Russia's Hand Is Visible Everywhere in the Middle East

Russia President Vladimir Putin (R) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin visit the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow, Russia September 9, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin

Moscow has used its new-found influence in the Middle East to thwart the U.S. effort to use Saudi Arabia as a pressure point against the Russian economy.

Putin enjoys the limelight of being seen as a global statesman and the position of near-peer equality with the United States. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Russian efforts are being driven solely by the prestige demands of being seen as a great power. Moscow also expects to reap tangible benefits from its policies. Beyond validating Russia as a global power, the Russian calculation is that a return to playing a more active role in Middle Eastern affairs can create demand for Russian goods and services, starting with arms and nuclear power plants, and particularly technologies that the United States does not want to provide. The Middle East is critical to Russia’s geo-economic strategy: Turkey is set to become Russia’s replacement for Ukraine as a transit country for energy shipments to Europe, while Russian investments in Iraq and Libya are designed to further Russia’s ability to supply Europe with oil. Meanwhile, Russia wants to create a new north-south route that will connect the Russian heartland with the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Most significantly, Russia has used its new-found influence in the region to thwart the U.S. effort to use Saudi Arabia as a pressure point against the Russian economy. Now, instead of competing against Moscow, Riyadh is actively coordinating with the Russians in an effort to set a stable price “floor” for energy, to help guarantee revenues for both their treasuries. In addition, given the continued uncertainties that Western sanctions create for European and U.S. financial institutions to consider lending to Russia or facilitating investment, Moscow hopes to continue the trend of securing funds from Middle Eastern sources into its economy.

Russia has been learning valuable diplomatic lessons from its activities in the Middle East over the past four years—and is now taking the first steps to apply them to East Asia, playing on the same fears among both American partners and competitors in that region of U.S. unreliability and unpredictability. We see the first steps with Chinese, Japanese and Korean meetings with Vladimir Putin over the North Korea crisis—with Russia hoping that its diplomatic efforts in this arena will generate some of the same economic benefits it hopes to reap from the Middle East.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to compete frontally against the United States—and found itself outclassed. Today, Russia is engaged in a more subtle strategy. So far, it appears to be paying dividends.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the Naval War College. He is also a contributing editor to the National Interest. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Russia President Vladimir Putin (R) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin visit the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow, Russia September 9, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin

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