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Oct 30, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

11 mins read

Russia's Breakout Into the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin
(KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GettyImages)
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By Dmitri Trenin for Aspen Institute Italia

This article makes the following basic arguments. As a result of its re-entry onto the Middle Eastern scene three year ago, Russia has re-established itself not only as a major outside player in one of the world's key regions, but also as a global player - for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. This re-entry has occurred mainly due to Moscow's relatively effective military intervention in Syria, but Russia's comeback has affected the Middle East way beyond that single country, and has done so in a number of ways - political and psychological, military and economic. Finally, Russia's new role in the Middle East is instrumental in implementing Moscow's new grand strategy which sees Russia as a major power in Greater Eurasia.

Historical Roots

Russia, of course, is no stranger to the Near and Middle East. Over a thousand years ago, it embraced Christian Orthodoxy that had been offered to it by the Byzantine Empire. When that empire went down, in the mid-15th century, Moscow took up the mantle of the champion of Orthodoxy worldwide and protector of its adherents in the lands ruled by the Ottoman Turks. The Russian Navy has operated in the Mediterranean from the 18th century, even as the Russian army on land pushed back the Ottomans and the Persians from the Balkans and the Caucasus. In World War I, as Russian forces were fighting the Turks in eastern Anatolia, St. Petersburg became a full party to the Sykes-Picot agreement carving up the Ottoman Empire. With the advent of World War II, Soviet forces occupied northern Iran, so the 1943 Tehran conference was held in a territory secured for Roosevelt and Churchill by the Red Army.

After World War II, the Soviet Union was one of early supporters of the founding of the Jewish State. Soon thereafter however it placed its bets on Arab nationalists in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere whom it considered geopolitical allies in the Cold War against the United States, as well as ideological fellow travelers in its anti-capitalist drive. The USSR supplied lots of weapons, sent dozens of thousands of military advisers and technicians, and rendered massive economic assistance to countries from Algeria to South Yemen. With Europe and East Asia divided into spheres of influence, it was the Middle East that featured from the 1950s through the 1980s as a principal battle ground between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Syria Intervention and Its Implications

Thus, when in September 2015 Vladimir Putin decided on a military action in Syria, Russians were by no means stepping into the unknown. Syria has been their regional stronghold through much of the Cold War. They knew the country, and many of its senior leaders. The decision to go in was based on the concern that, absent direct outside intervention, the Assad regime was likely to be overthrown, to be replaced by the extremist "Islamic caliphate", sending shock waves across the Muslim world, including in Russia and the neighborhood. However, that decision was also based on the confidence, that, with outside support, the Syrian state led by the Assad clan was still salvageable. In Moscow's calculus, intervention was both necessary to avert dire consequences for the region and for Russia itself, and doable. It was risky, to be sure, though anything but a gamble.

Two years on, this calculus is largely supported by the interim results of the Russian intervention. The Syrian state has not collapsed; just the opposite, the area it controls has expanded by a factor of three. Bashar Assad is still in power in Damascus, and the opposition is engaged in various talks — even if fruitless, so far - with government representatives, in Geneva as well as in Astana. The "Islamic State" group, or ISIS, is on the defensive, losing its last strongholds in both Syria and Iraq. Most important for Moscow, extremists have been denied a chance to destabilize the Russian North Caucasus or the neighboring Central Asian states. Russia has not been spared terrorist attacks — responsibility for an explosion in St. Petersburg metro and the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai was claimed by pro-ISIS elements — but these attacks were far fewer, e.g., than in Western European countries.

Immediate security concerns aside, the Russian action in Syria was mostly aimed at supporting Moscow's concept of the world order. By intervening in force, Russia reversed the tide of the Arab Spring which it suspected of having been supported from the West, and denied the United States and its allies a chance to topple the regime which they had condemned and de-legitimized. Moscow also broke Washington's de facto post-Cold War monopoly on foreign military operations. Syria was a roll-out of Russia's restored military might, if even on a moderate scale.

Thus, the action in Syria has paved the way for Russia to re-enter the global geopolitical arena, beyond the former Soviet space, to which Moscow's actions had been largely confined in the preceding quarter century. Indeed, this was the Kremlin's overriding goal: to get the United States to recognize the Russian Federation as a global power. Moscow was not pleading with Washington for such recognition: it was demanding it, through its actions. True, the original objective of reaching a peace settlement in Syria through joint US-Russian efforts, a sort of Dayton-a-deux, turned out impossible, because Washington was unwilling to accept Moscow as a co-equal. However, then Russia managed to achieve its second-best goal, a de facto US recognition that bringing peace to Syria was impossible without Russian cooperation.

This recognition stood in stark contrast to numerous prophesies issued by Washington from the start of Moscow's engagement: that Russia was stepping into a quagmire; that its Syria operation was bound to be a replay of the Soviet misadventure Afghanistan; that the financial costs of the Russian military commitment would be very heavy for Moscow to bear, and the human toll would make the Russian people question the wisdom of Putin's foreign policy; that Russia, through its actions, would not only champion a lost cause (i.e., the supposedly doomed Assad regime), but antagonize the rest of the Sunni Arab world; that Russian weapons were too imprecise, and Russian pilots lacked proper training and experience; that fighting Muslims in a foreign country would destabilize Muslim regions in the Russian Federation itself; and so on.

The reality of the past two years happened to be just the opposite. Russia had objectives, a strategy, and appropriate tactics that mostly worked. Where it failed - namely, getting the US to cooperate with it as a co-equal and making the Syrian government and the opposition negotiate the terms of a power-sharing settlement - was the result of the Pentagon's and the US intelligence community's deep-seated hostility toward Moscow, and of the recalcitrance of both the Assad camp and its opponents and their backers. The human losses sustained by the Russian military officially amounted to over 30 dead over three years; even the unofficial count is well under 100. Tragic, of course, for the families of the bereaved servicemen, but not dire for the all-professional force fighting in Syria.

The financial burden of the Syria campaign can be compared to the cost of an ongoing medium-level military drill, which the Russian budget is capable of bearing virtually indefinitely. Russian pilots and equipment functioned beyond expectations, and supply lines were properly maintained. There was no need for a major escalation of the air operation, or its expansion to include the despatch of land forces. With Russian help, Bashar Assad has outlived in office Barack Obama who famously declared, in 2012, the Syrian president's days numbered. Within the Arab world, Russia's prestige has soared. Moscow's relations with Cairo, in particular, have grown stronger than ever since the send-off of Soviet advisers from Egypt by President Anwar Sadat in 1972.

Beyond Syria, to the surprise of many outside observers, Moscow has managed to negotiate rather successfully the many treacherous divides so common in the Middle East. The Russians have stayed in contact with everyone in the region, except for ISIS and Al-Qaeda's affiliates, whom it engaged with bombs and missiles. They have kept close relations with Israel, even as they struck a tactical military alliance with Iran; they cultivated both the Kurds and the governments of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria; they receive envoys from the rival authorities of western and eastern Libya; they offered their good offices to Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries seeking to cut Doha down to size. The list is long, and includes Hamas+Hezbollah/Israel, Iran/Saudi Arabia, and many others. Basically, Russia has made it clear from the start that it had no exclusive alliances in the region, including with Assad, but also saw no country as its sworn enemy.

In fact, Moscow has built ad hoc military and diplomatic alliances on Syria with Damascus, Tehran, Ankara, and Baghdad, as well as with Hezbollah. It has also cultivated Amman. In Libya, it has been cooperating closely with Cairo and Abu Dhabi. In the issue of regulating oil output and setting the oil price, Moscow has partnered with both Riyadh and Tehran and, moreover, has successfully mediated between them. None of this has been easy, and all required not only a high degree of regional expertise, but also a certain level of policy coordination toward various governments, as well as between the diplomatic and military arms of the Russian government itself.

Not everything went well for Russia, of course. In November 2015 a Russia bomber was shot down by a Turkish fighter near the Syrian border. Russia chose not to fire back at the Turkish forces, but responded strongly by cutting its many commercial ties to Turkey which had benefited from them. Eventually, Turkey's president Tayyip Recep Erdogan issued what was accepted by Putin as an apology. Soon thereafter, Moscow supported Erdogan against a coup attempt against him, and by the end of 2016 the two countries had formed a virtual politico-military alliance which sustained the assassination of the Russian ambassador by a rogue member of the Turkish police and Russian friendly fire that killed several Turkish servicemen.

Grand Eurasia Strategy

Next to Russia's intervention in Ukraine, Moscow's actions in Syria and its activities in the Middle East constitute a breakout from the post-Cold War U.S.-instituted and supported order which did not leave much room for Russia as an independent global actor. Seen from that angle, the Middle East is an area of Moscow's geopolitical breakthrough which has much wider significance. It also has come at a point when Moscow had to admit the failure of its two main strategies since the downfall of the Soviet Union: Russia's integration into the wider West, and its own integration of the former Soviet borderlands.

In place of those now defunct concepts, a new one is emerging. Rather than positioning Russia as part of the Euro-Atlantic world — where mutual alienation between Russia and the West has become a fact - or as a centerpiece of a post-Soviet community — which would not assemble,- it places the country where it geographically is, i.e. in the north of the great continent of Eurasia. This gives Moscow a 360 degrees vision, in which countries of Europe, East, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East form a single vast neighborhood, washed by the Atlantic in the west, the Arctic in the north, the Pacific in the east, and the Indian Ocean in the south. Russia is a neighbor to all, but it does not "belong" to any bloc, whether Eurocentric or Sinocentric. Nor can it any longer insist on a Russocentric construct.

In that scheme, the Middle East is at the same time a security concern, an economic opportunity and a source of inspiration for Russia's growing indigenous Muslim minority — all of this not to be ignored. In dealing with the region, Moscow will probably follow the pattern which has emerged in the last few years: keeping contacts to all, but following one's own interest; eschewing entangling alliances and entertaining no illusions; building ad hoc coalitions where necessary, and toward different tactical goals; pursuing clear economic interests while imposing no ideological or values-related schemes; and while going after terrorists and other extremists, being always respectful toward Islam, which is the second most important religion in Russia itself.   

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.

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