Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in late 2015 propelled its return to the Middle East’s power politics. Today, more than five years later, the operation stands as a textbook example of the skill possessed by Vladimir Putin’s regime at calculated risk-taking, limited military operations, and planting powerful narratives in the minds of the world’s decisionmakers. Throughout the intervening period, Russian officials have conspicuously held court with nearly every government in the region. The Kremlin’s diplomatic charm offensive has banished memories of a nearly thirty-year absence from the region, and Moscow has energetically sought to plant wedges between Washington and a number of its closest partners.
For years, U.S. officials had overstated Russia’s decline, failing to appreciate that the disappearance of Russian influence in the Middle East was, in fact, a transitory, aberrational phenomenon. Of course, Moscow’s touted successes have not occured in a vacuum. The Kremlin capitalized on a series of well-advertised openings created by U.S. policymakers, including a deep-seated reluctance to become directly involved in the Syrian civil war and former president Donald Trump’s highly personalistic and erratic management of key relationships in the region.
Much of the Russian approach to the Middle East validated the old saying that 80 percent of success in life is just about showing up. The Kremlin has doggedly sought to extract the maximum possible benefit from the limited array of tools at its disposal. Yet few of Moscow’s efforts have remotely matched the heft of the United States across the region let alone the extensive relationships and sources of security, economic, political, and military influence that Washington routinely draws upon.
Rather, Russia’s resurgence in the Middle East has demonstrated the Kremlin’s knack for achieving substantial diplomatic and military results with minimal investments. Is it truly the case that a country with a GDP on par with South Korea or Brazil and a rather small military footprint has transformed the geopolitics of the entire region? Hardly. Nevertheless, Washington has at times fallen into the intellectual trap of inflating both Russia’s influence and capabilities. It also has often viewed efforts to counter Russian inroads as an end in itself, treating the Middle East as part of a broader global struggle under the rubric of great power competition and the battle against Russian malign influence.
Russia’s Paltry Tool Kit for its Middle East Ambitions
Moscow’s claimed successes in the Middle East in recent years have been all the more impressive given the limited tool kit that the Russian leadership relies upon. Time and again, Putin and other top figures have prioritized high-visibility political gestures and rhetorical attacks on the United States over any ability to achieve concrete policy objectives.1 While Russian officials tout their willingness to engage across the board with all players in the Middle East, including controversial actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, they have invested hardly any serious political capital in easing regional tensions or addressing long-standing sources of societal instability and underdevelopment.
Instead, the Kremlin prefers to rely on high-profile political dialogue, arms exports, civilian nuclear cooperation, oil and gas exploration and transportation projects, infrastructure deals, grain exports, and traditional trade and investment activities to make its presence known. Russian arms sales generally account for the majority of its trade with the region. Yet such transfers are only a small fraction of U.S. sales. (Between 2000 and 2019, U.S. sales accounted for upwards of 45 percent of all weapons sold to the Middle East.)
Russia is barely visible as an economic partner. Despite large hard currency reserves and the long legacy of large-scale Soviet-era development aid, Russia has shown no interest in serving as a meaningful donor country or source of postconflict assistance. In the case of Syria, Russia has instead turned to the United States, the EU, and wealthy Gulf countries to fund large-scale reconstruction aid and infrastructure projects. Amid the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Moscow has provided only minimal shipments of the Sputnik V vaccine to countries in need while trying to launch commercial partnerships to help overcome Russia’s domestic production constraints. 2 Nor has it supported meaningful distribution through COVAX, the World Health Organization’s vehicle for making vaccines available to vulnerable low-income countries.
Relations with fellow oil-exporting nations have been rocky at times. In early 2020, Russian leaders badly miscalculated the effects of the pandemic on global oil demand. They stubbornly resisted urgent requests from Riyadh for joint efforts to stabilize the market, seeking instead to use falling crude prices to punish U.S. shale producers who had captured market share at Russia’s expense. Saudi leaders reacted harshly, triggering a short-lived price war that forced Moscow to adopt even larger production cuts amounting to a nearly 9 percent drop in Russia’s 2020 oil output versus 2019 levels. The Kremlin and the Saudis have quickly patched things up, and their coordination under the aegis of OPEC-Plus has succeeded far beyond initial expectations, enabling Brent crude futures to climb back above the $60 level in February 2021.
Moving Beyond Great Power Competition
The Trump administration embraced great power competition as a key organizing principle for its approach to foreign policy. According to that framing, Russian inroads in the Middle East and elsewhere are largely a subset of a new global contest for influence that pits the United States against revisionist powers such as Russia and China. Applying this approach in the Middle East has meant first and foremost, in the words of former Syria envoy Ambassador James Jeffrey, “avoiding entanglement in local issues while still pushing back on near-peer and regional dangers. In practice, this amounted to containing Iran and Russia while smashing serious terrorist threats.”3
One problem with this approach is that it took for granted that U.S. and Russian aims in the region would always be inherently at odds. It also encouraged wishful thinking that the sustained application of U.S. power could somehow dislodge Russia from places like Syria (where it has been active since the 1960s) or somehow push Russia out of the region entirely. It also conveniently overlooked the fact that Russian avenues of influence in Israel had grown considerably during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure. Such thinking has been motivated, quite understandably, by the sharp deterioration of the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship and a spate of unhelpful Russian moves in parts of the world. Still, U.S. policymakers have generally come to treat countering Russian influence as an end in itself, to inflate the Kremlin’s actual capabilities for contesting U.S. influence, and to give short shrift to possible ways to enlist Russian cooperation in areas where some alignment of each side’s interests—in theory, at least—remains possible.
Recent history teaches that Russian policy aims in the Middle East are not simply rooted in the undermining of U.S. interests at each and every turn. Iran is perhaps the single most important case in point. Moscow’s lengthy involvement in the negotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement was testament to the complexities of its relations with Tehran, suggesting that the Kremlin does more than play an anti-U.S. spoiler role in the region. In a similar vein, Israel has been able to wage a sustained military campaign against Iranian missile and military infrastructure in Syria without encountering major pushback from the Russian leadership.4 It is also the case that the deeply entrenched relationship between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Iran is creating serious obstacles for Moscow’s search for a political solution to the Syrian civil war. None of this is to suggest that U.S. policymakers should be naïve about Russian actions, ignore harmful or destabilizing Russian activities, or nourish false hopes, for example, of an impending Russian-Iranian split. But at a minimum, the United States should avoid steps that push its adversaries into closer alignment or make complicated situations even stickier.
Capitalizing on Russian Overreach
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is currently conducting a review of U.S. global military deployments and trying to reset relations with problematic partners in the region. Getting the balance right will be no small feat, especially against the backdrop of Iran’s growing activism throughout the region. Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that the U.S. security presence in the region has mushroomed since 1991 and that military tools have taken ever greater precedence in U.S. policy. As the Biden administration tries to unwind some of these commitments, it will need to devise policies that are neither self-defeating nor a source of easy wins for Russia.
If the United States is serious about reducing the burden that it has been shouldering in the Middle East, then it should at least test the possibility of a different modus vivendi with Moscow. That means avoiding the temptation to treat each and every manifestation of Russian activity as a proverbial nail to be hammered. It also means trying to engage Russia in diplomatic initiatives involving the future security of the Persian Gulf, the crisis in Yemen, and counterterrorism.
One key element of success will be the ability to set clear priorities while maintaining a degree of steadiness and self-confidence about enduring U.S. strengths and reservoirs of influence. U.S. vigilance over objectionable Russian activities will sometimes require getting tough with U.S. allies who contribute to the Kremlin’s opportunistic forays. Several positive and negative examples stand out. For example, under both Biden and Trump U.S. officials have been reluctant to call out the UAE’s financial and political support for the Kremlin’s military intervention and arms transfers in Libya. In the case of Egypt, U.S. officials have been more assertive, successfully short-circuiting Russian requests for basing and overflight rights from the Egyptian military. Russian attempts to expand defense cooperation with Lebanon’s armed forces have been stymied through concerted pressure by its primary partners, the U.S. and European Union.
U.S. policymakers also need to avoid placing excessive hopes in the ability of sanctions to solve problems. For example, the Kremlin has instrumentalized its sale of S-400 missile systems to Ankara to plant wedges between Turkey and both Washington and Brussels. Penalties imposed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) are simply not sufficient to change Ankara’s calculus. There is a risk that a similar scenario could play out with other longtime U.S. partners in ways that cause damage to key relationships without actually impeding problematic weapons transfers.
At the same time, U.S. partners in the region such as the Saudis and the other Gulf states surely understand that Moscow is unlikely to help them push back on malign Iranian activities or put its own relationship with Tehran at risk. The Saudi military is almost completely dependent on U.S. support to operate. The Saudis continue to need U.S. intelligence-sharing, training, and maintenance support for ongoing and future defense operations, and they are unlikely to engage with Russia in a manner that risks undermining this crucial and deeply entrenched set of dependencies. Buying a lot of high-end Russian military equipment would destabilize fundamental aspects of the Saudi military system.
The Egyptians, albeit to a lesser extent, are in the same situation. However, Cairo’s decision to purchase twenty-four Russian Su-35 fighter jets risks creating a replay of the showdown with Turkey over the S-400s. The key question for U.S. policymakers is not whether the sale is objectionable. It clearly is. But it is not immediately clear that these Russian planes will upend the regional security balance or the bilateral U.S.-Egyptian defense relationship, which continues to serve U.S. interests. While the Biden administration presumably will feel obliged to invoke sanctions under CAATSA, the sale points to the limitations of sanctions as a tool for halting governmental actions (as opposed to those of commercial entities with a much lower tolerance for pain and disruption). The key will be to strike the right balance between sending a message of displeasure while not expecting that sanctions in and of themselves will force a rethink in Cairo.
Going forward, U.S. policymakers need to be alert to the Kremlin’s propensity for overreach and ham-handedness. Studying Russian missteps can have instructive benefits for future policymaking. For example, the deployment of a significant contingent of Russian mercenaries to Libya was overmatched by a Turkish military intervention that broke the back of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces and helped reinvigorate diplomatic efforts by the United States and the European Union to create a new unity government under UN auspices. Having dealt the Kremlin a black eye, Western policymakers would be wise to leave space for cooperation ahead of elections in Libya expected in late 2021. Such cooperation, grounded in appeals to Russian economic opportunism, can help lay the ground for the eventual withdrawal of Moscow’s forces.
There are other issues on the horizon where Russia’s ambitions will likely clash with reality. For example, Egypt, which turned to the IMF for an emergency $1.7 billion standby agreement in 2020, currently plans to borrow $25 billion from Russia to fund construction of the long delayed El Dabaa civil nuclear reactor project. Russian civilian nuclear reactor projects in Jordan and South Africa fell apart in 2018 amid questions about dubious financing arrangements and shaky economic rationales.5 The Egyptian government’s rosy portrayal of the project’s economic viability clearly warrants closer scrutiny.6
The Kremlin’s newfound role in the Middle East is a fact of life that cannot simply be wished away. For the foreseeable future, Moscow will see the region as an important venue for chipping away at U.S. leadership of the international system and validating its claim to be an important global player. But it would be a mistake to overstate the depth of Russia’s capabilities or to mistake Russian triumphalism and PR gambits for problem-solving acumen. While the Kremlin’s activist diplomacy and careful exploitation of other players’ mistakes have made it a force to be reckoned with, no U.S. policymaker would wish to play Russia’s hand. In the end, the United States’ vastly superior tool kit provides significant advantages and sources of leverage.
Of course, much will depend on whether U.S. policymakers are able to avoid repeating the kinds of self-inflicted mistakes that have helped destabilize the Middle East and damage America’s global standing while contributing to the creation of so many openings for Moscow. Early efforts by the Biden administration—repairing the transatlantic relationship, reasserting U.S. leadership at the UN, and reestablishing U.S. credibility in embracing multilateral norms and institutions—are a good start and should pay dividends over time. Tolerating Russia’s role in the Middle East is not necessarily at odds with U.S. interests. Nor should the door be closed completely to finding ways to cooperate with Moscow if such opportunities present themselves.
1 In Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telling, “We do not want to project influence only to force others to do Moscow’s bidding. . . . We want security and coexistence of cultures, civilizations and religions. None of Russia’s actions in the Middle East which we undertake for some reason or other have brought about disunity or the division of ethnic, religious or civilizational groups.” See “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during the Valdai International Discussion Club’s panel on Russia’s policy in the Middle East, Sochi, October 2, 2019,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation,” October 2, 2019, https://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3826083?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB.
2 The two most promising partners for in-country production of Sputnik V are currently Turkey and Algeria, although few details have been made public.
3 Jeffrey appears to have defined success as embroiling Russia (along with its Assad regime and Iranian partners) in a military stalemate in Syria. (“We have a plan A. Plan A doesn’t answer ‘how does this all end?’ Plan A’s whole purpose [is] to ensure that the Russians and Assad and the Iranians don’t have a happy answer to how this all ends, and maybe that will someday get them to accept Plan B. Meanwhile, they’re tied up in knots. They don’t see Syria as a victory.”) See Jared Szuba, “Outgoing Syria Envoy Reflects on Turkey, the Kurds and What Everyone Got Wrong,” Al-Monitor, December 9, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/12/trump-syria-envoy-jeffrey-mideast-policy-turkey-erdogan.html.
4 One glaring exception was the inadvertent shootdown of a Russian military surveillance plane at the hand of Syria’s air defense forces who had mistaken it for an attacking Israel jet in autumn 2018, killing fifteen Russian soldiers.
5 A $76 billion Russian-led project in South Africa was derailed following a sustained push by civil society activists and lawmakers who had raised questions about its underlying rationale and the trampling of state procurement rules. The ensuing scandal culminated in the resignation of then president Jacob Zuma. See Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss, “Nuclear Enrichment: Russia’s Ill-Fated Influence Campaign in South Africa,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 16, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/12/16/nuclear-enrichment-russia-s-ill-fated-influence-campaign-in-south-africa-pub-80597.
6 According to the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy, the “Russian loan of $25 billion is not a burden on Egypt. Although it is a huge amount, Egypt will pay its value by selling the energy generated from the nuclear reactors. This project would not be costing Egypt anything.” See “Russia Lends Egypt $25 Billion for Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant,” Al-Monitor, February 23, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/02/power-plant-nuclear-egypt-russia-loan.html.