Russia’s Middle East Strategy Explained

Nowhere has Russia’s resurgent power been more on display than in the Middle East, where Moscow has undeniably matched, and some would say, outstripped Washington in areas concerning diplomacy, defence, and energy. An unusual coming together of circumstances has reinvigorated Russia’s Middle East policy. Providing this country, with an impressive array of possibilities mostly associated with superpower status. This has consequences for Moscow in the following fields: energy, arms, and international standing.

Russia has achieved this through a strategy that combines the needs and weaknesses of the Middle East, while coincidentally benefitting from the relative decline (by choice) of the United States in the region. The war fatigue caused by the US’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq led to the withdrawal from both countries by the Obama administration. Although US troops never fully left, the power vacuum created opportunities for others alike to exert influence. With Washington's hands tied Moscow has been able to quickly fill the gap.

Its Middle East strategy incorporates the strength and weaknesses of the region, by exploiting them to both the host country’s and Moscow’s benefit: energy and weapon sales. Russia’s engagement with the region is a consequence of its interest in the energy sphere and the strategic position between three continents. The most visible result has been the deal to cut oil production by 1.8 million barrels struck by Russia and OPEC led by Saudi Arabia in order to decrease the global oil glut. While many analysts predicted a short lifespan for this deal, the main sponsors in Moscow and Riyadh have proven otherwise. The success of this deal has spurred some participants to expand their ambitions in envisioning a joint strategy for the long-term.

However, Moscow’s expanded access to the region has been made possible by its ability to remain a relatively reliable interlocutor to participants on all sides. Nowhere is this advantage more visible than in Syria where all regional stakeholders are engaging in some way or another with the Kremlin. Russia is known to walk a fine line by for example having communication lines open between its allies in Syria and Israel. The visit by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu followed by Syrian President Bashar Assad a couple of days later in May 2018 exemplified Russia’s diplomatic role. Moscow is more than ever the most reliable party to pass on a message to the other side as it is on relatively good terms with everyone involved.

The open-door policy has made it possible for Russia to exploit the relative weakness of the region: instability and consequently insecurity. The value of arms import in the Middle East has risen an astounding 103 percent the last five years compared to 2008-2012. An important part of it was supplied by Russia. Moscow has provided an alternative to several countries who traditionally have looked towards the West for arms. Although the U.S. remains the biggest supplier of arms, Moscow has made headlines through deals worth billions.

There are two reasons for this success: political tension with traditional allies and Syria, which basically is an open-air showroom for Russia's arms. Russia was able to make inroads in the Turkish market after tensions with NATO ally U.S. and its reluctance to agree on technology transfer. The Turks chose the multibillion advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia instead. Furthermore, Egypt diversified its arms suppliers after the U.S. suspended its military aid after the coup in 2013 that unseated the democratically chosen Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Russia has become one of Egypt’s largest suppliers with the sale of combat aircrafts and helicopters.

Furthermore, Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and its success in regaining much of the ‘valuable land’ without getting stuck in a quagmire as many predicted, has boosted the appeal of Russian arms. A reasonable consequence has been the rise of orders from $1.5 billion in 2016 to $8 billion in 2017. The sales include aircrafts, helicopters, missiles, and smaller rifles including ammunition. What has been interesting in most cases, is that Moscow has managed to make inroads in markets traditionally supplied by Western countries such as the US, France, and Britain.

The benefit of Moscow’s improvement in international standing in the region due to its stronger diplomatic role and military presence has especially been a boon for the energy industry. This can be reflected in Rosatom’s order portfolio, Russia’s nuclear energy company. Currently, reactors are being built in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Iran while a regional office has been opened in Dubai to take advantage of the UAE and Saudi intention to invest in nuclear power generation. Furthermore, the list of deals of national champions Gazprom and Rosneft has been rising steadily. Moscow’s involvement stands to increase even further as Iran is being pushed closer to Russia due to the U.S. pulling out of the ‘Iran Deal’.

Although Moscow has seen a steady increase in commercial deals, military success, and open diplomacy with all parties, the current situation risks being of a temporary nature. Moscow's interaction with the Middle East can be characterized as a transactional one: countries interact not because they must, but because they can. Where interests collide deals are struck, which stands in contrast to the U.S.' relationship with some countries as the long-term security guarantor.

Logically this relationship runs the risk of being downgraded when geopolitical or economic interest require so. In order to create long-term relationships, Russia needs to institutionalize cooperation and find an enduring level of interaction. The current agreement with Saudi-Arabia to reduce oil output is potentially an example where long-term strategies can be worked out inside a predefined framework.

Vanand Meliksetian for OilPrice.com