What’s Behind Russia’s Policy in the Middle East?

Russia is working to expand its footprint in the Middle East, pursuing both diplomatic and commercial advantages. What Moscow is also aiming at is the diversification of relations beyond long-standing partners such as Iran and the Syrian regime. Building up its military presence in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad, it has also reached out to the Gulf countries. The Middle East is key to Russia’s bid to gain recognition as one of the pillars of a new multi-polar order, balance the US and assert power in its neighbourhood. But such ambitions are still a long way from attainment, while risks originating from the region, from the rise of jihadist militancy to collapsing oil prices, are all too real.

The recent deployment of troops in Syria, the establishment of an airbase near Latakia and the subsequent strikes against anti-regime rebels, including the so-called Islamic State, have drawn Moscow deeper into Middle East politics.  Not only is Russia a critical backer of Bashar Al-Assad at the United Nations Security Council, but also a guarantor for its survival. While 3000 soldiers along with 30+ fighter jets cannot reverse dramatically the balance of power they can halt the further advances of the opposition against the regime strongholds.  Having pitched the idea for a global alliance against IS at the UN General Assembly, President Vladimir Putin is currently trying to leverage the Russian presence on the ground to strike a deal with other major players involved, notably the US. Assad was in Moscow on October 20th, his first foreign travel since the crisis started in 2011. Putin then had briefed over the phone Turkey’s President R. Tayyip Erdogan, the Saudi King Salman, and King Abdullah of Jordan. A new round of multilateral talks is due to discuss Syria and possible transition formulas.  

Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria has to be seen in a larger context. Moscow has worked consistently to expand its presence in the Middle East.   The one-time superpower enjoys close ties with pivotal countries such as Iran and Egypt and trades heavily with Turkey, even if the two back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The Russian Federation is now reaching out to the Gulf and enjoys a reasonably good relationship with Israel, home to more than 1.2 million Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union. Iraq buys its weapons, while Gazprom Neft drills for oil in the Kurdish north as well as in the eastern province of Wasit. The deal reached on 14 July between the P5+1 (UNSC permanent members and Germany) and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear programs demonstrates Russia’s ability to act as diplomatic broker.   Not long ago, Talal Nizameddin, an academic at the American University of Beirut, published a book titled Putin’s New Order in the Middle East.  Such as headline might be a shot too far but the message is clear: Russia is back in the Middle East and its footprint is growing.

While Russia’s policy is often couched in pugnacious rhetoric it betrays a healthy dose of pragmatism. Moscow has long bemoaned the unashamedly unilateralist policies of the United States – with a long list of grudges that span from the war in Kosovo of 1999, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to the Bush administration’s plans (now abandoned) to expand NATO to the likes of Georgia and Ukraine in the mid-2000s.  Upon his comeback to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin was only too happy to spearhead, whether in rhetoric or in action, a crusade against “colored revolutions”. From Cairo to Tripoli to Kyiv, he has consistently slammed regime change as an ill-concealed Western plot to cement its predominance, spreading radicalism and disorder in its wake.  The bloody civil war in Syria has come to exemplify Russia’s resolve to uphold the ancien régimes of key allies in defiance to (alleged) Western meddling.  Putin claims that his country was tricked back in March 2011 when the UN Security Council paved the way to the intervention toppling Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. To avoid such a scenario in Syria, the Kremlin sided with Assad, supplying him with arms, military advisors, and, crucially, diplomatic cover at the UN. The “boots on the ground” have helped Russia upgrade its leverage with the regime, though its extent is far from clear.

Russia as a frenemy

What explains Russia’s activism in the Middle East? One reading of it would suggest the ultimate goal is the construction of an anti-US alliance, with Syria (a staunch ally from the Cold War days), Iran and even Egypt as its pillars.  Yet, it is not as simple as that.  True, relations with the West are at their worst point since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Russia has come under US and EU sanctions.   However, in the Middle East, Moscow is (still) acting as a frenemy, not a full-blown rival as it was in, say, the 1950s or 60s.  It cooperates on some issues (e.g. Iran’s nuclear dossier; the deal on Assad’s chemical weapons cache struck in September 2013) but also plays the spoiler or even antagonist on others – as proven by its ongoing deployments in Syria. Two factors underlie such flexibility.  First of all, unlike the US and its NATO allies Russia’s capacity to project military power in the region is limited, the current buildup in Syria notwithstanding. Moscow has inserted itself in the region largely thanks to the US choice of disengagement. Second, Russia’s interests overlap, in part, with those of the western actors – especially when it comes to the containment of radical Islamist groups.  

Mixed incentives translate into complex policies. As Russia builds up its military presence in Syria it has made overtures to the US and its allies. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and State Secretary John Kerry met at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha on August 3 as well as two days later in Kuala Lumpur.  There were two items on the agenda: a draft UNSC resolution on chemical weapons in Syria and a US initiative to relaunch the Geneva talks on the conflict.  With Obama and Putin having a one-on-one in New York, something of a thaw has set in. Having slammed the anti-Islamic State airstrikes in Syria at the outset, Russia has now toned down its language, calls for the involvement of Assad in the fight against the radical group, and talks to some factions of the opposition supported by the US. The Obama administration, for its part, has put extra effort into “deconfliction” – that is, avoiding an unintentional clash between the two airforces in Syria’s skies.  .

The same gap between rhetoric and action is visible in Russia’s relations with the Gulf.  Pro-Kremlin media have the habit of denigrating local states as American stooges and sponsors of Islamic radicalism, including the dreaded IS. Commentators never fail to mention how the US and the Saudis bankrolled the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Accordingly, they portray their warm ties with autocrats as Assad and Egypt’s Sisi as building a bulwark against terrorism.  Yet, Russia is keen to improve links with the Gulf monarchies. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir visited Moscow and though there was no meeting of minds when it came to issues such as the fate of Bashar Al-Assad and the fight against IS it is clear that a rapprochement is firmly underway.  In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prince Mohammed, the Saudi defence minister, inked a cooperation agreement on nuclear energy – followed by a memorandum covering arms sales. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) sealed a deal to invest jointly up to $10 billion in the Russian economy. Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir’s trip to Moscow as well as Lavrov’s presence at the most recent GCC summit signal Russia’s willingness to diversify relations beyond Tehran and Assad. The ongoing intervention in Syria calls into question the achievements of this cautious rapprochement but does not overrule the latter in the longer run.  Unless it wants to become trapped in a never-ending war against the Saudis and their allies in Syria, one it certainly cannot win, Russia needs to be on a lookout for a political deal.

Balancing acts are nothing new for the Russians.  Indeed Moscow has always taken extra care to make sure closeness with Tehran does not hurt ties with Israel.  One should not forget that Russian-Iranian relations have never been cordial but rather rooted in cold-blooded pragmatism. Having been on the receiving end of Russian and Soviet imperial expansion in the past, Iran suspects Russia of using it as a bargaining chip in its relations with the west.  Equally, from a Saudi perspective, Russia could prove a valuable partner, now that a pivotal ally like the US is advocating a gradual rapprochement with Iran and a phase-out from the region.  Riyadh has been trying, in vain, to use economic incentives to make Moscow distance itself from Assad.  But the Saudis have sticks, not just carrots, too.  They can and will keep global oil prices low – hurting the Russian budget which is dependent on hydrocarbons and worsening the economic recessions.

Drivers of Russian policy

What are the motivations and objectives that underlie Russia’s actions?

First, it is about status.  Recognition as an indispensable power with a stake in issues of paramount global importance has always been a priority for Moscow.  The ability to exert influence in a key region where the Soviet Union once cultivated a web of patron-client relationships means Russia is back in the game  – even if it may not be on an equal footing with the US.

Second, and much more important, muscular foreign policy is hugely popular at home.  That is proven by Putin’s sky-rocketing popularity in the wake of Crimea’s annexation in March 2014. Western sanctions imposed after the takeover and in reaction to the war in Eastern Ukraine have done little to dampen the public’s support.  Patriotic mobilization, fueled by the Kremlin-controlled media, has seen the president’s ratings reaching an incredible 89%.  Though the public seems much less interested in the Middle East than to closer-to-home Ukraine, throwing one’s weight about wins plaudits.  To many ordinary Russians it signals that the long years of (perceived) humiliation and marginalization by the US and its western friends is over and that Russia is treated properly. Despite the sanctions and the standoff with NATO in the Baltic region along the common frontier, the global hegemon needs Russia badly in order to attain its goals.

Third, Russian policy-makers would much rather have the US bogged down in the Middle East than focusing on the war in Eastern Ukraine and the security of Eastern Europe.  There are plentiful opportunities to use cooperation on regional conflicts as a bargaining chip as regards the post-Soviet space.  Key EU members like Germany and France are concerned about jihadi violence. The Kremlin will try to trade its contribution to a “war on terror” against partial or full lifting of the sanctions.

Fourth, Moscow pursues some direct material benefits.  The phasing out of Iran’s sanctions might offer opportunities for developing the country’s ample oil and gas resources. However, Russian firms are currently suffering because of the western restrictions they face and are at a technological disadvantage against their competitors.  Iran’s opening is also bad news as it depresses global oil prices and adds to Russia’s serious economic problems, as oil is key to budget revenues (GDP contracted by 4.6% in the second quarter, the worst slump since 2009). Stagnant energy prices mean that other sectors are gaining prominence. The country remains one of the world’s major exporters of conventional weapons, having sold arms worth $13.2 billion in 2014 and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), accounted for 27% of overall sales in Middle East and North Africa in 2008-12.  Iran, which signed a large deal in 2007 for S-300 surface-to-air missiles (frozen in 2010), is a prospective market. Moscow has now offered to sell a more advanced Antey 2500 system. Yet, the nuclear deal delays the removal of the restrictions on arms sales.  The memorandum signed with the Saudis suggests that there could be further commercial opportunities on the other side of the Gulf. Russia is also keen to win new contracts with the Egyptian military, benefiting from strained relations between Cairo and the US.  Fresh purchases by Cairo will be funded by the Gulf partners of the Sisi government.

Fifth, Russia’s policy responds to the risks and threats emerging from the Middle East.  The Syrian war and the subsequent rise of IS has presented a golden opportunity to bloody the Americans’ nose.  In the short term, it has also helped Russia relieve pressure in the restless North Caucasus as more than 2000 jihadis, according to Moscow’s security services, have left the region to join extremist militias in Syria and elsewhere.  But in the long term, Russia has all the reasons to fear, not unlike Western Europe, a boomerang effect as it re-imports radicalization.  Senior Russian officials, such as State Security Council’s head Nikolay Patrushev, have branded IS a serious threat.  Militants in the Mashreq are connected to groups such as the Caucasus Emirate, rooted in the Chechen independence movement, that is responsible for multiple terror attacks, including in Moscow.  While there are 16 million Russian Federation citizens who profess Islam – close to 12% of the overall population (not counting migrants from the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia) – past years have seen a rise of xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric amongst ethnic Russians.  The specter of internal tensions and violent conflicts presents a formidable challenge for a leader like Putin who draws part of his legitimacy from his success in reducing instability originating from Chechnya, Daghestan and other parts of the North Caucasus.


Russia has scored a number of diplomatic points, managing to establish itself as a significant player in the Middle East and reap dividends. The region might prove key to the partial improvement of relations with the US, amidst continuing tensions over Eastern Ukraine and western sanctions. Moscow furthermore looks set to benefit from the political reshuffle following the multilateral deal on Iran’s nuclear program. But a major breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC is contingent on a U-turn on Assad, which is not likely. Russia is adamant Assad should be part of the Syrian government in case a comprehensive settlement involving a wide range of parties is reached, and is now showing it is prepared to defend the regime on the ground if need be. Russian policy-makers will work hard to consolidate gains but attaining some of the long-term goals will prove more testing. At the same time, the numerous security risks, from a mission creep in Syria to a boomerang effect on Northern Caucasus, will continue shaping Moscow’s strategy.

1 Jonathan Marcus, Syria: What can Russia’s military do?, BBC, 7 October 2015.

In 2012 Iraq and Russia signed a USD 4.3 bn deal for the purchase of attack helicopters and anti-aircraft systems. In 2014 Russia delivered 10 SU-25 ground attack jets used by Baghdad in the fight against IS.

LUKoil, a large Russian oil company, has signed a contract with the government in Baghdad to build two pipelines in the south of the country.

4 Kathrin Hillie, Russia sees big potential from Iran deal, Financial Times, July 21, 2015.

5 London: Hurst, 2014.

Nikolay Kozhanov, How Putin Turns Turmoil in the Middle East to His Advantage, Newsweek, 8 August 2015.

For the general context of Russian foreign policy, see Bobo Lo, Russia and the New World Disorder, Brookings Institution, 2015.

The decision to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was later blamed on then President Medvedev and his policy of rapprochement with Obama’s US. Putin, as prime minister, criticized it. But questions remain as to whether this was a genuine rift or a coordinated, good cop-bad cop operation.

In 2008-11 Russia sold Syria weapons worth USD 1.7 bn, with another USD 550m deal to upgrade the Damascus airforce in 2012. The two are currently currently negotiating  a new contract to the tune of USD 3.5 bn.

10 See Dmitri Trenin, The Mythical Alliance: Russia’s Syria Policy, Carnegie Moscow Centre, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2013.

11 Lavrov met with Khaled Khoja of the Syrian National Coalition in August. He is contact with Salih Muslim, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), a frequent guest in Moscow See Muslim’s interview with Amberin Zaman for Al-Monitor, October 1, 2015. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/turkey-syria-russia-pyd-leader-muslim-moscow-prevent-ankara.html#

12 Moscow enjoys good relations with neutral countries like Oman which position themselves as intermediaries between the Gulf monarchies and Iran.

13 Andrew Critchlow, Russia bombing in Syria escalates oil price war with Saudi Arabia, Daily Telegraph, October 4, 2015.


14 Russian offers Iran latest anti-aircraft missiles: TASS, Reuters, 23 February 2015.

15 In 2014, Egypt and Russia signed a USD 3.5 bn deal for the purchase of air defence systems, MiG-29 fighters, attack helicopters and even submarines.

16 The Middle East has long historic connections with the Caucasus. There are ethnic diasporas  in the region going back to the migration waves from the Tsarist to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, notably the Circassians. Vitaly Naumkin, Russia’s Middle East Gamble, Al-Monitor, 9 July 2015.

17 In June, IS declared the establishment of a “governorate” in North Caucasus.

18 Despite the sanctions and the conflict in Ukraine, contacts between Russian and US anti-terrorist agencies and officials have been on the increase. See Simon Saradzhyan, Putin’s Change of Heart

19 For a discussion of the risks facing Russia in Syria see Vladimir Frolov, Putin Chooses Simple, Dangerous Plan in Syria, Moscow Times, September 27, 2015.


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