Understanding Putin Through a Middle Eastern Looking Glass

By John W. Parker Strategic Perspectives 19

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Executive Summary

July 1, 2015 — The resurgence of Russian influence in the Middle East has surprised Moscow as much as any other capital. Russia has done better than the Kremlin and its Middle East experts feared when the Arab Spring began. Despite Moscow’s deep involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, Russia is now in a stronger position with national leaderships across the Middle East than it was in 2011, although its stock with Sunni Arab public opinion has been sinking.

The instrumental value of the region for demonstrating that the United States has to take Russia’s interests into account in the Middle East and beyond is more important than ever to the Kremlin and to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political legitimacy as a strong leader at home. It counts for more than any uptick in weapons sales or other economic deals in the region.

The confluence of four streams of developments in late 2011 sparked the dramatic turnaround in the Russian approach to Syria and shaped it along the lines with which we are now familiar. First was the Russian reaction to the Western campaign against Libya. Second was the political turbulence inside Russia itself and Putin’s embrace of a platform of opposition to U.S. policy, particularly in the Middle East, to help him recover his political footing as he faced presidential elections in early March 2012. Third was the sharp increase in Israeli and American threats to strike Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities. Fourth was the spike in Saudi—as well as Qatari and Turkish—activism against the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria.

The consistency of Putin’s approach to the Syrian conflict and Moscow’s unexpected success in holding its own against Washington led to the perception in Moscow of growing respect from leaderships in the Middle East, even in countries such as Saudi Arabia, not favorably disposed toward Russia. By Russian accounts, leaders in these countries began to believe that Russia needed to be dealt with, even if this strained relations with Washington. As a result, some regional capitals started to consult more closely with Russia, to lobby for its support, and to return to the Russian arms market, while others resumed high-level exploratory contacts.

In the meantime, one of the unintended consequences of the increased direct pressure on Iran and of the indirect pressure on Iran through Syria was the drawing together of Moscow and Tehran. As a result of Russia’s obsession with suspected Saudi-sponsored Sunni terrorism and of the dynamics of the Syrian crisis, Russia drifted toward an implicit soft alliance with Shiagoverned states in the region: Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Moscow more than ever began to regard Iran as a “natural barrier” against Sunni extremism rising out of the Middle East to threaten Russian interests to the north.

By early February 2014, the Middle East was still not a top economic priority for Russia, but had become a prestige priority of sorts because it turned out to be a highly successful part of Russian diplomacy. Putin seemed to be on a roll. Russia’s veto power in the United Nations (UN) Security Council and naval shuttle of weapons and spare parts to the Asad regime had discouraged the use of U.S. force against Syria as well as Iran. The Russian president also had what seemed like a deal with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to draw Ukraine closer to Russia and away from the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Winter Olympics in Sochi (February 7–23) went off well, with no terrorist attacks.

Toward the end of February, however, when the deal with Yanukovich collapsed, Putin’s success in Syria helped set the table for his approach to the Ukrainian crisis. The Russian president’s experience in the Middle East gave him the confidence to annex Crimea in March, and soon to extend Russian military assistance to pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk in southeastern Ukraine.

There were several Syrian dimensions to Putin’s decision to go into Crimea. The momentum of his success in competing with Western leaders to reestablish Russia as a major player in the Middle East carried him forward into Ukraine. Security dimensions were also strong motivating factors in both theaters: in Syria, it was the threat of radical Sunni Islam moving north out of the Middle East to Russia; in Ukraine, it was the imperative to keep NATO from moving farther eastward.

Mixed in with security motives were also Putin’s domestic political needs: both in Syria and then in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine he used opposition to American policy to bolster the image of Russia as a restored great power and, not coincidentally, to buck up his approval ratings among the Russian public.

Finally, there has been a similarity in Russian military ways and means used in both theaters: Russian navy ships have been semi-covertly transferring military hardware and supplies to the beleaguered Asad regime since spring 2013; in Crimea and then southeastern Ukraine, Russia has employed similar methods not only to supply military material to local pro-Russian fighters, but even to insert Russian soldiers.

After the bloodless annexation of Crimea, some observers suggested that Syria had lost its importance to Putin as a venue for bolstering his ratings at home because his Ukrainian gambit was doing this much more effectively. But the Middle East, including Syria, now acquired another important function: to demonstrate that Russia is not an international “pariah.” Especially after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 in July 2014 and the more open Russian military intervention in southeastern Ukraine in August, Putin has used his contacts in the Middle East not only to help him soften the impact of Western economic sanctions, but also to avoid international isolation.

Russia’s gains in the Middle East have not only held fast as the Ukrainian conflict has flared, but even matured. Given the general perception of American weakness in the region, particularly after Syria’s Asad crossed President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use without eliciting a military response, friction between Moscow and Washington has meant more room for maneuver for capitals in the Middle East. Even if they still recognize that the United States remains the most formidable power in the region, they all have little incentive to spite Russia over Ukraine.

Syria, of course, depends heavily on Russia’s UN Security Council veto to impede any concerted international effort to ease the Asad regime from power. Moreover, whereas 3 years ago it appeared that Russia itself was being eased out of the Middle East, Moscow is now potentially the key actor in seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Elsewhere, Israel has pursued neutrality over the Ukraine conflict. This may now change in the wake of Putin’s decision on April 13 to revive the transfer of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, but few in Moscow see this as likely. Iran itself has few equities in Ukraine and little reason to roil waters with Russia, a key and sometimes sympathetic player in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany).

In Iraq, Putin’s reaction to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat was quicker than Washington’s and was appreciated by both the Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi administrations. With Egypt, relations between Cairo and Moscow have flourished all through the Ukrainian crisis.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have increased contacts despite deep divisions over Syria, new differences over Yemen, competing global energy interests, and longstanding mutual distrust. Rumored Saudi funding of Egyptian arms purchases from Russia might prove to be the bridge over these and other differences to better relations between Moscow and Riyadh.

Finally, Putin and Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdogan seem determined not to let differences over Syria, Crimea, and now the Armenian genocide issue disrupt booming economic ties.

While Putin has been lucky, he has also benefited from the West’s mistakes and intervention fatigue. As a result of these realities and Russia’s focused political will, Moscow continues to punch above its weight in the Middle East. But the Middle East is still not a top priority for Russia. Even more since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, countries such as China and India far outrank the Middle East as global geopolitical priorities.

Moscow most certainly wants to maintain relations with all in the region and sell weapons to any country that will pay for them, but Russia will not put boots on the ground anywhere. In this sense, Russian policy in the Middle East remains deeply conservative. As Moscow sees it, there are simply too many problems in the region and no solutions. Its policy will thus continue to be focused on keeping these problems as far away from Russia as possible.

Nevertheless, the Western reaction to Russian actions in Ukraine has given Putin a greater incentive to work toward a more significant Russian profile in the Middle East, in part to compensate for Western sanctions but foremost to demonstrate that Russia remains a great power in the world. And, as Moscow sees it, this impulse by Putin is being reciprocated in the region.

No outside power, including the United States, may be up to—or even able to play—a controlling role in the region any longer. But realism restrains all sides from believing that Russia is anywhere close to eclipsing the major role the United States still plays in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Putin appears intent on providing more of a choice for the region than has existed since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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