The Russian connection

One key to understanding the changing dynamics in Russia and their impact on the Middle East lies in history. The imperial tzars, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin appear to have little in common outside of their Russian citizenship, but they shared common aspirations about the country’s place on the global stage and about their own ability to orchestrate it.

Currently, intelligence specialists observe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations include a re-emergent Russia and that he pursues them in the Middle East, as well as the Crimea and elsewhere.

On a personal level, he was probably irked when the Obama administration breached diplomatic protocol in March 2014 by calling Russia a “regional power…showing weakness” and announcing sanctions. Little could be more offensive to a nation striving to regain superpower status and, compounding those affronts, world leaders publicly ostracized Putin at the G20 gathering in Australia in November 2014.

During the Cold War, the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US had different geopolitical visions for their Middle East relationships, which did not conflict with each other. The US had a heavy focus on Israel, Iran and oil producers such as Saudi Arabia. The USSR did not need oil, but had a strong focus on Syria as a market for military equipment and access to the Mediterranean Sea. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Syria lost its superpower ally and its significance dwindled, so its status became like that of North Korea, alone and with few friends.

Russia’s geopolitical, financial, military and economic strategies have had an impact both at home and in the Middle East and other regions, meaning that examining Russian actions cannot be carried out effectively without a two-part focus: the impact on the Middle East and the impact for Russia.

Geopolitical strategies 

Geopolitical strategies have a more visible impact on Russian presence on the world stage than directly on the Middle East, according to James Beadle, a Monaco-based Russian investment specialist.

During the early stages of the Syrian crisis, Russia could not intervene, given its laser focus on Ukraine. However, it came to see its interests in the region as jeopardized and, worried about losing its access to the Mediterranean, became more concerned about Iran’s growing influence, according to intelligence specialists familiar with the forces at work in the region. Putin, worried that Russia could eventually be totally excluded from influence in the region, decided to take action. That led to Russia brokering a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, its role in the P5+1 Group during negotiations with Iran and, most visibly, large-scale military intervention in Syria.

Up to a certain point, US President Barack Obama’s dialing back of American intervention made matters easier for Putin, according to Moscow-born Anna Borshchevskaya, Fellow at the Washington Institute with a focus on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. “Putin has been very good at stepping into vacuums whenever the West retreats. He has been very successful in this regard, particularly in the Middle East,” she explained.

Beadle said that, in the geopolitical category, Russia’s Middle East policy has three main objectives: restore its role as an international superpower; obstruct Western powers’ desire to establish international law to allow removal of tyrannical state leadership; and be a part of a multi-polar global power structure, with Syria and the Crimea as important pillars.

Stepping into the breach by sending the Russian air force to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s campaigns against both ISIS and moderate opposition was an amazing power-play. Beadle noted that the move disproved Obama’s thesis, demonstrating that Russia still has major military reach and the ability to elevate conflicts beyond the scope of Western containment.

At the same time, Putin deflected attention from the Ukraine crisis and obliged the world to work with him once more. Beyond the global game, shoring up Al-Assad also made regional sense to the Russians, since Assad was clearly losing ground to various rebel groups.

“He (Putin) saved Al-Assad. There were indicators showing that he was losing. They (the Russians) came in and saved him and now he is feeling renewed confidence,” Borshchevskaya said. In effect, part of the impact is Al-Assad’s unresolved future as President of Syria.

Russia’s efforts in the region contrast with those of the US as the former has sided with Shia powers, including Iran, Syria and, to some extent, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, while the US has historically sought to avoid officially siding between Shiite and Sunni allegiances, a strategy underscored by its recent effort to bring Iran back in from the cold.

Russia’s pro-Shia tilt provides another platform from which Putin can confront the West within the Middle East, Borshchevskaya explained. At the same time, it gives Putin flexibility because he can present himself as a different actor in the region. A pro-Shia or at least an anti-Sunni alliance helps him accomplish his goal in the Middle East.

All of this underlies Russia’s goals to subvert power from the West for two express purposes that play out in the region: to restore Russia’s national pride and role in the world; and to construct a multi-polar power system to replace the falling image of the US, which has dialed back from its role as the world’s policeman.

Russia also pursues complex economic objectives in the Middle East, Beadle explained. He emphasized that these reflect Russia’s concern for oil prices. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, dominates the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and is determined to prevent an aggressive rise of Iran. Given Russia’s position as a Shiite supporter, relations with OPEC are tense and complicated. Trust is limited on both sides, so the oil question remains an open issue, subservient to Russia’s political aspirations.

Financial motivations

Among Russia’s major financial motivations was the preservation of its pipeline plans, according to Lebanon-born Atif Kubursi, economics professor emeritus, president of Econometric Research Ltd and a former Undersecretary at the United Nations. “This is a very glaring case of self-interest,” he said, explaining that Western involvement in attempting a regime change in Syria would have meant a pipeline from Qatar through Syria and Turkey as an alternative to the Russian one to Europe and the Ukraine.

“Russia is worried about Ukraine, Turkey and Europe getting gas from a different source,” he added. “That explains the tenacity…and the willingness to commit [to] such major force at a time when the Russian economy is heavily (pressured).” At the time of writing, neither pipeline has been built.

Russian businesses have also had a financial impact in the region and have focused capital in several areas, especially Dubai. Meanwhile, although some in the Gulf States may not be pleased with Putin’s actions in Syria, bilateral investments between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have increased. Moreover, Russia sees fighting the militants on Syrian soil as more advantageous than fighting them at home, Kubursi said, adding that many of the foreign fighters in Syria come from troubled areas of the Russian Federation, such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

Arms race

The economics of arms sales figure in the equation. The Russians and Chinese had concluded contracts worth approximately $50 billion with former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi before his downfall. When the Europeans and Americans dislodged Gaddafi, the Russians and Chinese believed they had Western assurances that, in return for staying on the sidelines, the contracts would continue after Gaddafi’s departure. However, the Libyan government abrogated these contracts, apparently with Western support. That was a blow to the economic self-interests of both Russia and China, Kubursi said.

The economic impact of Russia’s moves in the Middle East includes uncertainty and discouragement for foreign direct investors, Kubursi explained. “It has prolonged, exacerbated, fueled and sustained conflict; made the region more uncertain, more unstable; and has drained enormous resources from (governments) in the region,” he said.

“The Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis and Qataris are pumping billions of dollars into the conflict,” he pointed out. “Uncertainty is the nemesis of investment.” In effect, this triggered an expensive regional arms race, which, in turn, has slowed development in the region, as it drains resources. Meanwhile, Russia’s intervention in Syria helped its economy through increased arms sales. Its ability to hit a Damascus suburb from warships in the Caspian Sea impressed arms buyers in Brazil, Egypt, South Africa and elsewhere. “That was a major display, a showcasing of their weapons,” Kubursi said. “However, the story now is no longer as simple and certain as it used to be.”

Still, recent events may have proven that Russia has reached the limit of its willingness to take unilateral actions in Syria. In late August, Turkish armed forces pushed into Syria in a move designed to rid the border territories of ISIS fighters and, in early September, they declared the border clear of ISIS forces. At the time of writing, Turkey showed no sign of backing off from the area and has said it wants a seat at the bargaining table for Syria peace talks.

Turkey has now staked its claim to sit at the table with the US, Russia and Iran. Russian state media criticized the move but Putin is not known to have protested Turkey’s actions openly. In effect, Russia has been forced to accept Turkey’s claim-staking and has not made any further overt moves on Al-Assad’s behalf recently. Such moves would risk increased tensions.

What next in Syria

Another open question involves the short-lived ceasefire in Syria, which came into effect in early September. It had been negotiated by the US and Russia with several urgent priorities, such as enabling the flow of food and medicines to Aleppo. This ceasefire was the second attempt this year and seemed fragile from the beginning as the US backs some rebel groups while Russia continues to back Al-Assad, who has shown no sign of vacating the Presidential Palace. In participating in the ceasefire discussions, Russia again staked is claim to a seat at the bargaining table and its sponsorship of Syria, but either failed the second part of the equation or deliberately chose not to fulfill it. When a superpower takes a lesser power under its aegis, the lesser power does not always buy into the greater power’s priorities, a lesson Great Britain learned during the days of the British Empire, China has learned with North Korea and the US has learned in Latin America.

In Borshchevskaya’s analysis, Russia has not shown any interest in fulfilling its implicit role in the ceasefire of reining in Al-Assad, especially given Syria’s alleged bombing of an aid convoy roughly one week after the ceasefire went into effect. The attack killed upwards of 20 people.

At the time of writing, accusations and counter-accusations continue between the US and Russia, but relief groups, including the United Nations, have suspended the transport of food and medicines, leaving the besieged inhabitants of Aleppo in need of supplies. Whatever be the outcome of the ceasefire, how Russia plays its cards moving forward will not only have a lasting impact in Syria and Turkey, but across the Middle East as well.