Russia's growing prominence in the Middle East was on full display Dec. 11 when Vladimir Putin visited three key Middle Eastern countries in one day. The Russian president followed a surprise trip to Syria with a quick stop in Egypt before ending his day's travels in Turkey. He met with his presidential counterparts in all three countries, and the economic deals, military agreements and political settlements he discussed highlighted Russia's role in the region. While Russia has its own reasons for bolstering its relationships with Syria, Egypt and Turkey, it also benefits from being visible where its regional rival, the United States, is not.
Russia's diplomatic reach in the Middle East varies significantly per country. Its fair-weather relationship with strategic powers such as Iran goes back centuries, while its pursuit of a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is developing, for example. Russia's relationship with Turkey has yielded friction and fruit over the decades, depending on which way the pendulum has swung. But what is striking about Russian diplomacy over the past couple of years is how Moscow's diplomatic presence has saturated the region. Its activity in such areas as the Palestinian territories, Libya, Israel, Lebanon, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is in some ways reminiscent of the Soviet Union's broad presence across the region. The juxtaposition with a United States that seems to want to draw down its regional commitments and focus on other issues, such as turning at long last to Asia instead of attending to fires in the Middle East, is noticeable, and it is heightened by Russia's appearing to be everywhere at once.
In all three of the countries Putin visited, Russia's goals contravene those of the United States, or the relationship is more pragmatic where Washington's is less so, and more heavily weighted toward a couple of specific names. In Syria, the United States plays a strong counterterrorism role but has stepped away from the civil conflict almost entirely, which gives it less leverage to bring about any sort of political solution aligned with U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Russia will be bringing Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government to the table to pursue a political settlement. In Turkey, Russia's warming relationship stands in contrast to the coldness currently plaguing U.S.-Turkey ties (although the U.S.-Turkey relationship goes through peaks and valleys). While the Syrian policies of both the United States and Russia have disappointed Turkey, Russia has made itself more indispensable to achieving what Ankara wants: a political settlement that denies the Syrian Kurds a federal state. By nature of Moscow's tight relationship with Damascus, clear in the multiple tete-a-tetes between Putin and President Bashar al Assad in recent months, there is a possibility of Russia offering Turkey what it needs from the Syrian conflict.
Russia's relationship with Turkey is important beyond its contrast with the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but Russia relishes bolstering its image as a mediator, interlocutor and friend as the United States struggles to be the same. The United States also has struggled to pressure Turkey and other Middle Eastern powers to improve their human rights behavior while relying on them to carry the weight of its regional policy. European Union countries drive an even tougher bargain on human rights with their Middle Eastern allies. Russia ignores the issue, much to the relief of its regional partners.
Russia has used its strategic footprint in Syria to deepen its relationships across the region. Egypt, which has a long-standing pattern of turning alternately to the United States or Russia for external security and economic agreements, is swinging toward Russia again. A plan to build a Russian nuclear power plant in Egypt is in the works, and Putin said in Cairo on Dec. 11 that Russia was ready to resume civilian flights to Egypt after a two-year disruption. An accord to allow Russia the use of Egypt's military bases, if finalized, will solidify Egypt's importance to Russia's military posture in the region.
Increased visibility and diplomatic energy don't mean, of course, that Russia can achieve whatever it wants in the Middle East. Moscow has scant history of exercising soft power to fully achieve its ends in the region, and despite Russia's solidifying position in Syria, the U.S. military and diplomatic presence across the Middle East still dwarfs Russia's. The timing of Putin's whirlwind day trip is also linked to Russian domestic politics, with presidential elections approaching in March 2018. Putin uses Russia's successes in Syria to promote Moscow's global role as the standoff with the United States continues, and to bolster the Russian image in the wake of the Winter Olympics doping scandal. Russia will discover limits as it seeks to deepen its presence in the Middle East — the Syrian peace process likely will stall, for example. In Iran, Egypt and Turkey, the pendulum will no doubt swing again to a less cordial place for Moscow. But Russia is building a deeper economic component into these relationships to help mitigate any limitations.
To Middle Eastern states, Russia is angling to portray itself as a benevolent mediator — a superpower that does not interfere domestically but can provide diplomatic, economic and security assistance. In this way, Russia benefits from the void left by a U.S. Middle East strategy skewed decidedly in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.