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What is Russia Up To in the Middle East?

Dmitri Trenin


To Vera, for making my life fun and worth living


The idea for this book came up in a conversation with my Polity publisher, Dr. Louise Knight. Louise encouraged me to take up what was then, in the wake of the Russian military intervention in Syria, a very topical issue, expand on it, and put it into the proper regional and global context. Throughout my work on this short book, I felt constant assistance and support from Louise Knight and assistant editor Nekane Tanaka Galdos. I am very thankful to the reviewers—who will remain unknown to me—who first assessed the idea of the project, and then critiqued—and criticized—the manuscript. I am also indebted to Eric Schramm, who edited the final text.

Last but not least, I thank my wife, Vera, for her understanding, good humor, and patience with me, particularly during weekends on the dacha as I was holed up in my study writing this short book.


The Syrian civil war is a defining moment in the contemporary history of the Middle East as much as the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Like Iraq, Syria also has global consequences. The U.S. capture of Baghdad and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was the high-water mark of U.S. post–Cold War global dominance. It became a symbol of Washington’s capacity to take and execute, single-handedly, virtually any decision affecting anyone in the world—even, if needed, against the opinion of all other members of the international community. America was truly unbound as a foreign policy actor, unlike any other country in history. Then, a series of recent developments, from the 2008 global financial crisis to the Arab Spring to the Ukrainian crisis to the Syrian war, marked the end of that unique position and ushered in a more familiar pattern of several large countries of unequal size and power vying for influence and for their preferred concept of world order.

The Middle East is a microcosm of these developments, and is as good a model as any for twenty-first-century power games changing the global balance. The “usual suspects”—those who for the past hundred years repeatedly intervened in the region, divided it into spheres of influence or sought to manipulate sociopolitical processes there—above all, the United States and its Western European allies—have grown weary, disillusioned, and progressively disinterested. In the process, they lost both the strategic initiative and the sense of direction. Curiously, the country that has been on the ascendance, economically, for the past four decades, China, is not yet eager to plunge into the waters of global geopolitics, and is only testing those waters. Another emerging great power, India, is even farther behind. Most strikingly, one major player, which had been virtually absent from the region—and the world—for the past quartercentury, Russia, is unexpectedly back in the game, and with gusto.

Moscow, of course, has not supplanted Washington as the principal actor or main security provider in the Middle East. It has no interest, no resources, and no intention to claim that role. What it has done instead is to have broken out of its post-Soviet condition of being essentially preoccupied with the former imperial borderlands and largely absent from the rest of the world. Thus, Russia has signaled that it is returning to the global stage as a major independent geopolitical player. If sustained, this move will affect the balance of power in a number of regions.

After it had disrupted the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order during the 2014 Ukraine conflict, Russia did away with the de facto U.S. monopoly on the use of force globally. In 2015, it intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war to support the embattled government in Damascus. Many pundits scoffed at this intervention, as did the Obama administration in Washington, which confidently predicted “a quagmire” for Russia in Syria. Yet by the end of 2016, Russia and its allies on the ground managed not only to stabilize the situation for Bashar al-Assad’s regime and prevent the complete collapse of the Syrian state, but also put enough pressure on the Syrian opposition and its backers to initiate a ceasefire and a political dialogue about the future of the country. The odds are against it, but if successful, the combined deployment of Russia’s military power and its diplomatic resourcefulness could not only achieve a lasting result in the Middle East, but have a global impact as well.

Moscow’s direct involvement has changed the geopolitical alignment in the region. Russia formed a military coalition with Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq, a country the United States de facto controlled for a decade following its invasion and occupation in 2003. The ongoing intra-Syrian political talks are being sponsored by the diplomatic trio of Russia, Iran, and Turkey—a NATO member state that is now de facto allied with Moscow. The venue chosen for the talks is Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Russia’s main economic and security partner in Central Asia and an active member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings Central Asian countries together with Russia and China and, starting in 2017, also includes India and Pakistan. Beijing itself has been consistently supporting Moscow on Syria at the United Nations Security Council.

Russia’s alignment with the Shia regimes in the Syrian war did not push Moscow into the anti-Sunni camp in the Middle East. Remarkably, Russia has managed to strengthen its ties with Egypt, the largest Arab Sunni country by far, and a former key Soviet ally in the region: the relationship is now being revived. Almost from scratch, Russia has built relations with the Gulf Arab countries, which had rarely remembered its existence before. In 2016, a Qatari national wealth fund bought a stake in Rosneft, Russia’s main state-run oil company, despite the U.S.-imposed sanctions. After a dramatic break of seven months in 2015–2016, Moscow maneuvered Ankara toward an even closer cooperation with Russia than before.

Russian diplomacy has also managed to negotiate a number of other seemingly unbridgeable divides in the Middle East. Russia has been able to keep reasonably close and cooperative relations with Israel and the Palestinians; Israel and Iran; Iran and Saudi Arabia (and even helped negotiate an oil production cut between them); Turkey and the Kurds; similarly, the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk in Libya and the various politico-sectarian factions in Lebanon. There is virtually no major player in the Middle East, Hamas and Hezbollah included, with which Moscow does not have an open line and a lively dialogue. This is stunning for a country that in its Soviet past used to take very strict ideological positions and had to retreat from the region in humiliation after the lost Afghan war and the ensuing breakup of the Soviet Union itself, leading, in short order, to the bloody conflict in Chechnya.

Having virtually left the Middle Eastern scene at the time of the first Gulf War, Russia only reappeared there two-plus decades later. The Arab Spring, cheered by Americans and Europeans as an advent of democracy, was viewed in Moscow as a major destabilization with potentially negative consequences for Russia itself. What triggered the Russian activism was the 2011 experience in Libya. There, Russia was willing in the name of partnership with the West not to block the UN Security Council’s imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians. The UN mandate was immediately used by NATO countries to destroy the regime of Muammar Qaddafi alongside its leader, with the Libyan state itself being destroyed in the process. It was then that Russia stepped forward and prevented a similar fate for the Assad regime and Syria. This decision became a turning point for the Middle East.

Present-day Russia is too often compared with the Soviet Union. However, the country that reappeared on the Middle Eastern landscape after a long pause acts remarkably differently from its previous historical iteration. Today’s Russia is essentially anti-revolutionary. A conservative power, it promotes no social and political change from the outside; in fact, it advocates just the opposite: stability of the existing regimes within the existing borders; internal accommodation reached on the basis of the balance of various interests: tribal, sectarian, national; and exclusion of domination by a single outside power. Rather than giving massive economic assistance and giving weapons for an ideological cause rather than cash, Moscow these days is clearly interested in making deals in the region, whether in the arms trade or in the energy sector, including nuclear, and seeks to attract investment from rich Gulf countries.

Yet Russia’s policy goals are often deemed in the West to be hard to read; its decision-making process, centered on a single leader, is notionally opaque; and, to many outside observers, Moscow’s actions look surprising, often baffling. In the age of highly polarized policy debate and openly biased reporting, propaganda and counter-propaganda, and fake news, a clear and evidence-based view of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East and its impact on Moscow’s broader foreign relations is hard to find. This short book attempts to address this deficit.

Specifically, it aims to answer the following questions:

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1, “History,” deals with the legacy of the past, from the days of the Russian Empire advancing toward the Turkish Straits and pushing into Persia, to the Soviet Union’s attempt to use radical Arab regimes as allies in the Cold War confrontation with the United States, and Moscow’s pressure against U.S. allies Israel, Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and conservative regimes such as Saudi Arabia. The key question of this chapter is what Russia has learned from its rich historical experience with the Middle East, and how Moscow’s policy was modified following the collapse of the communist system in the Soviet Union. To the extent it is relevant, Moscow’s experience in Afghanistan and the North Caucasus is also analyzed there with a view to distill the “lessons learned.”

Chapter 2, “War,” focuses on the continuing Russian military operation in Syria, which began in September 2015, and its political outcome. In many ways, both operationally and technologically, this military engagement constitutes a novel way in the employment of Russian military force—not only in comparison to the World War II Soviet operations in Europe and Asia, but crucially to the more recent engagements in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Since the Russian intervention in Syria is officially described as an anti-terrorist operation, this chapter looks into the methods and results of Russia’s fight against terror. Of special importance is the coalition-building/-management aspect of Russian involvement in Syria, which is also new in Russia’s recent military and diplomatic history.

Chapter 3, “Diplomacy,” discusses the patterns of Russia’s regional diplomacy. It highlights Moscow’s method of negotiating regional divides by dealing simultaneously with countries and groups that are at loggerheads with one another, and promoting Russian interests with each partner. The chapter will also address the geopolitical competition and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and Turkey; Russia and the United States; and between Russia and the countries of the European Union. This chapter, structured as a series of mini-case studies, will provide an insight into the goals, strategy, and tactics of contemporary Russia as a significant outside player in the Middle East.

Chapter 4, “Trade,” focuses on Russia’s economic interests in the Middle East: from arms trade to hydrocarbons, nuclear energy, pipelines, and transportation infrastructure. These specific interests impact Russian decision making as much as geopolitics. In the post-2014 environment of economic restrictions imposed on Russia by the West as consequence for its actions in Ukraine, these links have assumed added importance. The chapter also addresses human relations and the ties that link Russia to the region, from the spiritual importance of the Holy Land for newly traditionalist Russia to the Russian-speaking diaspora in Israel to Russian vacationers to the impact of the Arab world on the Muslim population of Russia itself.

In the final chapter, “Conclusions,” the book puts Moscow’s policies in the Middle East into the broader context of its foreign policy and relations with the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe. It begins by describing the Russian “takeaway” from U.S. and Western policies, from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the Arab Spring and the Western involvement in Libya and Syria. It then proceeds to discuss Russia’s cooperation with China and India, the significance of the “Greater Eurasia” concept for Moscow’s practical foreign policy, and the likely role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The central question addressed here is how Moscow, through its actions in the Middle East, is seeking to change the global order, essentially from a U.S. hegemony to an oligarchy that includes Russia. The story of Russia in the Middle East is thus not only about Russia, or the Middle East.