Russia is back in the Middle East. The Kremlin is methodically creating a systematic geopolitical challenge to the interests of the United States and its allies. Moscow’s behavior is driven by a quest for prestige and influence, and a search for markets of its arms and other goods—a classic great power pattern.
Oil is in the center of this quest, but it is not only issue. As oil prices are above $55/barrel and Saudi Arabia, the oil market maker , is facing its gravest political crisis since the 1920s when the monarchy was first established, Moscow’s production-limiting cooperation with Tehran and Riyadh puts Russia in the spotlight in the region. However, the Kremlin’s renewed activity in the Middle East is geopolitical, and goes beyond business . As in Soviet times, Moscow seeks to control governments, re-establish military bases, open maritime routes and expand exports. These great power ambitions suggest a broader shift in the regional balance, revealing a return to the nineteenth century strategic competition and raising serious questions about the future of American power.
Back to Great Power Competition
Russia has defined itself as an ever-expanding empire since time immemorial. During its eight-hundred-year history, the state shrunk only three times: in the early seventeenth century during the “Time of Troubles,” which led to the Polish occupation of Moscow; after the Bolshevik coup of 1917; and lastly, with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia abandoned most of its military deployments in the Middle East, though it maintained some weapons sales clients. Being an empire was just too expensive. Syria—with its naval “supply and repair” base in Tartus and the air base in Khmeimim —was the only country Moscow clung to.
With the rise in oil prices after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, and especially after Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea (oil prices dropped later that year), Russia embarked on a methodical rebalancing in the Middle East. The aim is to challenge the United States and its partners.
Some analysts believe that Syria may be a bargaining chip for Ukraine and the U.S.-imposed sanctions. However, the diminishing American regional presence in the Mideast, and Russia’s willingness to fill the void, suggest broader ambitions.
Russian Middle East aspirations include several aspects important to its national security and global strategy:
- A bridgehead against jihadism. Radical Islam has proven to be attractive to some 2,500 Russian citizens, who have fought in Syria and Iraq, as well as to hundreds more from the former USSR who chose to join ISIS. Their “homecoming” is a real threat. Moscow is the second largest city in Europe in terms of its Muslim population, after Istanbul.
- A theater of strategic competition with the United States. The ruling elite—Putin and his entourage, the military and security services leadership, and Russian TV —are defined by the defeat in the Cold War . All are obsessed with America’s alleged attempts to undermine or even dismember Mother Russia.
- Oil price influence. It is in Russia’s interest to increase its influence on oil prices, especially as the resource is vital to Russia’s economy. This influence can come through cartel-like agreements or by fanning the flames of conflicts —such as in the case of Saudi Arabia versus Iran. Nothing explodes oil prices more than the specter of war or a blockade in the Strait of Hormuz.
- A market for weapons . The conflict in Syria showcased the Russian military-industrial complex’s capabilities, from Kalibr medium range cruise missiles to SU-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defense systems. These are on sale to the highest bidder because, as a Moscow saying goes, “weapons sales make good allies.”
- Russia’s resolve to support its allies. The Syrian war demonstrated Moscow’s resolve to stick with allies despite deteriorating circumstances. They do business with the likes of Saddam or Assad, whereas Washington remains picky and conditional.
Regional Power Vacuum
The Obama administration believed that the best interest of the United States was withdrawing from “Bush’s wars.” Obama’s reaction to the Syrian crisis suggests that the Iran nuclear deal, and staying out of military conflicts, was more important than preventing the largest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. The Trump administration’s first year has not presented coherent policies, either.
America’s response to Russian challenges in the Middle East hints at a regional power vacuum . The Europeans cannot fill it, and China is at least a decade away from being able. Therefore, by default and by intention, Russia is stepping in.
The United States is Always to Blame
Russia has woven a damning narrative of U.S. regional involvement in the Middle East, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, going back to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Some Russian “experts,” with 20/20 hindsight, depict the Soviets as anti-jihadi; whereas the United States supported the mujahedeen, including the radicals.