Russia's Middle East Chess Game

What Putin wants—and why it's not as inimical to our interests as it may seem.

Why does Vladimir Putin still support Syria’s Bashar Assad and flirt with the mullahs in Iran? What is his larger goal in the Middle East? Excavating some long-term, domestic roots of Russian conduct may furnish some important clues about the importance of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular for Moscow. The Middle East represents an important global theater for Russia. And for both America and Russia, the Middle East represents an area where they can cooperate.

Alas, for Russia, its attempts to intervene in the Middle East and elsewhere have always triggered some suspicion abroad. It was that keen observer of Russia, Winston Churchill, who noted: “The Russians will try all the rooms in the house, enter those that are not locked, and when they come to one that cannot be broken into, they will withdraw and invite you to dine genially that same evening.” “Within the land-locked Heartland,” wrote French historian Fernand Braudel, “Russia could not really exist unless it filled the whole isthmus between the Baltic and her southern seas.” Yet, the emerging empire, embarking on its manifest destiny was cursed with a major handicap. Landlocked! In the North, its Arctic Ocean was frozen. In the South, the Caspian Sea was closed. Only the tiniest bottleneck through the Ottoman Bosphorus and Dardanelles led to the Mediterranean and world's oceans. But this has never stemmed Russia’s aspiration to play a leading role on the global stage. Quite the contrary. It has always sought to expand its influence and reach abroad.

Continually lusting for the Straits, it was Russia that helped trigger the Crimean War when it instructed the Ottoman Empire in 1853 that it was intent on preserving the rights of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Constantinople balked. Britain and France intervened. War broke out. Equilibrium was restored in 1856 with the Treaty of Paris. Russia had little to show for its bellicosity. After World War II, Stalin lusted for the Dardanelles, but Harry S. Truman sent Turkey military aid to stymie Moscow. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, some Cold Warriors speculated that it was part of a fresh drive for a warm-water port; in retrospect, it was a sign of weakness rather than strength.

How is Russia attempting to expand its influence today in the Middle East? One of the most profound changes in Russia's Middle East policy is Putin's tilt towards Israel. With 40 percent of its citizens Russian immigrants, Israel is now a large trade partner. Enthralled with the Holy Land, Putin is the first Russian leader to visit Israel. Still, he has to be even-handed. There are twenty million Muslims in Russia, and only six hundred thousand Jews. Yes, Moscow still supports the Palestinians. Yes, it is close to Tehran. But unlike his Soviet predecessors, Putin is anything but committed to supporting terrorism—exactly what he is dealing with in Chechnya.

Russia, a Middle East Energy Superpower

Today the Turkish question is again acute for Russia. “We no longer expect the arrival of either Cossacks or tanks at the Straits, but gas and oil pipelines and the invasion of beautiful blonde Russian women.” So said a Turkish businessman in 2009 as we dined at a Golden Horn restaurant overlooking the Bosporus’s narrow waterway, overcrowded with oil tankers.

Here we arrive at Putin's key chess moves in the Middle East—involving a multitude of planned and already competing pipelines too complex to detail here. State-owned gas giant Gazprom and oil giant Rosneft execute Moscow’s new expansion. A major guarantor of Russia's weal, Gazprom bears liquid natural gas [LNG] to European markets. Significantly, the most important energy hubs of the myriad Middle East pipeline plays—are Syria and Turkey, the latter linked to Russia’s second doorto the Middle East, through Georgia and the Caucasus.

Russia is now Turkey's second-largest trading partner, supplied with gas by Russia’s Blue Stream pipeline across the Black Sea. Russia’s near monopoly of gas to Europe provides a means of pressuring European Union countries into political and economic concessions. Understandably, Russia's aim is to keep other pipelines from encroaching on Gazprom’s monopoly and Rosneft’s profits. One of these was the planned Nabucco pipeline, designed to lesson Europe's vulnerability to Russia. Because of Russian pressure, a less ambitious Trans-Adriatic (TAP) pipeline has replaced it, crossing Turkey but cutting out the Balkans and Central Europe. Meanwhile, Russia's support of the dictatorial Assad in Syria during the recent crisis has much to do with the fact that it is Assad who decides which and whose pipelines go through Syria.

Fixing Our Middle East Policy

Undoubtedly, Vladimir Putin's stock in the Middle East is rising. The Russian president's black belt, better-than-Chuck-Norris machismo, and his dual background as a KGB operative, and reform-minded administrator, make him a formidable leader. He is proud and wants to be treated as an equal. In Libya, the Russians supported the NATO intervention in the U.N., only to be excluded from the transition process. Russia should surely be part of any Middle East settlements involving both Syria and Iran.

President Barack Obama's Middle East stock is falling. The Saudis are enraged by his compromise with Russia. Egypt, livid at Obama's reducing military aid after the ouster of Islamist Morsi, has just welcomed a Russian delegation. Israel isn't happy either. Conversely, one can only admire Putin's skillful moves.

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