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Russia’s pragmatic plans for the Middle East

Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Hmeimim air base in Syria and triumphantly announced mission accomplished for Russian forces combatting Daesh. During the accompanying photo opportunity, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ushered Syrian President Bashar Assad out of sight; this was Putin’s moment and he, for all intents and purposes, is Assad’s master. With Russian ambitions in Lebanon becoming clearer and significant relationships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, how the Kremlin’s Middle East policy develops is of great interest.
Two-and-a-half years since Russia’s military involvement in Syria began, it is clear that the region has remained a focus of Moscow. However, in the absence of a long-term regional strategy, Russian engagement remains transactional and pragmatic. It is necessary to look at the wider geopolitical, economic and diplomatic facets to Russia’s policies to understand the nature, extent and limitations of Russian engagement in the Middle East.
A lack of US commitment to the region has not been the only driver of Russian policy. Early on in his time in office, Putin made several key regional visits, becoming the first Russian leader to visit Israel and the UAE. Since then, Russia has sought to make itself relevant in the Middle East, taking part in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, putting forward its own Middle East peace plan and, most recently, hosting a conference in Sochi in direct parallel to UN-sponsored talks aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis. This is a marked change from Soviet policy and indeed Boris Yeltsin’s term. Eager to position itself as a global power, Russia has decided it should play a role in the region and be at the table for key negotiations and decisions.
Russia’s chief geopolitical concern is to continue to project power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The long-term viability of its Syrian bases at Latakia and Tartus was the major driver of Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, as bases on the Mediterranean enable Russia to mount a direct challenge to the United States and its NATO allies. Even if Putin’s commitment to the Assad regime at times wavers, Russia’s attachment to its bases is paramount. The limited military involvement suits Russia’s traditional preference for avoiding direct engagement. Without the military and financial resources to pursue a long-term conflict, Moscow is pursuing a policy of destabilization as opposed to one of domination. 

Pursuing a discourse that has come to equate status quo preservation in the region with reduced terrorist threats, the Kremlin has sought to position itself as a reliable alternative for Middle Eastern leaders concerned with the specter of US regional withdrawal.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Diplomatically, Russia was greatly disappointed by the US engagements in Iraq and Libya, and has gone some way to countering that by building its own relationships in the region. The wave of democratic sentiment brought about by the Arab Spring left Putin alarmed and his support of the Assad regime is reflective of his vision to support stable autocracy in lieu of unsteady democracy. To Russian policy-makers, change should occur though constitutional alterations and not through popular uprising. It is for that reason Russia has involved itself in regional conflicts on the side of state actors, blaming the West for the current tumult across the Middle East. 
Pursuing a discourse that has come to equate status quo preservation in the Middle East with reduced terrorist threats, the Kremlin has sought to position itself as a reliable alternative for Middle Eastern leaders concerned with the specter of US regional withdrawal.
With economic issues at home, trade with the Middle East has been a priority for the Russian government. And with US arms sales often delayed due to human rights concerns and a desire to maintain Israel’s military edge, Russia has been keen to pursue a “no strings attached” policy in regards to its weapons sales. Free from the bureaucratic brakes imposed by US sales, Russian state arms seller Rosoboronexport has been able to provide attack helicopters to the Iraqis whilst simultaneously providing missiles to the Syrians. Middle Eastern countries now account for more than a third of Russian arms deliveries as economic ties grow. 
The presence of an alternative defense partner is critical to some states as they seek to make themselves less vulnerable to changes in US policy. For example, Cairo signed a $3.5 billion arms deal with Russia after US military aid was halted in the wake of President Mohammed Morsi’s 2013 ousting by the Egyptian military.
With the Saudis critical to Russian considerations on oil, the Turks a huge importer of Russian gas and the US overall less engaged in the region, Putin is only too ready to fill the void in the Middle East. Recently faced with the prospect of Gulf aid drying up, the Lebanese army openly considered proposals of Russian military assistance. Had Russian support for the army materialized, it would have signified a fait accompli for Russian diplomacy in the region, allying itself with both Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. The entire episode has highlighted how pragmatic Russian policies have produced great strategic gain and that the Kremlin's designs on the region should not go unchecked.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid