It may seem strange, but the Russian leadership has never traditionally regarded the Arab world as an area of key importance, compared with, say, the US, Europe, or China. Yet the Middle East is a region in close proximity to its southern borders and cannot be ignored. The Russians generally view the Middle East as potentially unstable, hugely rich in oil and gas and with the capacity to influence Russia’s own Muslim population, which makes up more than 10 percent of the total. The majority of these are Sunnis, though there are significant Sufi and Shiite communities too. The spread of political, particularly Islamic, extremism is considered by Russia to be a direct threat to its homeland.
Kremlin has waited for its opportunity to become a major player in the Middle East and has seen the situation turn in its favor following Syria intervention and US Jerusalem row.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin exhibits an increasing ambition to play a major role on the global stage. It has accordingly taken more notice of the Arab world recently and has been more prepared to intervene where it finds opportunities. It has not tried to replace the US — indeed it has shown willingness to work with the Americans where possible, for example in Syria. This is in sharp contrast with the current American tendency to regard the Russians as ogres and rivals, hostile to the West. The US now tends to credit them with much greater power and influence than they in fact have, including even the power to affect the result of last year’s US presidential election.
In recent years, the Chinese have acted on the assumption that US power is shrinking and that US influence in the Middle East in particular is on the decline. The Russians have a more sophisticated approach. Since 9/11, they have watched the Americans invade Afghanistan (2001), which is a country where they themselves sustained a bloody nose, and Iraq (2003), which is only now, after the longest war in American history, beginning to show signs of stability.
They have seen the US become embroiled in other wars in Syria, Libya and, to a lesser extent, in Yemen. They have shown no willingness to follow suit. Russia has waited for its opportunity, and has seen the situation turn in their favor, notably after they intervened militarily in Syria to support President Bashar Assad in 2015. The Russian aim is now to act decisively where they can, without committing large numbers of ground forces. They prefer to use their navy and air force, as they have done successfully in Syria. Like the Americans, they are keen to establish military bases and sell arms in the region where they can, though on nothing like the same scale.
In addition, the Russians have assisted in the destruction of Daesh and are keen to show they are reliable allies in countering radicalism. They want to build long-term relationships with the Arab world, especially in the Gulf. To this end they agreed with OPEC at the end of November this year to extend the production cuts that began a year earlier. The Saudi and Russian oil ministers made the announcement sitting side-by-side. Putin has also developed close relations with the Abu Dhabi leadership.
We should not overlook the fact that Russia was the first country to recognize the state of Israel, 20 percent of whose population speaks Russian, but Russo-Israeli relations remain difficult.
Likewise, Russia has tried to cultivate good relations with Iran and to play a role in the economic development of the country. This illustrates the way the Russians have made an effort to develop relations wherever they can.
The Americans have demonstrated the opposite characteristics to the Russians in the years since 9/11, when the US had the sympathy and support of many countries in the Middle East. They invaded Iraq and removed the Sunni leadership, which brought a Shiite government to power, and that seemed to take them by surprise. They abandoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a loyal ally of 30 years’ standing, as soon as the Arab Spring broke out, and then flirted disastrously with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the world waits nervously to see what comes next, we can expect Putin to quietly continue developing his image as a dependable friend, while pursuing the Russian objectives of building alliances and assisting OPEC to support oil prices.
In this respect, Putin must consider himself lucky to have an opponent like Trump, who still seems to admire the way the Russian leader operates, despite now being embroiled in the investigations about the precise nature of the links between Trump’s family and supporters and the Kremlin. In sporting terms, the American team is still heavyweight and world-class, but uncoordinated, flat-footed and prone to scoring own-goals. The Russian team is outgunned, but experienced and nimble. They have a clear game plan and are quick to learn. It is a pity that the US will not be playing in the football World Cup in Russia next year — it would be fascinating to compare their styles.
• Anthony Harris is a former British ambassador to the UAE and career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]