reliable partner, unlike the United States, which cut ties with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the slightest sign of trouble—after a partnership of more than three decades. In contrast, the Kremlin has done business with Syria’s Assad family for over fifty years and has stood by its man.

Another notable development in Middle Eastern politics has been the blossoming relationship between Russia and Israel. Israel is the region’s most capable military actor, whose influence on the world stage goes way beyond its small size. Thanks to the expanded Russian military presence in Syria, Russia is now effectively Israel’s neighbor, critical to the latter’s ability to counter Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Andrew S. Weiss
Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia.

What is Russia’s history in the Middle East?

Russian ties to the Middle East go back centuries and provide a valuable foundation on which to build. From its quest for warm water ports and access to the Mediterranean in the eighteenth century, to its policy of protecting fellow Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands in the nineteenth century, Russia historically has been a factor in Middle Eastern politics and geopolitics. After the fall of colonial powers in the wake of World War II, Russia courted new Arab states. It has long been a major supplier of arms to many countries in the region.  

Why does Russia want a presence in the Middle East now?

Russia is a major power. As such, the Kremlin wants a say in what arguably is the most important region of the world, where the interests of many powers intersect: the United States, the European Union, and even China. Russia is not just a “regional power” (as former U.S. president Barack Obama once dismissively described it). The Kremlin is advancing its own interests and showing that a more assertive Russia can reach beyond its periphery.

Moscow is trying to rebuild long-standing relationships with a number of Middle Eastern countries after it abruptly scaled back ties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Russia and the Gulf nations are major exporters of oil and gas, and have huge stakes in global energy markets. Oil and gas are critical to Russia’s economy, domestic political stability, and the ability to finance ongoing foreign policy and military ventures.

What might people be most surprised to learn about Russia in the Middle East?

There’s a tendency to ignore Russia’s long history and web of relationships in the Middle East. Many people took the relatively brief period of Russia’s withdrawal from the Middle Eastern scene in the 1990s as the norm. But that was actually an aberration.

The other surprise is the close relationship between Russia and Israel. Israelis pride themselves on being the only democracy in the Middle East and the closest ally of the United States in the region. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported Israel’s sworn enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and crude anti-Semitism was a mainstay of Soviet propaganda.

But today Russia and Israel have a very close relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin is friendly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The dollar value of trade and economic relationships between the two countries may not be all that impressive. But the human ties are extraordinarily close, thanks in part to a visa-free travel regime. Some one in five Israeli citizens has his or her roots in Russia or the former Soviet Union, and probably is a Russian speaker.

How enthusiastic is Russian public opinion about Putin’s Middle East strategy?

That’s hard to say. Putin’s popularity in Russia has been declining. That sounds worse than it actually is, since he does not have any competition, and none of his political opponents are allowed to challenge him.

That said, his standing in the polls matters, because popularity has a legitimizing quality. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 gave Putin a major boost. Russia’s newfound prominence in the Middle East is intended to show that Russia is a great power and that Putin is “making Russia great again.”

But the utility of playing this card has its limits. Russians have a saying about their domestic politics: “It’s a contest between the television screen and the refrigerator.” In other words, good news and propaganda on television are intended to make up for one’s empty refrigerator. Based on recent polls, the effectiveness of television is diminishing.

What does Russia’s future in the Middle East look like?

Russia is likely to remain an important actor in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin has been careful not to overcommit. It has not overpromised and is pursuing an active diplomatic strategy, which has cost Russia very little in blood or treasure.

To some in the United States, Russia may look like a declining power. But to a lot of other countries, it is a major diplomatic actor and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia is unlikely to emerge as a military actor on a scale comparable to the United States. Russia is positioning itself not as the dominant player, but as one that will have the ability to challenge those other countries that aspire to become dominant in the region. It seems like a clever denial strategy that can accomplish a lot with relatively little up-front investment.

Russia does a very good job of punching above its weight. Depending on how one measures it, Russian GDP accounts for just over 3 percent of global GDP. But it has succeeded in playing a much bigger role on the world stage. The Middle East is one of the places where it enjoys some advantages in expanding its presence.

What are those advantages?

Russia is leveraging a long history of involvement in the Middle East, and this is a part of the world where history matters. Russia enjoys geographic proximity to the region.  And it has pursued a very active diplomacy throughout the Middle East.

Just as importantly, Russia treats these countries and rulers for what they are, not what it wants them to be. Until the Trump era, the United States often insisted on countries embracing its transformational goals as a condition for good relations. Russians don’t have such ambitions.

Does Russia face any risks involving itself in Middle Eastern politics and conflicts?

Yes, it does. The Russian military has tasted victory in Syria. That can be addictive. So the question is: Will they remain content to stay within their relatively modest footprint in the region? Or will they be tempted to engage in other conflicts more directly? There’s a Russian saying that “appetite comes as you start eating.” So far, they’ve been careful. But there’s always a risk.

There is also the challenge of dealing with Iran. Russian and Iranian interests in Syria are diverging.

Russia isn’t interested in prolonging the conflict in Syria or beyond. But Iran and its proxies have set their sights on confronting Israel. That could become a source of friction with Russia that would be difficult to manage.

If the Russians want be a real power broker in the region, being the party that everyone talks to may not be enough. They will have to put their power to work, take sides, and run the risk of antagonizing some of the parties. This will be a diplomatic challenge, even if not a security concern for Russia.

This research was undertaken with generous financial support from the United States European Command Russia Strategic Initiative. The views and conclusions are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official polices, either express or implied, of the United States Government. Additional funding was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.