A weighting game: Russia’s balancing act in the Middle East

In 1978, Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal declared in his book Sphinx & Commissar that Soviet influence in the Middle East was a “spent force”, undermined by Moscow’s inability to be both a superpower and “the bastion of world revolution”.  One decade later, as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91, some in the United States proclaimed ‘the end of history’ and a brave new world where the US would dominate as the sole superpower.

Maria Efimova, who has been a Middle East correspondent for leading Russian media, including Kommersant daily, tells TRENDS there has been a clear revival in Russian influence in the region over the past 20 years.

“Russia had little real policy in the Middle East before the presidency of Vladimir Putin,” she says. “Mr Putin is trying to maintain relations with countries considered allies of the Soviet Union — especially Iran and Syria, but potentially also Egypt. He’s saying, ‘We don’t betray our friends so it’s better to choose us rather than the United States who have shown themselves to be unreliable more than once or twice’.”

Pragmatic approach

Arguably, that was the case even in the 1990s, Efimova concedes. Putin’s even greater difference, therefore, lies elsewhere. “He is also trying to have a maximally pragmatic stance toward other countries that have interests partly or completely different to Russia’s,” she says.

“For example, Israel and Saudi Arabia, with which Putin is trying to develop relationships, including over Syria. I would characterize Russia’s relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia as pragmatic rather than good. Israel and the Saudis understand that Russia has a strong military and has proved its determination, and they also understand that US participation in the conflict is limited, despite all Trump’s tough rhetoric, and that’s why they are trying to divide spheres of interest where possible.”

Russia has used intelligence with Israel to avoid clashes in Syria, where both states have aircraft operational. True, this did not prevent February’s incident when an Israeli F-16 jet was shot down by a Russian-supplied Syrian S200 surface-to-air missile, but generally the intelligence co-operation has prevented serious incident since Russia intervened in September 2015 to support president Bashar al-Assad against rebels.

Diplomatically correct

Moscow, also in October, hosted King Salman, who took a delegation of 1,500 on the first official visit of a Saudi monarch to the Kremlin. Bilateral relations underpin the current oil production deal by which Moscow and OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are limiting output to maintain price levels and squeeze US shale producers.

Saudi Arabia has bought the Russian S-400 Triumph anti-missile system, which can take down up to 36 targets at the same time, and the two sides are discussing a wider $3 billion arms deal, including the advanced anti-tank missile Kornet. Such figures are dwarfed by Saudi investment in the US and its American arms purchases, but they show Riyadh keeping open its options.

And yet, Russia is close to Iran. While the historical relationship between the two has been fraught – the Qajjar dynasty conceded vast territories to the Russian Empire in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay — and while Tehran baulked in 2006 as Moscow agreed to refer its nuclear program to the UN security council, relations have warmed in recent years.

This is partly due to fighting on the same side in Syria, partly due to economic interests and partly due to a shared antipathy to the US president Donald Trump. It is important to Tehran that Moscow backs the view that Tehran’s missile program is consistent with the 2015 nuclear deal, which it argues Washington has no right to upturn unilaterally, and in February Moscow vetoed a move at the UN security council to pressure Iran over its alleged supply of missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen.