Russia has become an international power with a strong presence in regional interactions throughout the Middle East, from the security of sea lanes to energy dynamics and oil market balances, all the way to military interventions in conflict hotspots in Syria and Libya. In this context, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion entitled “The Russian Factor: Understanding Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East,” with the participation of Samuel Ramani, a lecturer in international relations at Oxford University and an Associate Fellow at the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Features of Russia’s Role
Russia brings many streams together in playing its regional role. In this context, the main features of Russian engagement in the region are:
1. Synchronizing military engagement, energy, and diplomacy: Russia currently employs several tracks to influence Middle East dynamics: military intervention in conflict zones in Syria and Libya and sponsoring settlement processes in the two countries; developing visions for Arab Gulf security; and playing the role of guarantor of the OPEC+ agreements to control oil prices.
2. Following a “flexible diplomacy” strategy: Moscow follows a strategy of flexible diplomacy in relations with the countries of the region. Its policies are governed by the principle of “friends of all — allies of none — enemies of none.” This policy is based on not taking on the cost of providing security guarantees for the countries of the region or engaging in hostility with any regional party that would affect its interests.
3. Supporting political stability and pro-nation-state forces: During the period of the Arab revolutions, Russia developed a policy of supporting stability and the status quo, rejecting revolutionary forces and currents of political Islam, and supporting pro-nation state forces. This is what prompted it to intervene militarily to support the Assad regime in Syria, and it has taken conservative positions to resist the spread of turbulent trends in many countries of the region.
4. Limited economic and material bases of Russian influence in the Middle East: Despite Russia’s growing political and military engagement in the area, the economic and material foundations of its regional role remain relatively limited in comparison with other major powers (such as China and the United States) at the level of investments and foreign trade. Russia focuses on fields with limited added value, such as food exports and the activities of energy companies, compared with China’s central economic role in economic interactions in Middle Eastern countries.
5. Competitive partnership between Russia and China in the region: Russia’s relationship with China is governed by a state of competitive partnership. There is a convergence of interests and a parallel exploitation of American withdrawal from the region, but there is no policy coordination or discussions of regional issues in the talk of officials from both countries. They move separately and competitively in the region, especially in the energy, ports, and armament sectors. There is no unified Sino-Russian front in the Middle East.
6. Russia does not favor American military withdrawal: Russia benefits from Washington shouldering the burden of ensuring security in the Middle East’s trouble spots, because it is not prepared to provide security guarantees or a military presence in multiple areas. For that reason, Russia was implicitly opposed to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
7. Containing hostile forces: Russia seeks to contain potential enemies of its interests by establishing communication and negotiation channels with them, and not letting these forces move against it completely. This is what governs Russia’s relations with countries such as Turkey. Russia considers it an adversary in the Middle East, but is keen to continue to negotiate and reach settlements with it to prevent reaching a point of complete confrontation.
Despite ongoing negotiations between Russia and Turkey to coordinate policies in Syria, Russia is aware of Turkish moves against its interests in Central Asia and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s attempts to use negotiating with Russia as leverage in its relations with the West.
Pillars of Regional Expansion
Russia is described in much of the literature as a “resident party” in Middle East interactions, not only an external force influencing regional dynamics. It relies on many pillars to enhance its influence, namely:
1. Drawing on the historical legacy of Russia’s role in the region: Moscow uses its role in the Middle East and historical influence in regional interactions. This influence came to a head during the Cold War through support for socialist regimes in the region, trying to establish a foothold in the region’s vital shipping lanes as part of the policy of concentrating in “warm waters,” and bilateral polarization against the Western bloc.
2. Exploiting regional states’ perceptions of American withdrawal: Among states in the region, the prevailing sense that the US is no longer an ally that can be relied upon to provide guarantees of regional security and stability. This was evident in a number of situations, most notably in Washington’s avoidance of confronting military threats from militias loyal to Tehran and threats to the security of shipping traffic in the region’s vital sea lanes, as well as the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
3. Regional states look to exploit multipolarity: The countries of the region are seeking to diversify their international relationships, and to not be limited to close relations with only one international power. They also seek to diversify weapons exports to bypass Western conditionality and political pressures associated with interventions in the domestic situation of countries in the region and various human rights issues.
4. Using cultural and religious connections: Russia is exploiting cultural ties with countries in the region, such as Russia’s Muslim communities. This has prompted it to seek membership as an observer in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and to strengthen cultural ties with the region through active cultural diplomacy led by Russian cultural centers with varied activities.
5. Following non-interference and pro-stability policies: Russia adheres to a policy of avoiding interference in the domestic affairs of stable countries in the region. It avoids engaging in debate over human rights issues, in comparison with Western countries that place these issues at the top of their priorities. Through this policy, Russia seeks to support stability and preserve the status quo in the region.
6. Investing in Russian soft power: Russia seeks to enhance its soft power and the attractiveness of Russian policies in the region to create the image of a strong state capable of supporting its allies. This has manifested in the activities of Russian channels and media platforms, such as RT and Sputnik, which sharply criticize Western policies. It also engages in health and vaccine diplomacy aimed at emphasizing Russia’s ability to address global challenges and provide support to countries of the region.
Future of Russia’s Role
Russia is expected to be able to preserve its regional influence and remain at the heart of Middle East interactions for the foreseeable future. This is due to the expansion of relations between domestic Russian institutions and their regional counterparts, such as ministries of defense and military institutions and enhancing Russian soft power. It is also due to the interdependence of regional countries and Russia’s interests in the sectors of energy, oil stability, and gas markets, as well as Russia’s view that sees its global standing as being tied to its central role in the Middle East. The main expected trends of Russia’s role in the region are:
1. Continuing the “flexible engagement” policy: Russia is expected to continue its policies of maneuvering between regional powers, avoiding fixed alliances, reconciling relations with regional powers with opposing interests, and not making any firm, rigid commitments to any party. Moscow seeks to benefit from good relations with all parties at the same time, and to not narrow its margin of options in the region.
2. Ambiguous future of Russia’s role in Syria and Iraq: Despite Russia’s continued presence in conflict zones, achieving a settlement would result in a relative decline of Russian influence, according to some views and trends. This is due to the possibility of others powers coming in as an alternative during periods of reconstruction that are able to give conflict countries better deals and economic and technical gains, such as China, the US, and European countries.
3. Prospects for expansion in Iraq and the Palestinian issue: Russia can exploit several areas to penetrate the Middle East, such as: peacebuilding, rebuilding the state in Iraq, mediating between domestic and regional powers with conflicting interests, supporting state reconstruction, and Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, where it can mediate between the two parties to enhance the legitimacy of its engagement in the Middle East.
4. Expectations of expanded Russian relations with Gulf states and Iran: Russia is expected to expand its relations and partnerships with the Gulf states and Iran. This is due to Russia’s multiple interests with these parties, their connection with Russia’s global standing, and the geostrategic importance of the Arab Gulf to securing Russian strategic depth in Central Asia and exploiting the American withdrawal from the Middle East.
5. Exploiting American strategic confusion: Russia is expected to benefit from the US failure to formulate a clear strategy governing its relations with Middle Eastern countries and the confusion of American policy in the region. This ensures a wide margin of action for Russia to exploit the vacuum created by American withdrawal in the region and the weak confidence of local countries in the American ally, despite Moscow’s unpreparedness to bear the cost of ensuring security in the region.
6. Diverging attitudes on relations with Iran: Differences among Russian elites regarding the future of relations with Iran are expected to grow. In contrast to the hesitation of diplomats and leaders of the Russian foreign ministry to offer unconditional support for Tehran and their desire to pressure Iran to adjust its regional policy, especially if it conflicts with Russian interests, members of the military and officials in the Ministry of Defense support strengthening relations. This stance is parallel to their cautious and relatively uncooperative attitudes towards Israel.
In conclusion, the panel discussion concluded that Russia’s policy in the Middle East is characterized by revolving interests and a lack of firm alliance commitments toward any regional party. Russia can pressure its regional partners to make concessions at the expense of their interests if that would make gains for Moscow. Russia interacts with the region as a space to exert influence and enhance its global standing, a space to place pressure on—far from its own borders—the interests of the US and Western countries, and to benefit from the decline in confidence of Washington’s allies in its ability to provide guarantees of regional security.