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