In a series of pieces in The National Interest, Tom Nichols and John Schlinder discuss the argument that “Moscow has not been this powerful in the Middle East in at least a century.” Yet this narrow view of history and geopolitics overstates Russia’s position in the Middle East and threatens to skew America’s policy toward the region. Russia has simply played the weak hand it holds in the Middle East—and played it well—but its dismal record in recent Middle East politics must temper the assessments of its recent success.
Old Cold War notions of parity between the United States and Russia often misinform notions of relations with Russia. Russia has neither the population nor the economy to realistically pose a geopolitical challenge to the United States in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world. The Syria case is not a display of Russian strength but rather of Russian pragmatism in the face of an untenable position: its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime after its use of chemical weapons. If taken in a historical context, Russia’s policy in the Middle East since the Arab Spring has certainly not expanded its reach in the region. There is no rapidly growing Russian sphere of influence in the area; the United States has not made a fatal error and handed the keys to the Arabian Peninsula to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s relations with the Middle East have undergone a series of setbacks since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. One might go as far as to say that the Russian position in the Middle East has been steadily declining since 1973, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat abandoned Soviet support in favor of American aid and a peace deal with Israel. Russia’s recent strategy under Putin has eroded its position even further. Russia’s long-term policy to gain influence in the Middle East has centered around its own genuine interest in Muslim relations, stemming from its population of more than 15 million Russian Muslims and its role as an alternative to Western military and monetary aid. Unsurprisingly, this policy has little affected entrenched U.S.-backed states in the region such as Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf states.
Unlike the United States—with its dependency on Middle East oil—Russia’s motivations in the region have not been related to energy but rather to its goal of being a bulwark of state sovereignty and establishing a naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, Russia was limited to close dealings with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and Iran. Of those four regimes, two have since been deposed: Hussein in 2003 against Russian and U.N. Security Council, or UNSC, sanction and Qaddafi in 2011 with tacit Russian support. International pressure has seriously strained the other two regimes: Assad’s use of sarin gas on his own people and Iran’s nuclear program have been magnets for international attention. By essentially putting all its eggs in regionally unpopular baskets, Russia’s support of these regimes has made it hard to reaffirm its foothold in the region when its allies collapse or become isolated.
While America’s initial response to the Arab Spring was decidedly cautious, it is clear that the Kremlin was even more fearful of the sea change in Middle Eastern politics and recognized that its meager list of allies in the region was bound to decrease further. This tepid response was a missed opportunity for Russia to reinvigorate its Middle East policy instead of merely standing by its dictator-client regimes—an opportunity that Russia would have seized if it were serious about expanding its influence in the region. Russia’s decision to relinquish support for Qaddafi once it became clear the colonel was losing his grip in Libya was a telling sign that Russia’s sluggish reaction to the Arab Spring had put them in the awkward position of supporting brutal crackdowns on civilians. Even without considering the Syrian civil war, Russia’s relations with most Middle Eastern countries since 2011 have either remained the same or gotten worse and do not extend beyond diplomatic niceties. The ground is hardly fertile for new Russian dealings in the region.
When examined in the context of its past policies in the Middle East, Russia’s willingness to broker the chemical weapons agreement looks less like a geopolitical power play and more like a pragmatic approach designed to minimize the fallout of a failing policy. During two and half years of civil war, Russia has unflinchingly supported Assad and championed nonintervention; after all, Assad is Russia’s last true ally in the region after Russia’s relationship with Iran cooled off since Moscow’s decision to support the Western sanctions imposed on the Iranian nuclear program. Russia’s support for the Assad regime has come at a greater cost than any of its prior dealings in the region: It confirmed suspicions of Russia’s lack of commitment to stability in the region and once again froze up its recently thawed relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Yet Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21 put Russia in the position of directly supporting a war criminal. As much as Assad crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line” that day, in some ways he crossed an unspoken line with Putin, too. There is no doubt that Russia’s efficiency at proposing and enforcing a solution that worked for both President Obama and Assad was a fantastic piece of diplomacy; indeed, the Russians took the lead in the negotiation process and made Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department seem more than a little inept. Yet it was also the only viable option for Russia. Anything other than a genuine attempt to facilitate the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal would have irreparably damaged Russia’s credibility in the international community and most likely would have resulted in U.S. military action against Assad. Of course, compared to the dire state of Russia’s influence in region, this diplomatic success is a triumph, but by no means does it represent a new era of Russian-dominated Middle Eastern affairs.
American observers and policymakers must be wary of overestimating Russia’s hand in the Middle East. Russian goals in the region—namely, maintaining a naval base in the Mediterranean Sea at Tartus, championing state sovereignty, and attempting to limit the influence of Islamism on its unsteady North Caucasus republics—remain low key compared to the Soviet-like expansionism discussed by commentators in the wake of the Syria agreement. Far removed from the antagonistic Soviet years, Russian policy has hardly been revanchist toward America in the region. Russia has mostly been conservative, interfering only when its narrow objectives become threatened.
Russia’s willingness to broker a deal illustrates two things to the United States: First, that the Russian foreign ministry is extremely adept; and second, that despite his public reproaches of the United States, Putin shows pragmatism from a position of weakness. Heads of state do not write op-eds in foreign newspapers from a position of strength. These takeaways are less groundbreaking than the image of the Russian bear poised to gobble up the Middle East, but they remain important nonetheless. Russia remains an actor in the region, but its standing has been reduced from a series of bilateral relationships with regional players to a purely diplomatic role by virtue of its UNSC seat. Russia must not be treated like a superpower with clout in the region but rather as an irascible poker player with a short—yet treacherous—stack of chips; going forward, as the P5+1—which consists of the U.N. Security Council and Germany—talks in Geneva illustrate, it is certainly more beneficial to have this Russia in the American tent rather than outside poking holes in it.
Daniyal Ahmad is an intern with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.