Russia’s Return to the Middle East

The COVID-19 pandemic has not constrained Russia’s activity in the Middle East, but it is unclear whether Moscow has a longer-term strategy for the region.

BY ANGELA STENT / Svetlana Shamshurina

The COVID-19 pandemic has largely diverted media attention away from the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Yet the war in Syria continues, with its devastating human toll; and, as the recent Saudi-Russian spat over oil prices reminds us, the pandemic has exacerbated tensions in the volatile region. As the United States pulls most of its troops out of Syria and is gradually withdrawing from the region, Russia has moved in to fill the vacuum and has reinforced its presence in Syria while its relationship with Turkey has become more brittle. Moreover, Russia’s most recent foray into Libya, where it supports a rebel leader challenging the United Nations–recognized government, is creating new tensions with both the United States and Turkey. What are the longer-term prospects for Russia in the region?

Russia’s return to the Middle East is one of the major successes of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. After the USSR’s collapse, post-Soviet Russia did not have the wherewithal to sustain previous commitments in the region, and largely withdrew. But when Putin came to power 20 years ago and the Russian economy began to recover, Russia gradually ventured back into the region. The turning point came in September 2015, when it appeared that Moscow’s ally President Bashar al-Assad was losing the civil war, and the Obama administration made it clear that its involvement in Syria would remain limited. Russia began a bombing campaign to support Assad and used this initial foray to establish ties with all major players in the region in pursuit of Putin’s broader goal of restoring Russia as a great power.

By returning to the Middle East, Putin was able to escape the isolation that the West sought to impose on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Unlike in Soviet times, Russia’s involvement in the Middle East today is nonideological, pragmatic and flexible. Russia is the only major power that talks to all sides in all the conflicts in the region. It has close ties to Iran, to all the major Sunni states—and to Israel. Indeed, its newest partners are two close U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both countries believe that Russia can act as a restraining influence over their chief adversary, Iran.

Russia has managed to dissuade Iran and Hezbollah from taking certain actions against Israel. And Russia and Saudi Arabia formed an alliance in 2016 to restrict oil production and keep oil prices as high as they can—until it broke down in March 2020. Many governments and groups in the Middle East now view Russia as an honest broker in the region, while U.S. policy is largely focused on containing Iran and promoting regime change there. The U.S. withdrawal from Syria has presented Russia with new opportunities. Indeed, some argue that Russia is the “winner” in Syria as the United States retreats from the region. But that may be a premature assessment.

Domestic Determinants

Russian policy toward the Middle East has deep domestic roots. Russia’s population is declining overall, but its Muslim population is growing; and the demographic balance between Muslims and Slavs will shift significantly over the next 30 years. Since Russia itself has faced challenges from domestic extremism and terrorism, a major goal is to ensure that no outside power in the Middle East exacerbates these problems. Moreover, the second-largest contingent of foreign fighters for ISIS in Syria came from the Russian Federation—either Russian citizens or Central Asian migrant workers living in Russia who became radicalized. Vladimir Putin has tied Russia’s involvement in Syria directly to the desire to defeat terrorists in Syria rather than having to deal with them at home.

There are also economic reasons for Russia’s return to the Middle East. At a time of domestic economic difficulties caused by the failure to modernize the economy and exacerbated by Western sanctions and falling oil prices, the Middle East is an attractive market for Russian exports of military hardware, nuclear power plants and hydrocarbons.

Russia is the only major power that talks to all sides in all the conflicts in the region.

Putin has also used Russia’s return to the Middle East to reinforce his popularity domestically. The Russian population is increasingly feeling the effect of the country’s economic challenges, and the Kremlin appeals to its citizens by evoking their pride in Russia’s role as a great power that once again has a seat on the global board of directors. But, in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mobilizing effect of Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war has declined as Russia’s economic situation has deteriorated. More Russians ask why resources are being expended for foreign military campaigns when they could be better deployed domestically. Nevertheless, public opinion data show that the majority of Russians do believe that Russia is a great power once again.

The Syrian Opportunity and Challenge

During the Obama administration, American and Russian policies in Syria were not aligned. Washington insisted that Bashar al-Assad must go and supported forces fighting the regime in Damascus, while Russia was determined that Assad stay in power. Russia was, in fact, less concerned about defeating ISIS than defeating anti-Assad groups. However, since the Trump administration came in, promising to extricate the United States from wars in the Middle East and not insisting that Assad must go, American and Russian goals have not diverged as in the past.

The United States and Russia have been deconflicting their air operations in Syria since the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign, one of the few remaining regular channels of communication between the two countries. Indeed, before the United States bombed Syrian chemical weapons facilities in early 2018, it coordinated with Moscow to ensure that no Russians were hurt. And in February 2018, when U.S. forces came into direct conflict with Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who were trying to take over an oil field in Deir al-Zour, and reportedly killed up to 200 of them. The Russian official response was muted.

When President Trump announced in October 2019 that the United States was withdrawing its forces from Syria—later amended to a commitment to maintain a few hundred troops to guard the oil fields—Russian troops immediately moved into an abandoned U.S. base. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to jointly patrol the area from which Kurdish fighters have been driven. Putin has always claimed that Russia was in Syria legitimately because it was invited in by Assad, whereas the United States was there illegitimately, trying to effect regime change against the legitimately elected leader in Damascus. So Russia welcomed the partial U.S. withdrawal, although American troops and Russian mercenaries continue to have tense encounters in northeast Syria. Indeed, in March U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey accused Moscow of trying to challenge the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria by violating the terms of a deconfliction agreement and escalating the fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Now that Russia is the predominant external actor in Syria, is it really the winner?

The ongoing battle in Idlib province has also strained relations between Moscow and Ankara. The Russian-Turkish relationship has become more brittle as Putin and Erdogan support different sides in the Syrian civil war. Moscow has benefited from the growing strains in U.S.-Turkish relations and has recently sold the S-400 air defense system to Ankara, a major challenge for NATO. But Russian-Turkish relations came under great strain after an airstrike by Russian-backed Assad forces killed at least 33 Turkish troops in northwest Syria. Erdogan reacted very strongly against Russia, even traveling to Ukraine in February and telling President Volodymyr Zelensky that Crimea is Ukrainian.

There was concern about a possible Russo-Turkish military confrontation, but in the end Erdogan went to Moscow and the two sides signed a cease-fire and agreed to joint patrols. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have slowed down the fighting, but the situation remains tense: Turkey is determined to continue to occupy its zone around Idlib; and Assad, backed by Russia, is committed to subduing Idlib and declaring the civil war over.

Now that Russia is the predominant external actor in Syria, is it really the winner? Once the civil war ends, Moscow will largely be responsible for the reconstruction of the country. Russia does not have the wherewithal to pay for the enormous costs of reconstruction, and it has already appealed to the European Union and other countries to contribute, so far with little success. Moreover, although Russia and Iran have so far worked together during the Syrian conflict, with their joint aim of keeping Assad in power, it is not clear, once the war is over, that their goals will coincide. Russia has been convening different groups designed to reconcile the various political factions in a postwar Syria, and has managed to persuade adversaries Turkey and Iran to sit at the same table. But so far it has proved a major challenge to persuade the contentious Syrian groups themselves to sit together. Recently, the Kremlin has reportedly been insisting that Assad show more flexibility in talks with the Syrian opposition on a political settlement to end the conflict.

Russian and Saudi Arabia: Is the Oil War Over?

At the 2019 Valdai International Discussion Club meeting in Sochi in September, OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo said that the 2016 alliance between Russia, Saudi Arabia and OPEC had “saved” OPEC, and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak likewise praised the agreement for bolstering Russia’s oil industry. A mere six months later, when Riyadh tried to impose much deeper production cutbacks ahead of the expiration of the current arrangement, Russia abandoned its agreement with the Saudis, oil prices collapsed and relations between Moscow and Riyadh soured. Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin had been critical of any arrangement limiting Russia’s ability to produce oil. “If you give up market share,” he warned, “you never get it back.” Angered by U.S. sanctions against the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline and against Rosneft subsidiaries exporting Venezuelan oil, and hoping to put U.S. shale producers out of business, Russia refused to further cut oil production.

Putin has been a talented tactician in the Middle East—as elsewhere—taking advantage of opportunities presented to him by Western indecision and inaction.

However, Putin had not reckoned with the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the Russian economy and on global oil demand, which fell precipitously. Russia lacked storage capacity for the extra oil. Eventually, under pressure from U.S. oil producers, Donald Trump intervened. After a series of phone calls with the Saudis and Russians, he persuaded the OPEC+ countries to agree to production cutbacks. Indeed, Trump and Putin pledged that this could open up a new period of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The monthlong Russian-Saudi oil “war” and its resolution showed that relations between the two countries involve more than oil. Moscow and Riyadh have developed an economic and security partnership that the Kremlin will continue to pursue as it seeks to strengthen its presence in the Middle East.

Russia and the Middle East after COVID-19

Russia’s capacity to expand its presence in the Middle East could, of course, be limited by the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the Russian economy. The Syrian operation has, so far, not required significant resources. Putin has been a talented tactician in the Middle East—as elsewhere—taking advantage of opportunities presented to him by Western indecision and inaction to insert Russia into Syria and beyond. So far the focus has been on ensuring that Russia remains a player in the region and concluding profitable deals there. Moreover, the Kremlin relies heavily on private military groups such as the Wagner Group—as opposed to the Russian armed forces—to do most of the fighting in the Middle East. In May, the United States reported that Russia was sending fighter jets to Libya to support Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers fighting alongside rebel commander General Haftar against the U.N.-recognized Libyan government, which is backed by Turkey. Despite the pandemic, Russia has stepped up its involvement in the Libyan civil war.

It is unclear whether Putin has a longer-term strategy for the Middle East. Russia cannot replace the United States, either economically or militarily, in the region. But if Washington continues its withdrawal from the area—a process that the pandemic could accelerate—Russia will surely pursue future opportunities there. This assumes that Russia emerges from the current COVID-19 crisis with its attendant economic contraction, and is still able to project power beyond its borders. So far, despite its severe domestic toll on the Russian population, the pandemic does not appear to be constraining Russia’s activities in the Middle East.

Angela Stent directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She has served in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Professor Stent is the author, most recently, of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest (Twelve, 2019).