InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a discussion panel on 9 March entitled “The Ukrainian Moment: Shifts in Russian Foreign Policy in the Middle East.” The panel was led by Dr. Diana Galeeva, an Academic Visitor to St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, who specializes in Russian-Gulf relations. The discussion panel addressed key points in understanding Russia’s strategy in the Middle East and the tools that Moscow is using to strengthen its presence in the region. Panelists also discussed how countries in the Middle East are responding to the war in Ukraine and the extent to which the war affects Russia’s policy in the region.
Foreign Policy in Focus
Dr. Diana Galeeva opened the discussion panel by reiterating that Russia’s strategy in the Middle East can be understood within the wider context of its foreign policy in general. These factors can be summarized as follows:
1. Significant escalation in NATO threat to Russia: JohnMearsheimer, who developed the theory of offensive realism, argued in a 2014 Foreign Affairs article during the Ukraine crisis at that time that Russia’s involvement in the Crimean peninsula was a response to the threat of NATO’s eastward expansion and its strategy of pushing Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence and adding it the West’s list of allies. This point is of particular importance, not only in understanding what happened in 2014, but also with regard to the current crisis as well as Russia’s foreign policy in general.
2. Anti-Western sentiment among Russian leadership: The neorealists in political science have offered useful tools for understanding Russian foreign policy. They have drawn particular attention to the role of political leadership in understanding foreign policy. In the case of Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 led to major shifts in Russian foreign policy. The radical shift in foreign policy under Putin became clear in how he dealt with the so-called Arab Spring uprisings as compared to his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.
Russia’s stance towards the Arab Spring under Medvedev in 2011 and 2012 can be described as non-interventionist. Russia first became interested in these regional developments following Putin’s ascent to the presidency in 2012, and continued until 2015. After 2015, Russia became an important actor in the countries in which the Arab Spring had occurred. Medvedev’s policy in 2011 towards the Arab Spring had been in line with Western policy. This changed entirely after Putin came to power, as demonstrated by the Russian military intervention in Syria.
3. Moscow’s desire to restore former Soviet glory: Nicholas Kitchen’s work on “grand strategy,” which draws upon the tenets of neorealism, might be useful in understanding Russian foreign policy. The first step in Kitchen’s model involves determining the threats that the state is facing. In the Russian case, Putin affirmed in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century, and in 2018 stated that he would restore the Soviet Union to power if given the opportunity to alter the course of modern Russian history.
4. Various forms of Russian involvement abroad: Nicholas Kitchen indicated that there is a second important factor in grand strategy, namely, what he called “accelerated goals,” which pertain to the strategy the state pursues beyond its borders. Russian foreign policy in 2016 is particularly relevant here because it focused on establishing stability in the Middle East, since it felt this would have a direct impact on Russia. Russia has tried to achieve a set of political, security, and economic goals through its various forms of involvement in the Middle East.
Dr. Galeeva argued that Russia is employing a diverse toolkit to strengthen its presence in the Middle East via a “smart power strategy” that combines both hard and soft power. These tools include the following:
1. Various forms of military intervention in the region: Russia’s intervention in Syria since 2015—an obvious manifestation of hard power—has been the most significant instance of Russian military intervention in the region. Moscow was successful on several fronts: Syria was one of the most important countries in restoring Russia’s status as a “great power,” at least militarily. Russian intervention in Syria also paved the way for a renewed Russian role in the Middle East as a whole, which was solidified by later developments in Libya.
The Russian army supported the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, while Russia was also serving as a mediator in talks between several different factions in the Libyan civil war. Russian military intervention in the region was not limited to traditional avenues: It also used non-traditional methods such as military corporations, especially the Wagner Group, which has played a key role in both Syria and Libya.
2. Broad regional economic networks: Economic ties are a key component of hard power, and Russia has succeeded in creating economic interdependence with nearly all the countries in the region. Russia has used what is known as “sticky power” to achieve this goal, which refers to a set of policies that have attracted countries to work with Russia. This tactic has helped Russia to deal with the sanctions imposed since 2014, and to more or less rebound from the repercussions of the falling price of oil. It has also enabled Moscow to develop strong relations with countries in the region in both arms and energy sectors.
Russia’s economic relations in the region have followed a pragmatic approach of neutralizing conflict. For example, its economic relations with Turkey have begun to improve again and by early 2020, Turkey was Russia’s seventh-largest trading partner. Despite the downing of the Russian plane in 2015, geopolitical tensions between Turkey and Russia in Syria, Libya, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Nagorno-Karabakh, limited Turkish support for Ukraine, and Ankara’s sale of drones to Kiev, Russian-Turkish economic cooperation has remained strong.
3. Moscow’s use of soft power to reinforce policy: Russia has also employed soft power in its relations with countries in the Middle East. Russian media has helped back up Moscow’s influence in the region, while religion has also been used as a soft power tool by the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia has also wielded language for soft power. For example, Israel contains more than one million Russian speakers, which has allowed Russia to use soft power and personal ties to facilitate economic cooperation in fields including technology, even though Tel Aviv is Washington’s strongest ally in the region.
Dr. Galeeva emphasized that responses from countries in the Middle East to the Russian military operations in Ukraine have centered around the following:
1. Full Syrian support for Russian operations: The Syrian regime is Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East. President Bashar al-Assad spoke on the phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on 25 February, a day after the Russian operations in Ukraine began. Al-Assad affirmed during the call that Syria would support Russia’s actions. There have been numerous reports detailing Moscow’s role in recruiting Syrian fighters to support Russian forces in Ukraine. Furthermore, other regional forces aligned with Russia, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, support its operations in Ukraine, even though the Lebanese government has denounced these operations.
2. Turkey and Israel adopt a balanced approach: Tel Aviv’s stance on Russia’s military operations in Ukraine can best be described as a balanced approach towards both sides of the conflict. This is due to the presence of both Russian and Ukrainian diaspora populations within Israel. This stance will doubtless affect Russian and Israeli dynamics in Syria. Turkey seems to be adopting a similar approach towards the Russian military operations. Although there have been many conflicts between Turkey and Russia on regional issues, it is clear that they have the capacity to find common ground. It is also worth noting that adopting this approach has allowed both Tel Aviv and Ankara to serve as mediators between Moscow and Kiev in resolving the crisis.
3. Implicit Iranian support for Russian operations: Tehran’s position on the war in Ukraine is implicitly supportive of Russia. Despite official stances stating that Iran would prefer to end the war, Tehran has blamed the West in general and the US in particular for what is happening in Ukraine, thus indicating its implicit support for Russia. Nevertheless, Moscow-Tehran relations remain complex. Even in Syria there has been friction between the two sides despite having supposedly come together to support the Syrian regime. It is expected that the war will also affect Russia’s stance on the Iranian nuclear agreement, and Moscow has asked for new safeguards regarding this potential deal.
4. Many countries prefer to remain neutral: Many countries in the region have chosen to adopt neutral stances towards the Russian military operations in Ukraine. Although most countries have voted in favor of the UN resolution denouncing the Russian operations and calling for Moscow to cease its use of force and withdraw from Ukraine, these are symbolic positions that do not mean that these countries will renege on their neutral stances.
In conclusion, the discussion panel agreed that Russian foreign policy in the Middle East will not change significantly in light of the current developments in Ukraine, particularly given the strategic importance of the region for Russia and Moscow’s vision for its status in the international order. The panel observed that Moscow will be keen to avoid having the crisis affect the good relations it has built in the Middle East through many years of hard work, and through exploiting the US’s declining interest in the region.