Is Russia Trying to Take America's Role in the Middle East?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Kadobnov/Pool​

The cooperation between Moscow and Riyadh is not a surprise—and could be part of a bigger play on Putin's part.

Fundamentally, one can argue that Riyadh shares Moscow’s view that compartmentalization of issues in foreign policy can go a long way. Whatever the various differences, when compromises and agreements can be reached, they should be. And today, there are many spheres for Saudi-Russian cooperation. There are more than dozen of various documents signed during the King’s visit to Moscow aimed to provide the basis for partnerships in different areas—from space exploration to cultural exchanges, from investments to arms sales, from cooperation in science to agriculture. Two areas are especially worth emphasizing.

First, two countries begin to evaluate how to best cooperate in nuclear and renewable energy. Both leading energy producers are concerned with domestic energy needs and the Russian experience in nuclear energy can be very handy for Saudi Arabia. Saudi investments can be helpful for developing and applying technologies necessary to supply very significant Russian domestic energy demand. Second, in the aftermath of the visit it was announced that Saudi Arabia is buying Russian air defense systems S-400.

Interestingly, in both spheres Riyadh seems to follow Turkey’s path. One can assume that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were watching Washington’s reaction on Turkish plans to buy S-400. When it became obvious that the United States was not going to oppose the deal between Moscow and Ankara, unlike the previous attempt by Turkey to purchase air defense systems from China, Russia has achieved a very serious success on the global armaments market. If a NATO-member can buy S-400, why other interested parties should wait?

To conclude the analysis of the Saudi King’s visit to Moscow, it is important to evaluate the mid- and even long-term prospects for this cooperation. Besides the readiness of two parties to follow the compartmentalization policy mentioned above, this partnership is based on non-interference in domestic affairs of each other and the absence of ideology. According to the Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir: “Both countries believe in the need to respect the principle of sovereignty and respect for international law and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Both countries reject the imposition of principles that are alien to the societies of our two countries.”

Western observers could wonder whether Russia, with the development of the relations with Middle Eastern powers, is going pretend to succeed the United States in the position of the authority dominating the region. Here, Moscow will hardly reach for this ambitious goal, clearly understanding the dangers of overextending. When bilateral relations with all major regional powers are developing there is no need for something more pretentious. The United Kingdom was crucial for providing security in the region as a part of the legacy of British colonial policies. Washington, initially, took this responsibility from London as a part of Cold War strategy, and later, the regional players become apt at pulling the United States into resolving their problems at American taxpayers’ dime and, often, at the expense of American long-term interests. Russia is different. The lessons of fatal overextending of the Cold War have been learned. And the Russian domestic politics provides almost no room of foreign lobby supporting adventures abroad. That is why the Russian-Saudi cooperation, as well as other regional partnerships, will hardly lead to a Russian ambition to become the Middle Eastern “policeman.”

Nikolay Pakhomov is President of The New York Consulting Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter @nik_pakhomov.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Kadobnov/Pool​

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