As we enter the new year, the situation in the Middle East has seen a resurgence. When the United States assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it pushed the Middle East to the brink of war. Russia has launched a concentrated diplomatic effort, including President Vladimir Putin’s surprise visits to Syria and Turkey. Additionally, Russia’s facilitation of a meeting in Moscow between the conflicting Libyan parties played an important role in reaching a cease-fire agreement signed at the Berlin summit. In recent years, new developments have added another footnote to the trend of U.S. withdrawal and Russian interference in Middle Eastern affairs.
The United States and Russia Have Different Views about the Middle East
The so-called U.S. withdrawal and Russian interference is both a side-by-side comparison in the effectiveness of the two countries' presence in the Middle East in recent years, as well as a vertical comparison of the changing roles of these two countries in the region.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was an important arena in the struggle for U.S.-Soviet hegemony. At one point, the Soviet Union was allied with Egypt, Syria, Algeria, South Yemen and others. However, Egypt realigned with the U.S., and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, severely damaging both the soft and hard power of the Soviet Union in the Middle East.
Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Soviet Union, acting through the United Nations, gave the U.S. the green light to launch the Gulf War. This decision indicated that the Soviet Union had given up fighting with the U.S. over the Middle East, and the region has since entered a period of U.S. influence.
The basis of the changing roles of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East lies in adjustments to the regional strategic approaches of the two countries. The U.S. has launched two Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan, sinking deeply into a quagmire and leading to a loss of national strength. After Barack Obama took office, the U.S. began an effort to retreat from the Middle East, and the Trump administration is continuing this policy. The goals of the modified U.S. Middle East policy are to reduce burdens, decrease investments, avoid large-scale and high-risk military operations, allow regional allies to share responsibility, and allow the U.S. itself to play the role of an offshore mediator. The Middle East serves as a touchstone for the world. Russia sees the region as a vital starting point for reviving the influence of powerful nations.
In other words, the underlying logic of the two countries’ Middle Eastern policy revisions is the countries’ differing views of the Middle East. The U.S. began to see the Middle East as a burden, while Russia began seeing it as an opportunity for emerging power.
The Beginning of, and Motives behind, Russian Interference
If one believes that the revisions in the two countries’ Middle Eastern policies resulted in the inevitability of U.S. withdrawal and Russian interference, then the Arab Spring provided an opportunity for Russia to return to the region.
From the beginning, the U.S. and Russia held vastly different views on the storm that engulfed the Arab world. The U.S. viewed it as a victory for democracy and freedom, while Russia saw it as the Middle East’s version of the Color Revolutions.* During the Libyan crisis, the Western nations in the U.N. proposed the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya on the grounds that it was needed to protect civilians. Russia abstained from voting, thereby allowing the resolution to pass. However, when the resolution was used by Western nations as an excuse to forcefully intervene in the Libyan crisis, Russia decided it was time to end the chaos in the Arab world.
Thus, when Syria fell into turmoil and Russia’s last ally in the Middle East was in imminent danger, Russia decisively intervened in the Syrian military conflict at the behest of the Syrian government.
Russia's military operations in Syria served at least four purposes: The first was to rescue the lawful Syrian government from peril, winning back Russia’s own stronghold on strategic importance in the Middle East, and establishing a foundation for Russia’s return to the region. Second, following the crisis in Crimea, Russia was sanctioned by the West. The victory in Syria brought Russia enough capital to contend with the West and to effectively alleviate the pressure of sanctions. Third, as a powerful party in deciding the situation in Syria, Russia successfully established Syria as a platform for integrating diplomacy with natural resources in the Middle East. Although the conflicting parties in Syria behave in a tit-for-tat manner, every action requires Russia’s cooperation. This has also promoted the standardization of diplomacy in the Middle East. Fourth, Russia played a vital role in defeating the Islamic State terrorist group, not only protecting itself from harm, but contributing to international safety. As for the Libya issue, Russia has also played an important role, heavily influencing peace talks.
Of course, Russia’s successful interference in the Middle East cannot be realized by wishful thinking alone. Ultimately, the motivation behind strengthened cooperation between Russia and the Middle East is their common interests.
Regarding security issues, the United States’ desire to withdraw from the Middle East has caused many Middle Eastern countries to view the U.S. as unreliable rather than as an ally. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries have begun seeking to diversify their allies in order to mitigate the risks involved in relying solely on the U.S. Russia’s reemergence in the Middle East has made it a newly viable partner in the promotion of national security for these countries.
In the energy sector, responding to the challenges posed by shale oil has allowed the major oil-producing nations of Russia and Saudi Arabia to find a common language. These two countries work together closely in crude oil production, limiting production and protecting prices, and resisting competition from U.S. shale oil. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Russia met in 2017 and 2019. In 2019, a major U.S. oil company left Iraq, and Russian oil company Rosneft replaced it as Iraq’s most important oil partner. Russia and Turkey worked together to construct the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, not only strengthening Russia’s cooperation with Turkey on energy, but opening channels through which to transport resources to Europe.
Regarding nuclear energy, Russia works closely on the construction of nuclear power plants with Iran, Egypt, Algeria and other countries. As far as arms sales are concerned, Russia’s victory in Syria has helped open the market in the Middle East to Russian weapon sales. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries have all signed large arms purchasing agreements with Russia.
Examining the Role of Outside Powers in the Middle East
Compared to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, this instance of Russia returning to the Middle East has several distinguishing features. The first is pragmatism and flexibility, as Russia focuses on practical results and not on setting unreachable goals. Russia possesses a clear understanding of the limits of its own strength; thus, its military and diplomatic operations in the Middle East require little investment, leave only a small footprint, and emphasize ingenuity. After the situation in Syria was stabilized, Russia immediately halted large-scale military operations and withdrew most of its troops. Regarding the issues in Libya, Russia’s military and economic investments are limited, yet it has secured its role as a key influencer.
The second distinctive feature is Russia’s avoidance of any collision with the American side of the conflict. Russia has maximized the benefits of U.S. withdrawal while using the strategic gap left behind to further influence Middle Eastern affairs. Russia has chosen to involve itself only in areas of conflict where the U.S. is unwilling to get involved and where it does not seek free economic movement. Russia has certainly not initiated competition with the U.S. over the Middle East, and has not substituted itself as a hegemonic power in the Middle East like the U.S. once tried to do.
Third, there have been no programs designed to influence popular ideology, political systems or economic patterns. This is fundamentally different from the logic, methods and goals of the U.S. and Soviet Union’s involvement in Middle East affairs. In contrast, Russia focuses on obtaining clear geopolitical and economic benefits for the Middle East, with an emphasis on local and short-term results.
Although U.S. withdrawal and Russian interference is a noticeable phenomenon, it cannot be strictly inferred from the situation. We still need to analyze the role of other external powers in the Middle East.
First, this sort of change is certainly not global. Russia gains power in the gaps and strategic cracks in the Middle East. The U.S. is still the foreign country with the most military power, the greatest number of allies, and the strongest influence in the region. Russia’s influence is still limited by local and individual problems. Second, whether discussing economic or military power, Russia remains inferior to the U.S. to varying degrees. This also impacts the sustainability of Russia’s return to the Middle East, as well as the magnitude of the long-term benefits that it can gain from the region. Finally, Russia doesn’t intend to become deeply involved in Middle East affairs, rather it only wishes to become an important participant, mediator and stakeholder in the region.
Russia’s arrival has changed the uniformity of the situation in the Middle East, and the Middle East now has the power to check and balance the U.S. At the same time, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East is different from how it was during the Cold War; it is no longer a zero-sum game. The two countries can deflect competition and can even cooperate. Simultaneously, with new partners, the countries in the Middle East have a new opportunity to resolve conflicts.
*Editor’s note: The Color Revolutions were peaceful protests in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan during late 2003 through mid-2005, resulting in the end of corrupt, undemocratic regimes and the election of new presidents in those countries.